“Small Talk” is very African: In Defence of Small Talk.
September 29, 2014 § 11 Comments
One of the things that confuses me about us modern Africans is our sudden hatred for small talk. The idea of small talk is really foreign, if not a Western one. It became fashionable to say that we hate small talk once we started hearing that there was such a thing. I don’t know when I first heard that there was such a thing even. What I am sure of is that it was not something I ever heard in the villages or the townships.
When in the villages, one always sees people talking simply for the enjoyment of engaging in conversation, not because there is some deep philosophical discussion taking place, it’s just people enjoying each other. Rarely would you two strangers walk past each other and simply exchange a ‘hello’ and carry on. They would exchange pleasantries and then carry on. In fact, the pleasantries would carry on even after they had said goodbye and are walking in opposite directions, they would talk to each other until their voices faded. This is the beauty that we are losing and will most certainly lose, probably in our life times.
We no longer enjoy each other simply for the fact that someone is a human being. There must be purpose for talking to someone these, which is most unfortunate. I suppose there was a purpose even back then, but it was simply to enjoy someone else’s voice and what it has to share. It was about recognizing the other person’s humanity – ubuntu bakhe.
As Steve Biko put it, “Westerners have on so many occasions been surprised at the capacity we have for talking to one another – not for the sake of arriving at a particular conclusion but merely to enjoy communication for its own sake.” And he went on to say that, “No one felt unnecessarily an intruder into someone else’s business.”
Which reminds me of something strange when I went to a boarding school when I was 10. A boy came up to me and asked to be my friend. I was surprised and taken aback because I had assumed that we were since we hung out together with other boys anyway. I asked him why he would even ask that. I think my question embarrassed him, but I was simply confused by the question. I had never heard of it ever being asked. People who hung around together were friends. Maybe I thought that way because I was one of a few boys who had actually joined the school who came from a village. I was friends with everyone I grew up, including the boys I fought with. Everyone else was from some town or township.
I am sometimes accused of engaging in small talk and lack an ability to wean myself from people in a social setting. Although to be honest, I get away from some conversations as fast as I can because that is what our society has become and I too am contributing to this.
In fact, in Xhosa, the language that I speak, there is no word for small talk that I can think of. I suppose what would call small talk one could call “ukuncokola”. It means much more than just chatting, it’s a conversation and enjoying what each is communicating to the other.
In fact, I would go as far as to say that the reason black people Tweet more frequently than white people (some study says this, even in the US it’s the case), it is because of our need and desire to just communicate and chat for the simple act of having a conversation. It is something we cannot shake off and I hope we never do.
Perhaps we call it small talk now because we have lost the art of ukuncokola. Or we are just too busy hurrying off to place and people and things we will forget anyway.