“We’ve seen computers play chess and beat grand masters. We’ve seen computers drive a car across a desert. But interestingly, playing chess is easy, but having a conversation about nothing is really difficult for a computer. And that seems to be the ultimate test of intelligence” – Hod Lipson, engineer.
Intelligence = being able to talk about nothing.
Jokes aside, after hearing the story about an engineer in New York who is attempting to develop a robot that can engage in spontaneous conversation with human beings and other robots, I began to wonder, is the ability to participate in meaningless conversation a sign of intelligence?
Think about it, what if we committed ourselves to engaging in only meaningful conversations? Is that even possible? Would the elimination of “small talk” improve the way we communicate with each other or would we somehow lose our ability to connect on a human level? How much time would we save if we decided to just “get to the point”? Or, is small talk a necessary part of our social interaction, is it what makes us intelligent beyond anything man can create?
According to a study by Timothy Bickmore, Ph.D., Associate Professor at the College of Computer and information science at Northeastern University, small talk is a bonding ritual and a strategy for managing interpersonal distance. In other words, we use small talk to keep people we don’t know well or don’t trust out of our business.
My late grandfather was a man of few words, and when he chose to speak I remember his words were always meaningful. Rarely would he share something personal, but his conversations were always thought-provoking. If someone asked him about the weather he might go into a discussion about an article he read on global warming. Or, if someone asked him about his family, he’d answer with a story about something significant (a professional accomplishment, marriage, etc) that had recently taken place in our lives. What he would never do was talk just for the sake of talking.
As I child growing up I completely ignored his example and ran my mouth incessantly. My mother has a story that proves I was born with this trait. Apparently one day, we were riding in the car with her friend in the front seat and me in the back, and for some reason there was a lag in the conversation. Out of nowhere I just started making these odd, random noises. Her friend asked what was wrong with her crazy child in the back seat, and my mother replied she must talk – even though she can’t form a word to save her little 10 month old life.
Now that I’m older, I’ve come to appreciate and accept that fact that I’m a blabber mouth, but as I work toward becoming a better, more enlightened version of myself, I would like for my words to carry purpose and meaning. I want to ask the right questions to inspire answers that will help me on my journey. I want to speak words that inspire others along their journey. I want to use my gift of gab for something more than just filling awkward spaces of silence.
So, for the next 30 days I am going to commit to engaging in only meaningful conversation. No small talk, just honest, thoughtful, intelligent (as possible) discussions about things that matter. Inquiries about the weather will be met with information I’ve gathered about the frequency of earthquakes and the naming of hurricanes. Questions about my family will be answered with stories about Kindergarten homework and trips to foreign lands. Innocent inquisitions about my beloved will get you an earful (so I’d skip that question if I were you). And if I get to you first, I’ll be asking questions about those events in your life that I have a genuine interest in knowing more about. And if I can’t think of anything to say, I’ll just smile and say “Hello”.
No matter how the exchange plays out, I promise not to get all up in your business too much. But be warned, it is likely we will both walk away changed as a result of our meeting.