1. ‘Granny’s on her hobby horse again,’ Dad would mutter, reaching for the whisky, when she launched on a pet topic. Hobby horses were for people who liked hunting down the nub of the matter without stirring from their armchair – people almost as ridiculous as teenagers in quest of the meaning of life.
2. But adopting a special subject, like a child from a developing nation, is the only passport to some circles. Take this Hollywood producer’s concern for Posh and Becks: ‘They’re going to have to find an “issue” if they want to be taken seriously [here]: maybe something like breast cancer.’ A grave topic glued onto slippery brand Beckham? Wisely, Posh booked playdates with Heidi Klum and trotted into fashion instead. This wasn’t just business. Even in less elevated settings, lack of a cause may not be a question of social life or death, but everyone needs something to talk about. The question is: what?
3. Many rules girdle the idea that there’s such a thing as a good or a bad subject of conversation. Indeed, we think of topics as abstract nouns with capital letters – Love, War, God, with the bogeymen, Money and Politics, to be avoided. Yet the terrain shifts with time and tide. Once a minefield yawned between subjects fit for men and women, obliging debutantes to snaffle suitors with only “ghosts and the royal family” (no wise husband-hunter dared appear clever). And today’s taboos will be tomorrow’s small-talk essentials, because in reality, topics of conversation aren’t fixed. Either new talking points spring from the old, or fresh ones are grafted on, or discussion conks out.
4. The lusty author of 1673’s Means to Oblige in Conversation advised, ‘There is nothing in a subject, so called, that we should regard it as an idol, or follow it beyond the promptings of desire.’ That is, a good subject is whatever you want to discuss. Most fertile are those on which anyone can comment – especially divisive matters that map the faultlines in our common ground. (The word ‘topic’ is Aristotle’s, from Ta Topika — ‘On Commonplaces’.) So we huddle around scandal like a fire, trading titbits of information, to reassure ourselves that the worst could happen, indeed has: to Posh or Becks. Because the best topics – even the bad – make us feel better about our armchair-bound life.
As seen in ES magazine