“I’ve got an email, you’ve got someone at the door.”
“This is podcast gold, right?”
“Absolutely, people love this.”
I close my eyes as I listen to the voices rising up from my laptop. For half an hour, I can pretend that I’m in a local gay bar overhearing two friends catching up. Small talk, occasionally touching large topics, but mostly friendly, non-committal chatting about holidays, films, art, music, relationships — anything and everything, straying from one theme to the other and back again, but never, never staying on-topic.
The podcast I’m listening to is called Like Minded Friends, hosted by gay comedians Suzi Ruffell and Tom Allen. A lot of the time, the podcast is recorded in one go, meaning that as listeners we hear interruptions around the studio, the house, the outdoors, whatever the setting is that’s being recorded that week. We hear awkward pauses, fumbling of words, grasping for information just out of reach (“What is the name of that singer again who did that show?”). Over the past few months of lockdown I have listened to all of the 140+ episodes, each around 30 minutes. Cumulatively, that’s over two entire days, listening to nothing in particular, the only promise of the podcast being that it’s two gay friends chatting to each other. I’m not friends with either of the hosts, I don’t know their actual lives, and I can’t join in with their conversation. So why do I keep returning to a podcast consisting mostly of everyday small-talk?
Since March, almost all sectors of life have found new ways to communicate. A pandemic during a digital era has made problem-solvers of us all, and many parts of society have now moved to online video platforms: I have personally attended MSTeams university classes, I have sung in a Zoom choir, and I have had Whereby work meetings. In terms of productivity, there are very few barriers that a good internet connection and a reliable laptop can’t overcome. However, what has remained difficult is finding a casual voice in this online sphere, especially as an LGBT+ person. Where a face-to-face environment has opportunities to fill the time with small talk, the digital world has forced us to be more goal-focused. In an online call, being casually, purposelessly, non-teleologically gay is no longer an option. If I mention my sexuality, there has to be a reason for it, a point to it.
Our increased focus on purpose is for a couple of good reasons: firstly, online communication is exhausting, and most people want it to be over with as soon as possible. Why would you want to have an hour-long meeting filled with talk about the weather and what we had for lunch, when you can just get straight to the point and get the task at hand over with in half that time? Usually small talk helps us connect to others, and allows us to show that we care about other people’s experiences, by asking about the minutiae of their everyday (how their cat is doing, what they’re doing that evening). In a digital environment, however, wasting time on trivialities can often be an imposition, rather than a show of care.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, the format of video calling simply does not allow for anything that doesn’t come straight to the point. On a video call, you can only ever hear one person at a time: to speak, means necessarily to prevent other people from speaking, so when you do, you’d better make sure that you have something interesting to say. A group discussion round an actual table can give people the opportunity to organically have small conversations, away from the main group. If we want breakout groups on Zoom, we have to plan them in. There is no way to have digital conversations that do not, in some way, rely on the pre-planning of what is going to be said. This ultimately favours the individual monologue to the back-and-forth of chit-chat.
This move away from casual talk has particularly hit LGBT+ communities. With our non-professional lives becoming restricted to our household, and often our direct family, we have seen a renewed acknowledgement of the fact that even in 2020, many people don’t necessarily live in a household that consists of other LGBT+ people, or even a household that is LGBT+ friendly. This is nothing new, of course: the history of LGBT+ communities is necessarily one that has taken place in public spaces, away from the (family) home. In our communities, we tend to rely on social activities or clubs to meet other LGBT+ people. There are LGBT+ singing groups, sports groups, and art collectives exactly to facilitate the closeness of LGBT+ people in a way that we don’t always find in the home or at work.
Certainly, whenever I have joined an LGBT+ choir, an LGBT+ discussion group, or an LGBT+ writing retreat, this hasn’t really been out of a desire to just get on with the task at hand — I could have done that in any group, or maybe even on my own. Rather, it was to meet LGBT+ people in a setting that wasn’t dating-oriented and wasn’t necessarily explicitly political (although having space for both of these things is obviously also important). The ability to just casually be, to simply exist in the presence of others (some friends, some acquaintances, some strangers) as an LGBT+ person with opinions, thoughts, and interests, is an underrated form of relaxation.
Indeed, the pandemic has offered up the potential to expand our communities in surprising ways. Now that we are no longer confined to physical spaces, we can connect to LGBT+ people in different cities, countries, continents, in a way that we might not have done before. Not to mention, the fact that physical spaces often bring with them access barriers, making it difficult for disabled people, or people with irregular schedules to take part in face-to-face events. Necessity breeds invention, and there has clearly been a great need for people to hold on to their LGBT+ networks during this time.
However, while there are certainly positives to be found in terms of widening our communities in general, maintaining any kind of casual atmosphere within them has proved difficult online. If you meet digitally in a group that has a purpose, you will often just get on with it. It is difficult to schedule in time for chit-chat, exactly because chit-chat exists in the in-between of the schedule. There is something beautifully queer about talk that serves no purpose: after all, finding the extraordinary in something that doesn’t have an aim, doesn’t have a utilitarian function, is one of the very definitions of ‘camp’. Talking to people as an act of connection, without reaching a defined ‘goal’, goes against everything we learn in a society where time is money, and caring is time.
This is also why I have no solution for this problem at the moment. There is no way to strategise yourself towards something that exists only in the organic. Any attempt to force behaviour towards small talk, makes this talk less and less small. What I do hope is that once this is over (because regardless of how it may feel now, the pandemic has to end at some point), we can take time in our communities to appreciate each other’s small gestures of care, especially when they so often slip through the cracks.
Pippa Sterk (they/she) is a mixed-race lesbian writer and researcher from the Netherlands, currently doing her PhD research at King’s College London. Her work integrates topics of sexuality, language, and marginalisation. She writes opinion pieces, cultural reviews, poetry, and fiction. Her writing is available at pippasterk.contently.com and she tweets at @PippaSterk
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