In Defense of Small Talk
During my first few years of college, I did a lot of flying. Summers and breaks in Michigan. Falls, winters, and springs in Florida. Each flight was always saturated with so much energy: a new school year or finally getting to see my friends, family, and girlfriend again. But, without fail, I always got super awkward before every takeoff. Do I put in the headphones or get to know the sweet, old woman with the crossword puzzle? The choice would, approximately ninety-eight percent of the time, determine the course of my next two hours. It would be peaceful or painful. My choice.
So down I’d sit. God bless those times I got a window seat (the ultimate way to avoid eye-contact with all other human life) or the plane was like a ghost town, the closest person three rows down. But then the other times,there was a full house in every aisle. You know the ones: diverted eyes, awkward sweating, the automatic checking of an outdated Facebook feed - just the beginning of an otherwise surface-level conversation. Always to my surprise, though, these flights of small talk consistently led to so much more. My conversations with all these “plane” people brought me outside of myself and into their lives, broadening my depth of human experience.
These interactions make me think. I hear countless cries for #realness, steeped in a lot of “authenticity” rhetoric. Instagram brands, Twitter campaigns, friends and family, myself--we’re all yelling at the top of our lungs, pleading for substance. And that’s such a good, good thing. We crave something more, and so we should. But I feel this paradoxical tug: a dismissal of small talk as being easy or safe--even cheap--contrasted with a heart-wrenching groan for deeper connections. I see a logic that says small talk is the summer construction on the road to authenticity. But maybe it’s actually part of the solution, a segue into sincerity. Perhaps small talk isn’t the summer construction, but the highway itself.
Granted, small talk can many times be awful. But that’s only when I categorize and micromanage every aspect of my life (and others’). I can be so rushed, so self-focused, so relative to my own priorities that I forget to slow down and appreciate what’s happening outside of me. I become a snowballing mass of self-absorption, desperate for a dose of reality. Because when I'm doing life at hyper-speed, I don't really care about the weather, your mom's birthday cake, or that dude's favorite drink. But, somehow, when it's raining and I wanted a chill day in the sun, the weather suddenly matters. When it's my own mom, the cake must be delicious. When it’s my drink, so help me, it better have two creams and two sugars. And it dawns on me that small talk doesn’t feel so small when it’s about me.
When I was on one of those FL to MI flights, from school to home or back again, I sat next to an extremely compassionate, Jewish woman whom I knew nothing about. She was middle-aged, tan, black-haired, and wore two distinguishable, Star-of-David jewelry pieces. After I said a few, quick prayers and a cordial “hello” to my new neighbor, the take-off was safely below us. Thirty-thousand feet high, our introductions led to some chit-chat. And, to my horror, we were pretty locked into what I anticipated would be two hours of forced small talk, my only chance for respite being a run to the bathroom. Essentially, there was no hope. Not from any fault of this precious woman, but because I can, at times, be the worst kind of apathetic. I can too easily withdraw into myself.
But about a half hour in, I’d say, having exhausted every possible “tiny” topic (you know the ones: Any family? What are you studying? Why are you going to *insert destination*?), we broke past the mundane. I had made it past my itching desire to become an island unto myself. We were getting to know each other. She told me about her culture and heritage, and how she felt all students and humans can do good and make something of their lives. We began to transcend the status quo of hi-how-are-you conversations. By the end of the flight, we were exchanging contact information because she wanted to text me the address of a local record shop. And that was all pretty cool.
A cry for depth and meaning is refreshing, and it drives us towards making positive connections with those around us. But this yearning calls for deliberate effort. It asks me to step out of myself and into conversation - to participate. It asks me to put off my own rush of priorities and to put on another’s. Maybe that’s what kind of freaks me out, but we were--I was-- never meant for fear.
Thanks to pride, insecurity, doubt, anxiety, fear, and so many others, small talk can be cheaply used, to withdraw and ignore, becoming a conversational way to grab the window seat. I can use it to intentionally stay surface, to keep my problems locked away and yours at a distance. It can feel secure, but most lies do. And this lie has stolen small talk. But it doesn’t need to have the last word. Small talk asks to be re-imagined.
In some crazy zap of pseudo-thought, I was struck by this reality: nothing is pointless and everything--I repeat, everything--has a purpose. Your favorite music. How many siblings you have. Why the heck you’re even on this flight. It all matters. It just takes an intentional change of mindset to get down with this idea. A shift away from “lovingly” condescending to others, “graciously” giving up my time to hear them out, and a shift towards listening with excitement, a chance to understand and empathize with a real human being. To discover his or her story and just make a friend. We were made for community, to connect on a binding level with other souls, that same #realness we’ve all been searching for lately.
Enter ideas like love, joy, peace, and patience, realities that offer so much more to our hearts and minds. Our tools for reimagination, they leave doubts and anxieties in the dirt. They perpetuate the truth that you and your oh-I’m-good-self are important, and they cast a brighter vision over each little small-talking moment. By choosing to participate in the perceived mundanities of everyday, water cooler conversations, we can adamantly say, “I pick love today. I pick peace. I pick joy. And because this may start slow, I pick patience.” In doing so, we can voice, even in the small talk, the value of every human here, just by engaging and listening. And we might even stumble upon a groovy record shop too.
It’s that soul-stirring reality that changes the game completely. It reminds me that what I have to say about my coffee does matter. But not more than what you have to say about your coffee. In this tango of worth, we can finally see each other with eyes wide open. We get to show one another that you and I matter, but equally and authentically. Then, finally, we can lean into those crazy-boring conversations, taking every chance to create hope and spark depth, saying hello to more than just the window seat.