News & Politics  |  Opinion

In Defense of Small Talk

The pandemic was full of intimate conversation with true-blue friends. I miss acquaintances.

Few genres of social gathering come in for quite so much abuse as the Washington cocktail party. From left-wing ideologues to right-wing radicals to self-styled moderate mavericks, Americans across the political spectrum agree that dissing Beltway reception-going is good politics—a way to show you’re against smarm and self-importance and superficiality. Even the guests at such events purport to dislike them. Scan the crowd queuing at the bar and you’re likely to find more than a few well-paid speechwriters, high-minded columnists, and actual politicians who have publicly beaten up on this canapé-munching, chitchatting straw man.

But even in a world that loves to bad-mouth the cocktail circuit, the slam that arrived this May was unique: In a lengthy Washington Post Magazine essay, no less a personage than Sally Quinn, the journalist and longtime convener of Washington’s high-profile social scene, put in her own well-polished shiv. “It’s just that the big cocktail parties—especially the official ones, where you grab a drink, do a quick tour of the room and make small talk—have lost their cachet,” she wrote. “They’re not fun.”

The aside about cocktail parties came as part of a larger take on the death of the capital’s elite social scene, that more rarefied universe of salons and dinner parties where our city’s VIPs break bread. In Quinn’s telling, the culprits are many: a succession of Presidents who wanted little to do with permanent Washington; a polarized environment in which few people in politics need to make friends with the other side; a broad cultural change wherein women are as likely as men to have workaholic day jobs, leaving many members of the power class without much time to dress up for five-course dinners, much less host them.

If all this sounds familiar, it should. People have been proclaiming the end of Washington society for decades. Way back in 1987, Quinn herself wrote a piece about how “feminism and other sociological changes” killed the Washington hostess. She and others have returned to the theme at fairly regular intervals ever since, issuing a succession of elegies for the days of face-to-face bipartisan good cheer—which, in turn, prompted a succession of “good riddance” responses from critics who viewed the golden age of elite party-throwing as a recipe for exclusion, groupthink, and ignoring the misdeeds of fellow insiders.

What’s interesting about the newest report of social-scene death, though, is that it’s neither a faux-populist broadside against the establishment nor a gauzy lament for the schmoozy good old days. Rather, it comes with a distinctly 2021 spin: In the Covid era, the argument goes, we’ve learned that what really matters is intimacy and true-blue friendship, not networking and transactionalism. Riding out the pandemic in the meditative solitude of her Maryland farm, Quinn writes, she came to realize she didn’t miss her old world: “Somehow it all felt superficial and unimportant and a waste of time. What I had once thought was a glamorous and exciting life, filled with power and celebrity, no longer had any appeal to me. The magic was gone.”

Will it stay gone? It’s a question that resonates well beyond the population of people who care about the folkways of the capital’s movers and shakers. You didn’t have to live in proximity to the mythic salons of Georgetown to feel as though your pre-pandemic life had more than its share of meaningless interactions, time spent with vague acquaintances who could just as easily be swapped out for other vague acquaintances. The Washington cocktail party may have been a politically convenient target, but before Covid-19 struck, a lot of people must have quietly felt the same about the New York cocktail party or the Phoenix cocktail party. For that matter, plenty of people felt that way about office birthday parties and PTA pancake breakfasts. Surely, we figured, there were better ways to relate to fellow humans.

As the world emerges from this terrible cycle of death and despair and lockdown loneliness, there are all sorts of predictions about how we’ll all gain a new perspective on What Really Matters. In the optimistic view, the awareness of society’s fragility leads us to embrace a new authenticity, putting away childish things—not to mention cheesy things, shallow things, perfunctory things, and things that require you to put on heels and make small talk with strangers. It’s a comforting story in that it allows us to feel as if the sorrows of the last year weren’t meaningless.

But what if the post-lockdown world, inside the Beltway and beyond, winds up looking a lot like the pre-lockdown one? In Washington, after three decades’ worth of obits for the elite social scene, there’s good reason to be skeptical that a mere deadly worldwide pandemic could kill it off. In a city of ambition and relationships, it’s probably unwise to bet against the idea of enterprising people wanting to do social pirouettes where other insiders can see them—even if, for reasons owing more to economics than to values, the business-meets-pleasure gatherings aren’t quite so mannered and curated and expensive as they once were.

“There’s good reason to be skeptical that a mere pandemic could kill off the elite social scene.”

Looked at from one perspective, it would be a fairly depressing conclusion—that after all that trauma, we’d be right back to working the room. But there’s another way of thinking about the looming resurgence of large-scale social-circuiting: Maybe the old way wasn’t so bad. Maybe there was actually something nice about those too-brief conversations with random people you see only at events designed for too-brief conversations. Maybe all that chitchat—whether at an actual cocktail party or just on the playground of your neighborhood school when parents gather at pickup time—added something to your life.

For all the misery of 2020, lots of people actually did an admirable job of keeping up with those who mattered most. Witness the many Zoom family reunions and huddled fire-pit gatherings of old friends. It was a year of checking in on loved ones and engaging in deep conversations about the important things in life. Yet for all the intimacy, it felt quite lonely. It turns out it wasn’t only friends we missed. Sometimes you get by with a little help from your acquaintances.

Which brings us back to that much-maligned cocktail party. Picture the worst one possible. The room is full of insufferable stuffed shirts, the line for the bar is too long, the appetizers unappetizing, the room too warm. But you walk on in. Across the room, you see a person you used to work with. You make your way over, say hi, ask how she is. Somewhere between sharing her opinions on the infrastructure bill and complaining about the price of summer camp, she passes along a bit of sad news about a mutual acquaintance who’s not doing well. You make a mental note to give that guy a call. Excusing yourself, you mosey toward the cheese tray. A man introduces himself by asking what you do for a living, looking over your shoulder as he does. You wince, but you tell him, and then you steer the conversation toward holiday plans, causing him to tell a way-too-detailed story about a trip to the Outer Banks. It’s boring, except for the part about this one place he likes to stop for a bite on his way down, a factoid you file away for your own use sometime.

Then, over by the window, someone you actually like! You played on a softball team years ago, back when you were both interns, and you seem to bump into each other once or twice a year. You bid goodbye to Mr. Outer Banks and go say hi. You make a joke about the bar line, then he leans in to share a particularly juicy bit of dish about a guy your best friend used to date. You’re not especially proud of enjoying the gossip, but you respond with some not-quite-verifiable scuttlebutt of your own. Somehow, the conversation winds back to families. His wife just had twins. He does a funny imitation of the tag-team bedtime ritual. You feel relieved that your own kids are past that age. Then his phone buzzes and—whoops, he needs to get home. You say your goodbyes and make noises about meeting again, maybe for dinner or something, though you both know that the only place you’re likely to reconnect is at another party like this.

Is this kind of event the core of a meaningful life full of genuine interpersonal connection? Well, no. But it’s not quite a hellscape of clueless pre-Covid superficiality, either. What it is—whether the crowd is made up of networking Beltway types at a party, name-tagged conventioneers at an opening reception, or just people huddled under the same bus shelter in the rain, waiting on their long-delayed ride home—is an arena in which to engage briefly with other humans. And after the year we’ve had, those brief engagements seem downright profound.

This article appears in the June 2021 issue of Washingtonian.

Michael Schaffer
Former Editor