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Monthly Archives: March 2016

From Cave Paintings to Excel Spreadsheets

I thought I’d mention why I chose this picture as my blog’s main image. Many of you may recognise this image as being a “cave painting” from Lascaux. Located in southwestern France, these caves are festooned with paintings that are more than 17,000 years old. Many of the 2,000 images are of the large animals that the Palaeolithic inhabitants would have known such as bulls, equines and stags. While the Lascaux artists did not paint the region’s plants or other environmental features, they did depict themselves (primarily as hunters) and also drew abstract signs (dots, lattice patterns) that scholars are still interpreting.

Some researchers hypothesise that the images are spiritual and relate to visions the hunters would have while in a trance. Others theorize that the paintings represent past successful hunting excursions, or rituals that were performed to ensure future hunting success. Not do be outdone, several art historians posit that the artists believed that the images themselves could spring to life, so painted “weapons” (the geometric shapes) in order to ensure everyone’s safety.

No one can know for sure what these amazing pictures mean. However, most scholars agree that those who painted the animals were not doing so just to show off their artistic ability. Providing both food and clothing, these creatures were crucial for the inhabitants’ survival. On some level, the animals shown on the cave walls symbolize a magical, hazardous world in which humans and animals weave around each other, playing a complex, dangerous game of survival.

The pictures are telling a story.

Psychologist Pamela Rutledge observed that while technology has progressed at a dizzying pace, our brains are evolving much more slowly. “Our brains still respond to content by looking for the story to make sense out of the experience. No matter what the technology, the meaning starts in the brain,” she writes.1 “Stories leapfrog the technology and bring us to the core of experience, as any good storyteller knows.

We have always communicated through stories. In fact, let me tell you a story right now. I used to work as director of an English-language school in Singapore, and every month we would have a directors’ meeting. The school was part of a larger, private school that offered courses in hospitality, business and other such areas. Just as surely as the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, we could be sure that sometime during the meeting the sales manager would deliver a dry-as-dust report on the number of students that had been recruited that month. Her slides were nothing more than complex Excel charts that were impossible to see if you were seated in the back of the room. And, unfortunately, every month, this hapless young woman would get castigated by the irate school owner who did not find her numbers convincing. Surely she could have spared herself some tongue lashings if she had only cast her findings in terms of a story that placed the figures in a meaningful context. She never created a narrative to even try to justify the figures in terms of the economy, marketing expenditures, or international educational trends. Without the glue of a story binding her figures together, her impossible-to-read slides always led her towards public humiliation.

We are hard-wired to listen to stories. We want to be enthralled by stories. Think about this before you write you next presentation.



Small Talk is Not so Small for Business Success

What’s the big deal about small talk? After all, it is small—not important—talk, correct? Work gets done, project deadlines get met, and reports get written, all without small talk.

Well, yes and no. Certainly you can get that report written without it—but let’s say that you need some figures crunched, ASAP, and you need those numbers from a colleague. You really haven’t had much to do with this person, even though you’ve both had opportunity to do so: you’ve stood together at the lift, and you’ve bumped into her at the coffee machine. But, time is money, you think, so you’ve never really bothered. Besides, what do you say to a person you don’t know that well? “Nice weather we’re having?” PLEASE.

There is a good chance that this number-crunching individual would have been happy to get you those numbers quickly if you only had taken the time to get to know her just a bit better. Friends help out friends. (What kinds of friends? You might ask sceptically. Well, are all your “friends” on Facebook really your tried-and-true friends? Of course not. Yet those kinds of friends have been known to do amazing things for each other, when requested. Mutual back-scratching can go a long, long way.)

Good luck with your report.

What is small talk? Malinowski, a famous anthropologist, first wrote about it in 1923.1 Small talk, he said, is talk that binds us together. While the topics that constitute small talk may seem trivial, its real importance lies in its actual function: to forge bonds amongst us.

All work talk and no small talk can be detrimental to your career.

