WARNING: This article is a little racy, so the clean-living and faint-hearted should pass it by. As should the supremely intelligent and the mildly mature. If you haven’t guessed already, this article is about NPR (National Public Radio), which has again proven itself the most respectable, insightful entertainment option going, and I hope this gets you all out there listening to more of it.
Last Sunday morning, while listening to NPR’s “This American Life”, I was inspired by a segment addressing one of the most pressing issues to ever face civilization: how to end small talk forever. The program’s young producer was giving a lecture on how to rid the world of annoying conversations at office water coolers, and in hallways and elevators the world over.
Her proposal: replace idle chit-chat with the “Run Down,” a strategy she invented whereby you latch onto the most interesting part of someone’s mindless prattle, and turn the conversation into a highly personal, borderline offensive and fantastically entertaining interrogation.
Her example: a recent break-room conversation in which a co-worker mentioned having ramen noodles for lunch. Instead of passing over the throw-away Ramen comment and heading into some light analysis of weather, sports or sitcoms, she dug in around the noodles. First, she asked what kind of Ramen he had, and he responded that his girlfriend liked buying chicken flavor. She could have remarked how she liked chicken Ramen too, but this was her opportunity. She gloms onto the girlfriend remark…
Producer: “So, Do you love her?”
Target: “Um, I do.”
Producer: “How many women have you loved?”
Target: “A few I guess.”
Producer: “How many one night stands?”
Target: “Um, I never counted, but maybe four and a half.”
Producer: “How many virgins?”
And thus the small talk is gone…forever.
As I listened to this, familiar moments flashed through my head. HBS abounds with small talk. This is chit-chat heaven. The salad line comes to mind. As do run-ins with section mates in Spangler, with eager exercise addicts waiting for locker keys at Shad, and with cross-legged first years standing in the bathroom line between classes…
Potential Target: “Did you see that last pit dive?”
Me: “Yeah, it was even funnier than the one yesterday!”
Potential Target: “I could TOM the heck out of this salad bar! Look at the bottleneck at the dressing section.”
Me: “Ha ha! Lots of WIP here for sure!”
Potential Target: “Hey! How are you? What’s up?”
Me: “Just going to class.”
Potential Target: “Yeah, me too…. See you around Spangler!”
Potential Target: “You playing squash?”
Me: “Yep. That is what this racket is for.”
Potential Target: “Cool.”
I think we can all agree to call a truce, to end to all small talk and get down to the nitty gritty. I see no water coolers here, so why talk like there are?
Next time someone makes a TOM joke about the slow salad bar, maybe ask them if they liked 9 1/2 Weeks, and what foods they bring into the bedroom. Get to the heart of the matter quickly. Get to really know those other ships passing in the night. Don’t talk about class, talk about them, shake them up a bit. Figure out who they are, what they are planning to do with their lives, what (heaven forbid!) they like to do outside of class and case reading.
Give them the Run Down! If NPR is doing it, it must be OK. And if you can’t figure out what to say, remember our young NPR producer’s four final tips:
1. Small talk is the conversation you are supposed to have, and the Run Down is the conversation you want to have.
2. Why chew the fat when you can chew the meat?
3. If you can think it, you can ask it.
And if all else fails:
4. “How many virgins?”
Listen to NPR Sunday mornings.