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Cliché Layer or The Art of Small Talk

Cliché Layer is by far the most disrespected layer of the neurotic personality. It is so disrespected that Fritz Perls would call it the “chicken shit layer”. And as Gestalt therapists, we tend to turn our collective noses up when it comes to “chit chat”. But, it has recently occurred to me that people who are not conversant with clliche layer interaction are handicapped living in our culture.

Many of my patients – even those who I’ve been seeing for years, and who have done deep, moving work with me – come into my office every week asking “how’s everything?” or “how was your week?” or some such question. Usually, I respond by saying “fine”; sometimes I ask if they really want to know, or remark that a week is a lot of time to summarize. But they’re not really asking me how I am – they’re saying hello. And they’re conveying a sense of friendliness and interest in our relationship.

Seemingly meaningless communications can convey a sense of good will, while not revealing or requiring much transparency. An ability to engage on that level allows some sense of safety and interest to germinate, and can signal some openness to further contact and communication. Even for those of us who are interested in self-reflection, and in intimate communication, many of our contexts do not support or allow this. Working in a collegial setting, for example, usually does not allow for intimate inquiry or unburdening self-revelation. And yet, if there is only communication about the task at hand, there will likely be an atmosphere of detachment, and a diminished sense of investment in the work or in the collaboration. Small talk tends to grease the wheels, whether it’s “did you see Brady’s pass to the endzone with no time left on the clock?”, or “what a great color for you”, or “did you have a good weekend?” We’re less interested in the answer (we probably don’t want a recitation of what our co-worker did on the weekend – “great” is the desired answer) than in fostering an atmosphere of friendliness. In some contexts, that’s as far as it goes, and may be as far as we want it to go. We have established a sense of cooperation and good will, which will make our day more pleasant and our access to collaboration more fluid.

Cliché layer interaction may also lead to deeper contact. If there is a sense of openness on both parts, as well as an interest in more “connection”, conversation that is more personal can develop, and more shared activities/experience can evolve. It is unlikely in almost any setting that personal conversations can emerge without first laying the ground of the initial transitional small talk. This may be one reason why so many of my patients tell me of the awkwardness of meeting people to date on line. While there is a great supply of possible connections, and there are pictures and bios available, along with stated life goals and values, there is a sense of disconnectedness that many people report. The ordinary process of feeling attraction, establishing contact – often regarding non-consequential topics, while “feeling out” the other’s receptivity and interest, can heighten excitement while laying the ground for further contact.

But, unfortunately, there are many people who establish and maintain personal relationships without utilizing Cliché layer as a testing out and a transition, but as the limits of communication. In this experience, excitement is deadened, uncertainty is eliminated, and safety and predictability is held as a premium. The vitality of living life is sacrificed.