Why Small Talk Has Gotta Go
Less chit chat and more connection please.
Although it’s been over a decade since I was running from frat house to frat house, engaging in college life and thoroughly enjoying it, my memory of that chapter is crystal clear. Those were the days I first discovered how mastering small talk would be a critical necessity for social acceptance. College kids were coming from all areas of the country, making this ‘small talk communication’ an easy conversation starter.
And I was good at it. In fact, I was scary-good at it all the while no one knew just how much I absolutely despised it. This form of communication followed me (or I followed it) not only at frat parties but well into my twenties, at bars, on dates, and any social circle that felt phony or forced. That’s not to say it was at all bars or all on dates, but there were plenty of places I went or people I surrounded myself with, that would often feel entirely surface level. I felt like a misfit when from the outside I imagine I presented myself with confidence and poise. Being ever-so-present to whomever I was engaging in when really not giving a shit while superficial questions or responses would flow out of my mouth. By the end of it, I was depleted of any authenticity I may have had left.
Here’s what I mean:
Guy/Girl at bar: “So what do you do?” As they refuse to even make eye contact and are looking around somewhere behind me.
Me: “Oh, I’m a dental hygienist, what do you do?”
(Filling silent void, feeling obligated to return the question).
Guy in the elevator at work: “Hey Jackie, how are you?”
Me: “Good thanks.” As he jets off to his floor.
(He didn’t really care how I am, maybe just his habitual way of saying hi)?
Girl I barely know starts gossiping about another girl I barely know who may or may not be coming to the same bar or hang. I contribute to the gossip maybe ’cause I think I should or I have nothing else to say.
(Where are my friends and how did I get stuck in this)?
Guy I just met continues to talk about himself to once again fill the silence.
(Or attempt to impress me. I’m convinced it’s both).
We’ve all been in those scenes, and there are countless more. Some of us being better at staying in them than others, some of us never noticing these interactions to begin with, and the rest of us dying a little inside once we’re caught in them.
I often wonder why our society at large, is so afraid of real talk. Why does pointless talk, or small talk, seem to come easier for us? Why do we ask questions when we don’t care what follows? When really all many of us want to know when we meet someone, man or woman, truly are: “What are your passions? What gets you excited? Where was the last place you visited that completely lit you up inside?” And why are we even scared to admit that that interests us more than, “What do you do? or how much money do you make?” I’m not at all saying none of the latter are often interesting, I’m saying those surface-level questions are frequently just things asked to pass time, avoid silence, or even worse, to determine if we want to even continue the conversation at all.
It wasn’t until my late twenties when I decided: I’m not putting myself in any social circle again where my highest self is jeopardized or drained. Those crowds I find myself in from time to time where there is absolutely nothing in common or of interest, so thus the small talk begins. Or at least I’m going to try. My breath and most importantly my time is more valuable than pretending to be engaged. I’m also increasingly aware of how uncomfortable those settings make me feel at age thirty-two. How my interests in others from a college kid perspective and well into my twenties, have flipped a one-eighty in my early thirties. And I sit well with that, it feels more than okay.
Let me roll back a bit and say that I recognize the necessary aspect of small talk in certain environments. It can ease us into a conversation before an interview, with new coworkers, meeting your friend’s boyfriend for the first time and those we meet in social gatherings. I get that. But may we venture to ask ourselves the intention behind the question or the answer. What are we actually trying to gain from even speaking with this person at all? May we not feel forced into a circle or a scene we don’t find true, authentic, and interesting. And if we do (and we will), may we kindly walk away or do what it takes to bring that real talk back in. Finally, may we practice both asking and listening with intent, rather than merely seeking approval or to pass time.
At this point in my life, I crave human connection more than any drink, drug or even cheese. (Hard to believe, I know). I yearn for the human experience where we listen and talk without saving a seat for our phones at the table. Where we can be the only couple of people in a hectic space but it feels like we’re all alone. When hours have passed by and you’re already three bottles of Champagne down with your best friends at a busy bar, with no clue who’s walked in because you’re too engaged to care. When my boyfriend tells a story and he’s not even aware he’s smiling with his eyes, but I notice it the entire conversation. When my dad asks me 100% of the time I see him, if I’d like to join him at Starbucks to just sit down and talk. Or when I travel to another country all alone and meet a girl from China, who suddenly starts to stream tears when I ask her to take a photo of me at the famous Blue Lagoon in Iceland. There’s a language barrier and today I am not sure why she was crying but she needed that hug and I made a point not to let go right away.
See, we don’t need small talk. We don’t even need to speak the same language to understand the powerful innate need of human connection.
Touching. Eye contact. Smiling at strangers. Walking with our heads up instead of down in our phones. Allowing our presence to be seen and felt.
My dad once told me his grandfather, my great-grandfather, advised him that “when someone is taking their time to talk with you, you owe it to them to listen”. We can translate this in different ways, but it’s a practice I continue to try on for size. It’s incredible what we can learn from eachother when we refrain from small talk and dive a little deeper into the meaningful stuff. Whatever that stuff means to you. I imagine it feels different on both ends. I believe it’s an aspect of the human experience that each of us need whether we are fully aware of it or not.
May these words at the very least, vibrate you slightly higher, making that shift when small talk begins and noticing when it’s gotta go.