The importance of small talk

Small talk helps journalists paint a picture of the source, build trust, and even enough material for a story

June 09, 2023 02:15 am | Updated 02:15 am IST

“When interests are shared and stories swapped, sources and journalists come to empathise with each other” File

“When interests are shared and stories swapped, sources and journalists come to empathise with each other” File | Photo Credit: The Hindu

Small talk can be annoying, but it is also a crucial and animating force in a reporter’s life. Every day, when reporters return to the newsroom in the evening to file stories, there is at least one person whining about how a source droned on about irrelevant things. It can be tiring when we encounter, as we do every now and then, “a sophistical rhetorician inebriated by the exuberance of his own verbosity,” to quote the former U.K. Prime Minister, Benjamin Disreali.

For instance, a few weeks before the Karnataka Assembly elections, a source texted me from Bengaluru. Instead of talking about the electoral battlefield, he spoke to me at length about a subject that the people of Bengaluru adore as much as the British: the weather. But I was only interested in political temperatures, and being forced to listen to someone talk about the summer was a test of my patience. Similarly, last year, when I sat down for an interview with a politician, he launched into the details about his new smart ring, about how it kept an account of his sleeping hours, heart rate, and blood pressure. For 20 minutes, I listened as he extolled the health benefits of the device. Another time, another politician spent several minutes discussing with me his love for cows and describing the sanctuary he was building at home with all the varieties of cows in India.

While trying at times, small talk and verbal meanderings are not always boring. Sometimes, they help journalists paint a picture of the source or interviewee and provide a peek into their well-screened worlds.

And it is not as if we are the ones who always have to grin and bear such talk; we are also often the initiators. It is a trick, perhaps as old as journalism itself, to ask that all-important or piercing question in the midst of these digressions, when respondents have already been lulled into comfort. But this is a sword that respondents use too. Often, a smart source, who is reluctant to divulge any information, uses small talk for the same effect — to tire the journalist out and make them believe that there is nothing important to be said or reported.

Small talk is also the tool used to build trust with a source. It is through easygoing conversation that reporters and sources connect and find common interests. When interests are shared and stories swapped, we come to empathise with each other.

The news that you read every morning, with well-structured sentences and well-thought-out headlines, does not land in a reporter’s lap in that form. Not every news copy is the result of a press conference or a structured briefing. While there are glorious mornings when reporters know exactly how their day is going to pan out, the ‘nothing days’ are irksome and stressful. This is when we search for a needle in a haystack. When we dial every person on our phone list seeking appointments. When we sit down with a government official, a technocrat, an activist or a politician for an often aimless discussion. All in the hope that we will stumble on a thread that, when pulled, will unravel a story.

And even when that thread doesn’t materialise, such conversations give a repoter enough background information to lay the edifice for a later story. It was during one such conversation several years ago, in the basement of the Parliament Library Building, that then Chief Engineer of the Central Public Works Department pulled out Herbert Baker’s original drawings of the Parliament building, to show me the extent of retrofitting that the building has gone through.

And this is what then makes news: a stray comment, an idea that the source was mulling over, a tricky problem that they couldn’t find a solution to, or a complaint against a competing department or colleague. And when they reveal these stories, while our hearts beat with joy, we sit straight-faced hoping they keep their guard up. The actual work then begins: the cross-checking of facts and the joining of dots.

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