Many business pundits have written reams of digital paper on the benefits of small talk. Brett Nelson of Forbes lists six reasons why small talk is very important.2 The first reason he gives: you never know where small talk will take you. It only takes a little investment of your time (and the possibility of a bruised ego) to connect with someone. That connection might end up landing you a huge job. You never know.

It also makes you feel better, and makes you smarter. (Nelson cites serious research supporting these points.)

All this sounds great, but doesn’t small talk get in the way of worker productivity?

No. Social scientists from Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, have been researching office communication worldwide. Their research has shown that small talk is crucial in forging fruitful ties with colleagues. Without those ties, work does not get done as effectively. 3 We humans are more than our work behaviours. We crave connection with others, and small talk can give us that connection—as trivial as it may seem.

Here’s an example: A friend of mine works for a small family business. Though her work is interesting, and she enjoys it, she is looking for another job. “They are from another country, and they always speak in their mother tongue,” she told me. “The only time they speak with me is when they give me instructions.”

This young woman is doing a wonderful job, and adding benefit to this company. How sad that her employers eventually will lose this person due to their lack of social skills.

Yet the sad fact is that many people just hate small talk. They would rather get their teeth pulled than listen to an interchange on Australian footie.

Next time—cultural observations on why some people find it difficult to small talk.


1 Malinowski, B. “The problem of meaning in primitive languages,” in Ogden, C. & Richards, I., The Meaning of Meaning. London” Routledge, 1923.




Small Talk: It should be easy …

Why is small talk so difficult for some? Many people do seem to have the gift of the gab . . . but do they really?

Let’s say you’re at a party and you’re mingling with a variety of people. Here are some of the kinds of individuals you may discover between yourself and the drinks. Say hello to Mr or Ms…:

  1. “You think you have problems?”: You innocently mention that you find work a bit difficult. Instead of empathizing, this person will immediately say something such as, “Ha! You think THAT’S bad! Not only is my boss a @$%^^&, but I regularly have to work 25 hours a day, including Saturday and Sunday . . .” This is the kind of person who, upon hearing that you have an incurable disease, would say, “Cancer schmancer, let me tell you what I have …” And so it goes.
  2. “Pulling Teeth”: You know no one at this party, and you just want to talk with somebody. Yaayy! You see someone in the corner, staring at a martini. You march up to this person, a smile plastered on your face. You ask an innocent question: “Hello, I don’t know anyone here. Do you?”
    You get a shrug.
    Gamely, you continue: “Umm—who do you know here?”
    You get a shrug. The person mumbles something such as “Whatever.”
    And it continues. You might feel sorry for this person, or you might end up feeling great about yourself: Wha-hoo, there’s somebody out there who actually has worse social skills than I have!”
    Well, perhaps. But is it worth pulling teeth just to have a civil conversation?
  3. “Emotional vampire”: Beware the emotional vampire, he or she can suck your soul out of your body. Sure, we all need a friend that we can confide in, but this individual will grab onto anybody unfortunate enough to offer a listening ear. If you start talking to a person and, within five minutes you hear:
    1. His or her life story
    2. How lonely he / she is
    3. How wonderful you are, and
    4. We should get together soon, well, really, is tomorrow OK?

…Warning, warning, you’re in the clutches of an emotional vampire who will be delighted to call you at 3 in the morning to moan about some new horror on the horizon.

There is nothing wrong with meeting a new gem that you would like to explore; after all, that is what parties should be about. However, if you sense an air of desperation about this person, *ding ding*, that person probably is desperate. There’s a good chance you really don’t need that kind of neediness in your life.

The point is this: there are many people out there who really do not know how to have an easy-going, give-and-take conversation with another human being. It’s a rare person who can put people at their ease, and get the small-talk ball rolling.

And don’t doubt it: having skills in small talk is not a small thing at all. It’s big. I’ll go over the importance for small talk in a future blog—and I’ll also give you tips on what you can do so you can meet many social situations with confidence.