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Seán Moncrieff: For a radio presenter, I’m rubbish at small talk

If I have to fill 30 seconds of airtime because a computer crashed or a phone line went down, I’m terrible at it. I can hear myself waffling

When Daughter Number Four was a toddler, she liked to yell during dinner, because that’s what she saw everyone else doing.

All her siblings like to talk. At dinnertime, when they are all there, the decibel level can be extraordinary. Daughter Number Four yelled so she could join in.

Daughter Number Four has continued joining in. She’s full of opinions and questions: she likes to posit counterfactual scenarios. What would you do if there was a dinosaur in the back garden? Can you have infinity +1? Does eating money make you rich? As I’m writing this, she’s already interrupted me several times with her usual opener: Daddy, I have to tell you something.

Often it seems like the content of her speech is secondary to the act of speaking; that’s the real pleasure, or perhaps compulsion. And no, none of them get this from me.


Contrary to what you might think (if you think about it at all), I don’t talk for a living. My job is to get other people to talk on the radio; which, admittedly, requires a certain amount of speech on my part. But if I have to fill 30 seconds of airtime because a computer crashed or a phone line went down, I’m terrible at it. I can hear myself waffling; I get annoyed with myself for wasting words.

That’s an odd phrase. And it makes no sense, because words are one of the few infinite resources we have. You can’t use them all up. Though occasionally I meet people who seem to be trying.

This is probably due, in part, to my personality type but also to my professional training. Back in journalism school, it was drummed into us not to waste words: to communicate information as succinctly as possible.

Afterwards, in newspapers, there was nothing more mortifying than seeing your excess verbiage aggressively ripped out of your copy. I had one editor who would look over my shoulder and at the first sight of self-indulgence, rip the paper out of my typewriter.

Because of all of this, I also think there’s something I don’t quite get about conversation. National stereotype time: when I hear Americans or Italians yakking constantly, I marvel at how they have so much to say, and seemingly all the time. Gender stereotype time: women seem to find it far easier to fall into conversation than men. Herself talks to her sister every day. Every day.

I am also – like a lot of people – rubbish at small talk. I used to view this as me having little time for what seems a rather silly and pointless form of conversation. But I’ve grown to think that my lack of proficiency is a failing on my part; another thing I’m not quite getting. I’ve come to realise that small talk isn’t pointless at all. It’s a social ritual.

I have a friend who observes a tremendously civilised Friday routine. In the early evening, when his local pub isn’t full, he goes for a couple of pints, then goes home for dinner. He’s one of those people who knows everyone and so he never knows who he will be talking to or what about.

I rarely get to meet him there. But I did get the chance recently; and he, I and another chap spent the best part of an hour discussing the unit price of electricity.

On paper, I’d rather fake my own death than have to listen to this kind of thing. But it was interesting and, somehow, quietly restful. Sometimes, it’s not that important what you are talking about. Just that you are talking at all.