Small talk, many argue, is the worst—a tedious practice that makes personal encounters shallow. In January, an actuary named Tim Boomer wrote a Modern Love column in The New York Times that waxed lyrical about the joyful possibilities of abandoning the custom altogether. Others disagree: Slate’s Ruth Graham argued in February that conversational pleasantries aren’t only necessary, but can also be enjoyable and quite revealing.
Whatever side of the debate you fall on, it’s difficult to ignore the uniquely American dimensions of small talk. In the 19th century, Alexis de Tocqueville marveled at how citizens of the young country could talk so much without really saying anything. Last week, Karan Mahajan wrote in The New Yorker about how it took him a decade to master the kind of culturally mandated casual friendliness that Americans expect in places like shops or restaurants. And as anyone who’s worked in the U.S. knows, office chit-chat is an unavoidable part of professional life.
It’s no surprise then, that small-talk culture has been thoroughly depicted in American motion pictures—particularly in cult movies written and directed by foreign filmmakers. Works such as The Room, Birdemic: Shock and Terror, and Samurai are regular entries on lists of the best bad movies ever made, thanks in part to their logic-defying plots, risible acting, terrible scripts, and enthusiastic fan bases. But much of their subtler charm comes from how they capture—in bizarre, messy fashion—the contradictory nature of American small talk as a phenomenon that’s at once gloriously mundane and necessary to human connection.