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Sociability • Social Virtues

The Life Saving Role of Small Chats

If you were making a wildlife documentary about humans and set up cameras to watch us going about our business, one of the more surprising things we’d be seen doing, pretty much every day, is taking someone – normally a partner, a close friend or a parent – through the details of some recent pain, discomfort, frustration or fear. We are creatures that need – far more than we typically realise – to chit-chat our way through the agonies of being human.

In the documentary, we’d be likely to see one member of Homo Sapiens calling up another or standing beside them in the kitchen and would hear them saying something like:

At the meeting today, I was such an idiot, I didn’t even remember to…

Or:

I’m a bit worried about this message I received…

Or:

Can you imagine, I had to ask her four times to…

Or:

Why can’t I ever remember to…

Then, with a gentle expression and maybe a hand on ours, the other member of Homo Sapiens will respond with a few rather undramatic but crucially restorative words:

I’m sure no one even noticed…

Or:

Those sort of messages can safely be ignored…

Or:

Well you’ve got every right to…

Or:

I’m exactly the same in this area…

After a time of this, the original speaker’s heart rate will drop, their muscles will unclench, their smile will grow more relaxed and life will – for a time – seem rather more bearable again.

We’re apt to miss how these discussions even happen, and quite what they bring us. We know so much about our appetites for food, money, status, sex, yet so little about our need for someone to help us process our experiences and make sense of the varied and daily pains and sorrows of our existence.

Vincent Van Gogh, La Guinguette à Montmartre, 1886

What is striking is how ostensibly ‘small’ the responses of another person can be and still work a therapeutic effect. What counts is that someone other than us is taking a view of our situation, and maintains faith in our fundamental decency and in the likelihood of a tolerable future. We can say: ‘I think I made such an idiot of myself…’ And all they need to say back is: ‘Of course you didn’t, you were simply trying to…’ Or we can angrily expound: ‘I’m so annoyed with them; I’m never going to…’ And they can gently respond with: ‘Well, I get it, but maybe tomorrow there’ll be another way to…’ 

Genius it isn’t; Marcus Aurelius, Montaigne or the Buddha would surely have said things far more elegantly and added a whole layer of intellectual nuance, but they aren’t available and we in any case have no need for their exquisite fare. We just require someone who can say in effect: you were all alone when it happened, and now I am here. I know what it’s like to lose the ticket, say a silly thing, forget someone’s name, be sure you want to end the relationship or feel your enemy will manage to bring you down. But you weren’t an idiot, you aren’t a monster, you haven’t sinned and this isn’t the end. You’ve been under pressure, you are human, and you are not alone. There is enough here that is sublime and transformative.

How quickly we disintegrate – by contrast – when left by ourselves. In the stillness of night, or ruminating across a long afternoon, we start to assume that everything must be our fault, that we have been singled out for punishment and that we will never overcome a mistake or an injury. Without another mind close by, we lose our capacity to calibrate events and turn off our sirens of alarm. We may try to tell ourselves all we like that much of what we are is OK, that there is no use whipping ourselves, and that dramas seldom occur as we fear, but the burden is unlikely to get any lighter until there is someone else beside us. These little chats – for all their humdrum nature – are defences against the greatest perturbations of the mind, they guard us from paranoia, grandiosity, psychosis, terror and nihilism. If they were pills, they would be among the very most important in the psychiatrist’s pharmacy.

With lucks, the chats began in childhood. Few things are as touching as seeing a grown up with pressing responsibilities who stops their day in order to listen very closely to the fears and distresses of a small offspring. ‘No my poppet,’ they’ll say, ‘I really don’t think that that tree is angry with you, it’s just there’s quite a wind blowing…’ Or: ‘Maybe if the red pen has run out now, you can use an orange one and we’ll see if we can find a new on the weekend… Or: ‘She sounds like a very annoying person, she was probably just hungry and wanted to take it out on someone and you happened to be there, poor you…’

We tend to go in search of some very big solutions to our pains. Yet if we have one or two people somewhere on the planet who can hear us out every now and then, we can already count ourselves infinitely blessed. If we haven’t lost our minds till now, if we have more or less managed to keep going, it may be because somewhere in the background, we have had access to a succession of minor conversations that we have barely noticed unfolding. We have been upheld by a love we have forgotten to see.

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