Small talk in a small world can spell big trouble

Last updated 12:00 10/11/2012

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OPINION: Small talk can be boring. It can also be dangerous.

Not many people would claim to enjoy it, but it comes with the territory in social situations, and for those in high-profile public roles it is a pre-requisite.

The British Royal Family, of course, are experts. You suspect there must be a Royal Academy of Small Talk where exquisitely-mannered teachers put young royals through their conversational paces.

Some are better at it than others. The Queen seems to charm everyone she meets and that is a very large number as an entry on her diamond jubilee website shows.

Almost 1 million people have attended garden parties at Buckingham Palace or the Palace of Holyroodhouse. Even if she only met half of them, that is a mind-boggling parade of "Where are you from?", "Isn't the weather dreadful?" and "Do try the sandwiches".

Through all of that, it's hard to recall her putting her foot in her mouth, unlike her husband's legendary ability to do so.

For his 90th birthday last year, British newspapers recapped Prince Philip's top gaffes including to the Nigerian president, who was in national dress, in 2003: "You look like you're ready for bed!"

Former United States President George W Bush spawned a small industry based on his clangers such as: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?"

Now our prime minister is developing an unwanted reputation for gaffes. Whatever John Key did or did not tell a group of Dunedin schoolchildren about football star David Beckham may never be known - unlike the cup of tea saga before the last election there does not appear to have been a tape rolling.

It's widely reported that Mr Key said Beckham was handsome, and nice and all that but also as "thick as bats...".

Five days later, after the story had rolled around the world, Mr Key "categorically" ruled out that specific quote - it never made much sense anyway because the saying is usually either "crazy as bats..." or "thick as pigs...".

Whatever the excrement, it just comes across as unfunny, mean-spirited and embarrassing for the country.

Mr Key has a natural political gift for working a room and his everyman appeal is reflected in his seemingly indestructible popularity.

But perhaps in his eagerness to play to that appeal, to fit in, to be liked - he says some daft things.

The same day as his Beckham comment, Mr Key also made fun of a radio host's "gay red top", sparking criticism about the loose use of the word.

Mr Key says he picked up the usage from his teenage children, and believed it meant "weird", not anything derogatory.

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If it wasn't for Beckham-gate it may not have received much air.

The wider point is that whatever you say as a prime minister will get attention, no matter if it's in the House, over a cuppa, or chatting to a group of school students.

That his Dunedin comments were overheard - a reason Mr Key seizes on to refuse to go into detail about what he said - is hardly a surprise. The school visit was a public one, with several media organisations present.

In an age when comments fly around the world at the trip of a tongue, there is extra reason to be cautious.

Mr Key knows all this, he is a smart man.

But as George Bush might have asked: Are our prime minister learning?

- © Fairfax NZ News

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