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Saturday, 9 August 2014

Small talk, big ideas

"You know those TED talks?" my son says, as we're sat in the little sun-trap at the back of the Drake Bar, surrounded by the social pariahs who smoke, and no doubt raising our own risk of both skin and lung cancer, but it's really nice out here on a warm day with a cool beer, so we're taking the chance.

"Yeah," I say. 

"Some of them are great," he says. "But others, I have to tell you, are bollocks from beginning to end."

"I never watch them," I say. "I got the same problem with inspirational lecturers as stand-up comedians. Your job is to sit passive, like rows of rats in a cage, until it's time to make the right response - either gee! wow! yeah! or ha! ha! ha! I can't do it for more than five minutes before I get desperate to leg it. If I want to be amused and inspired I'll do it to myself, thanks."

The pleasant scent of small cigar wafts past and I ask if he's ever tempted to go back on the cigarettes, especially since his girlfriend, who recently moved in with him, smokes roll-ups.

"Not really," he says. "It was hard to stop and I like to keep fit these days. I enjoy the smell though."

"Me too," I say. "A lot of ex-smokers and fag fascists don't. Hitler hated the smell of cigarettes. So did James VI. I think that tells you all you need to know."

"Does me," he says. "So I'm wandering aimlessly around the TED website and I come across this interesting-looking article. 'How to turn small talk into smart conversation.'"

"You do that all the time," I tell him. 

"But I'm always willing to learn," he says. "So what they're saying is too much chat goes nowhere because we take the easy way, by mirroring what the other person says. For instance: James: It’s a beautiful day. John: Yes, it is a beautiful day.

"'John has followed the social norm', they tell us. 'But he’s also paralysed the discussion and missed a moment of fun.'"

"So what should he have done?" I ask, taking a large swallow of my Williams Brothers beer.

"What indeed," he says. "I'll tell you and I'm not making this up. John needs to practice the art of disruption, they say, and move the dialogue forward, like this:

"James: It’s a beautiful day. John: The weather was just like this when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor - if that actually happened."

"You're kidding me," I say. "Gimme another of their examples."

"Sure," he says. "Beverly: It’s hot today. Gino: In this dimension, yes."

"That's not smart conversation," I say. "That's what we writers call a non-sequitur. From the Latin 'non' meaning 'non' and 'sequitur' meaning 'sharp tool for pruning plants'."

"It won't move the conversation forward, either," he says. "Let's try it. I go, 'Looks like it might rain later.' You go?"

"Frogs, worms and golf balls have all fallen from the sky at some time. And you go?"


"Exactly," I say. "Well done for conveying three question marks with one facial expression, by the way. Nah, I'm with you. TED is twaddle." 

"Excuse me," a fair-haired youth at the next table leans towards us. "I am foreign exchange student, just come to Glassgow. Is zis English language you two are using, pliz?"

"Language is a human convention and a metaphysical reality that happens to be physically uttered," my son says, and the poor guy looks baffled and turns back to his beer.

We need to talk about TED by Benjamin Bratton.

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