You might do it in a dimly lit bar, or in the harsh fluorescent light of your office’s break room. It happens in coffee shops and cafes, over turkey at Thanksgiving and lox and bagels at Yom Kippur break fast. Wherever it occurs, schmoozing, or the art of small talk, has embedded itself into the American Jewish way of life.
It’s not so everywhere; one of the things that Israelis have always disliked most about Americans is the impression that when Americans interact with you, they always have a hidden agenda, an interest; not a genuine interest in you, but in something they can get from you.
In fact, contemporary American schmoozing can be defined as small talk with an agenda or a purpose. The American Heritage Dictionary defines the verb schmooze as: “To converse casually, especially in order to gain an advantage or make a social connection.” Merriam-Webster defines it as “to chat in a friendly and persuasive manner especially so as to gain favor, business, or connections.” There are other words and phrases with similar meanings—hobnob, rub elbows, and the like—but none seems to share the slickness of schmooze.
The word schmoozing has dark, convoluted roots. Schmooze traces its lineage back to Hebrew; shmu’ot (the plural of shmu’ah)are rumors, or worthless—potentially harmful—chatter.
In his 1999 Hebrew book, The Origin of Words, prolific Israeli scholar Abraham Stahl explains that schmu’es, the Yiddishized version of shmu’ot, became ubiquitous in Yiddish, denoting nonsense, baloney or worthlessness. Gradually, it made its way into other languages. In Polish, it became szmonces (pronounced “schmontzes”). Contemporary Polish dictionaries define szmonces as a quip, a sarcastic remark, or nonsensical speech; it can also refer to worthless, tchotchke-like objects. The Jews of Alsace-Lorraine, according to Stahl, used the rhyming expression schmontzes biriontzes, a mispronunciation of the French words pour rien dire (to say nothing, or to talk in vain).
The Yiddish schmu’es was so powerful that it also made its way into German, as well, and in two different forms: one negative and one positive. Schmu machen (literally: to make schmu), in outdated colloquial German, meant to cheat or, typically by telling half-lies. Contemporary German slang swindle has spawned a related negative expression: “so ein schmu,” meaning “what a load of crap.”
Schmooze has not always been so sinister as in its contemporary usage. Leo Rosten’s 1968 classic, The Joys of Yiddish, defines it as “a friendly, prolonged, heart-to-heart talk.” With time, however, this innocent form of communicating became more a goal-oriented verb than a benign or a benevolent noun. Rather than something that a mensch would do to lend a friendly ear, schmoozing now is a must-have skill for movers and shakers, whether in politics or in business. A quick search on the web will bring up at least a dozen “how to” books that include the words schmooze or schmoozing in the titles.
Power-schmoozing may have gotten its start in America but, like so many other Americanisms, it’s made its way into Israeli culture. Israelis, particularly business professionals, now use schmoozing (both the word and the action it denotes) as naturally as they use laptops. Ubiquitous as it is, Schmooze has finally made its way all the way back into Hebrew.
-Adapted from the original Moment article by Ori Nir