“MY STRUGGLE WITH AMERICAN SMALL TALK”

“American life is based on a reassurance that we like one another but won’t violate one another’s privacies. This makes it a land of small talk. Two people greet each other happily, with friendliness, but might know each other for years before venturing basic questions about each other’s backgrounds. The opposite is true of Indians. At least three people I’ve sat next to on planes to and from India have asked me, within minutes, how much I earn as a writer (only to turn away in disappointment when I tell them). In the East, I’ve heard it said, there’s intimacy without friendship; in the West, there’s friendship without intimacy.”

Ya, I’m not a fan of small talk. For a brief time in college I thought I was good at it, but that was because I was surrounded by people who were willing to be a little introspective and who were unafraid to stray from the script. When I entered the working world, I realized that I actually have a very limited tolerance for pleasantries before something more interest has to happen. It feels like I’m letting strangers suck all the positivity out if me; with people I wanted to get to know better, it felt like we were wasting our time and exhausting each other for no reason.

This morning, the driver of my Lyft suddenly told me that one of his childhood friends had died the day before. We hadn’t spoken much before that moment, just some directions, and we only had 5 minutes left in the ride but we talked about grief and being far from home and shared a moment of vulnerability with each other. It didn’t need small talk to get there, and it was real human connection.

When people tell stories like that, they are usually trying to make the point that ~we could all connect if we were just more open with strangers~. But I felt more like I had just had a special experience, one that definitionally can’t happen with every interaction with a stranger.

So let’s admit what we’re doing with small talk: trading those rare, genuine moments of spontaneous honesty for consistent and minimally-uncomfortable silence-fillers.

Related: “A Neurotic’s Guide to Small Talk”; “30 Questions to Ask Your Kid Instead of “How Was Your Day?”

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