The art of small talk isn’t hard to master. (Photo by Mark Peterson/Corbis via Getty Images)

David Sedaris: Small Talk

Plus: Lessons from the Prophets. Welcome to our new Saturday culture digest.

The news cycle can feel heavy. Since my colleague Olly Wiseman launched The Front Page on Monday, we’ve run several blazing reports about the protests rocking U.S. college campuses—as well as an op-ed from Frank Bruni on why living in this country often feels so wretched.

We at The Free Press don’t just want to inform and challenge you; we want to delight you, too—especially on the weekends. So from now on, that’s what we’ll aim to do with our new Saturday culture digest. We’re kicking off our first one with the most delightful man in the world, David Sedaris, and his charming piece about small talk. Read on to find out his favorite icebreaker of all time.

The New York apartment building Hugh and I live in isn’t terribly big. I wanted a nice view, so we’re on a high floor, the drawback being that we need to rely on the elevator—not for going down so much, but only my friend Dawn would carry a load of groceries up twenty flights of stairs. The building has doormen, so between me and the street there is definitely one, but more often, two or three occasions for small talk. Nobody likes this kind of thing. That said, there’s a definite art to it. 

Not long after we moved in, I was heading to the lobby, and a neighbor I would later get to know as Tommy boarded the elevator one floor below mine. He nodded at me, and as the doors closed I raised a finger. “May I ask you a question?” 

“Not if it’s about how much to tip the doormen at Christmas,” he said. 

That was exactly what I was going to ask. Quick, I thought, think of a replacement. “Can you recommend a cobbler?” I asked. 

Now it is five years later. I’m on my way to the lobby and when a woman boards at 14, I ask, “How long have you known your dentist?” 

She thinks for a moment. “Fifteen years. Why?” 

“Just curious,” I say. “I knew my old one for almost that long but then we moved to New York and I had to start over.” 

“And where did you move here from?” she asks. And then we’re off, pleasantly conversing until we part ways on the ground floor.


Prefer to listen? David Sedaris has spoiled us by reading his essay out loud. Click below to hear the recording:

And tell us your favorite icebreaker by emailing: The most amusing suggestions will be featured in next Saturday’s culture digest.

Recently, until today, Saturdays at The Free Press have meant one thing: The Prophets. These essays, about nine now-dead thinkers who predicted our current moment, clearly resonated with you: More than one-thousand of you became subscribers to The Free Press because of them. If you miss (or missed!) The Prophets, we’ve collected the entire package right here. And now, read on for the epilogue to the series by its editor, Prophet-whisperer Emily Yoffe.

For the past nine Saturdays, we brought you a new series called “The Prophets,” profiling thinkers from the past who proved uncannily prescient about our current moment. As the editor of the series, I promised in its introduction to offer “people whose words, work, and life illuminated something essential about the increasingly strange times we find ourselves in today.”

We began with technology visionary Marshall McLuhan, whose ideas were so prophetic, many of you responded with comments like, “I lost count of how many times my jaw dropped reading this.” Our piece on feminist Andrea Dworkin showed how far ahead of her time she was in sounding the alarm on how pornography warps sexual development. Just days after our profile of Dworkin appeared, The New York Times published a disturbing op-ed about the epidemic of choking during sex between young people. 

When it was my turn to write an essay, I chose pioneering birth control advocate Mary Ware Dennett. I was amazed that the same obscenity law she fought—and was prosecuted for in 1929—is being used by pro-life advocates trying to ban abortion pills sent through the mail in 2024.

I really appreciated the commenter who responded to the piece on our final prophet, French theorist René Girard, “Please do NOT stop this series. I find it fascinating and instructive.”

And so, today, we bring you one more piece, summarizing the lessons of the prophets.


If there’s a late prophet you wish we had profiled, or if you think someone still with us is a prophet of tomorrow, write to us at

We want to know what Free Press readers listen to, binge-watch, and read in the small hours of the morning. But first, to get the ball rolling, here are two recommendations from Free Press staffers:

Joe Nocera wants everyone to get jazzy with the new book, "3 Shades of Blue:” Written by James Kaplan, the author of the magisterial two-volume biography of Frank Sinatra, the book is about Miles Davis, John Coltrane and Bill Evans—three musicians who made the most influential jazz recording in history: the 1959 classic, “Kind of Blue.” If you've ever listened to the record (of course you have!) you'll find this a rich and rewarding read.

Jana Kozlowki needs you to know about the British TV show Gogglebox: This reality show depicts normal people sitting on their couches, watching and reacting to the week’s TV. It might sound boring or silly but—because the cast is diverse, clever, and incredibly charming—it is the height of entertainment. I never miss an episode and have parasocial relationships with the whole cast (Giles and Mary, a posh couple from Wiltshire who argue about shrubbery, are my dream mom and dad). You can watch it on Channel 4 with a VPN, or a lot of YouTube channels post new episodes when they come out.

Send us recommendations—for songs to sing in the shower or books to blow your mind—to

Freya Sanders is the associate editor at The Free Press. Read her review of Taylor Swift’s new album, The Tortured Poets Department, here.

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