Going beyond the small talk: a deck of cards to get us to go deeper
A conversation with Miguel Luis Calayan of So Cards
When’s the last time you went deeper with your conversations? How about with someone you just met? So Cards, a collection of 52 questions for deeper discussions, aims to get us all out of “comfortable isolation” and talking to each other more. The brainchild of filmmaker, Miguel Luis, each card is printed with an unconventional question designed to help us move beyond the average chit-chat and into more interesting territory. In addition to the cards, Miguel fosters an engaged So Cards Instagram community and hosts “Beyond Small Talk” events around the world. These events bring strangers together to discuss some of the cards, and hopefully, make meaningful new connections in the process.
Miguel believes that going deeper can do more than simply liven up our dinner parties. He believes it also has the potential to get us out of our bubbles in a time when we need it more than ever. We talk to Miguel about how he ended up with the job description of “getting people to talk for a living”, why it can be so difficult to engage in our modern world and how he begins to measure the impact of a good conversation.
What drove you to create So Cards?
I’ve always had a frustration with small talk and shallow conversation, both in the Philippines where I grew up and in Los Angeles, where I spent a good chunk of time. I always found it really difficult to keep up so I always had a mental list of questions that I liked to ask people. Instead of asking friends how they were, I’d ask them what the highlight of their week was, for example. Then one night in 2016 when I was wide awake from jet lag, I remembered this idea I always had involving questions and conversations. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with it exactly, but I decided to sit down and write out every question I liked to ask people. I ended up with around 100 questions. The next night I still couldn’t sleep and was thinking about what I could do with this idea. At that point in my life, my friends and I liked to play board games and card games, so I thought, “Okay, what if I turned this into a card game?” There are 52 cards in a deck so I cut the list down to 52 questions. By that point, the idea had latched on in my brain and I decided to really make something out of it. I got on Illustrator and made a design for every card and a week later my stepdad referred me to a printing company. It all snowballed from there.
What was your original intent with the cards? What impact did you hope to make?
My original idea was that these cards could be for parents. I was thinking a lot about the dinner table and how a lot of culture is built around it, but these days we don’t have that ritual as much anymore. I thought about making something that would make it easier for parents to talk to their kids — alternatives to “How are you?” or “How was school?”. So I initially tailored my questions to that, and I gave the cards to my siblings to give to their parent friends. As they were sharing it with their parent friends, other friends got ahold of it and were like, “This is neat. This is fun. Can you make a deck for everyone?”.
At the core of it, I believed that people wanted deeper conversations but either they didn’t know how to start them, or if they did, they found the process intimidating. To create a card game, felt like giving people a Trojan horse. It’s something very familiar and approachable. I wanted to make sure it wasn’t something that you would find in a guidance counselor’s office. It had to feel like something you would want to whip out at a party.
I believe that people want deeper conversations but either they don’t know how to start them, or if they do, they find the process intimidating.
How do you think about the impact of So Cards now that it’s caught on and evolved into its own community?
The way it evolved was all very organic. I never approached it with this giant blueprint of what it could and should be. All I had was a seed of an idea and a singular motivation: to make it easier for people to talk to one another and connect through conversation. To me, whether it’s through the game or at an event, if I can see that people have broken down their walls and can talk to one another in a way that’s genuine, I’m happy.
Do you think it’s more difficult these days for people to connect and have deeper conversations?
I think in a way it is. For a bunch of reasons. One is that our attention spans are a lot shorter, so we’re never really present enough to have these conversations, and we’ve also become a lot less comfortable with boredom. People are a lot less likely to just sit down and talk because half of our brain is always elsewhere.
Yes, there are a lot more distractions. There are always so many options. You could always be somewhere else; you could always be with other people. Even the way we consume is shallower. If I’m scrolling through Instagram and I like something, I’ll look at it for maybe a second, and it doesn’t mean anything. We no longer live in a culture in which we are taught to savor things. Just get it done and move on to the next. The same goes with conversations. I have this amount of time with this person: let’s talk, get all our pleasantries out of the way and then move on. It’s not very conducive to following a random trail of conversation and getting lost.
We no longer live in a culture in which we are taught to savor things. Just get it done and move on to the next. The same goes with conversations.
What do you think we can gain as a society from fostering deeper conversations and connections?
Here’s an example that really blew my mind. One of my favorite questions in the deck now is, “If there was a law imposed that you had to pass a test to become a parent, would you support it? Why or why not?” I’ve asked this question in a handful of cities now at my Beyond Small Talk events, and it gets fiery, because, in a way, it’s a derivative of the abortion question.
In Manila, where the pro-life/pro-choice discussion is pretty contentious, people were a little more comfortable talking about this question, which is an indirect allusion to it. Even so, there were still flared emotions, but as passionate as people got, their arguments never veered towards personal attacks. No one was ever really genuinely offended if their point was taken down. Everyone was there to listen to the other side and consider their position. When I took a step back, it felt like I was witnessing a very rare occasion where people from opposite ends of the belief spectrum could agree to sit down and listen to one another speak.
To create a safe space for these sorts of exchanges disarms people. It makes them less ready to dismiss others based on where they stand. It gets people out of their bubble and helps them find points of commonality, which they would not necessarily find if they were already turned off by someone based on something they said online. To have these deeper conversations gives people the ability to spot the truth between each other and use that as a foundation for friendship, rather than falling into the idea that if you and I don’t agree on this, there are plenty of other people that could be my friend. Beliefs, stances and ideologies aside, there’s always someplace you and I both come from, which is something we would not be able to reach if all our conversations were purely utilitarian, or just there to fill the silence.
To have these deeper conversations gives people the ability to spot the truth between each other and use that as a foundation for friendship. Rather than falling into the idea that if you and I don’t agree on this, there are plenty of other people that could be my friend.
How do you think ego factors into our ability to connect these days?
It’s a big thing. Ego can get in the way in a couple of ways. It can manifest as wanting to be the smartest person in the room or at the table, and then you don’t connect because you’re just monologuing, trying to inject as much insight as you have preloaded in your brain so people can bask in your awesomeness. But ego can also come in the form of being so afraid that what you have to say will not come off as brilliant enough or witty enough, that you’d rather not speak at all. The problem, going back to social media again, is that we assess a lot of things now by the amount of engagement we get: how many people viewed our story or liked our post. Whatever we say, we’re already putting it out there to be judged and assessed by others. I feel like that bleeds into the way we interact with people too, where a lot of people don’t think they have anything worthy to contribute unless they know it’ll be well received.
So, what does a good conversation look like?
Conversations should be playful. They should leave a lot more room for exploration. You should feel safe enough to tell a joke that may or may not be funny. It could be a total flop, but you know people will still like you. And if your ego is too much of a priority for you, if it’s so fragile, or too big that you need to protect it and make sure it stays intact, it’s not going to be as fun for anyone. At the beginning of each So Cards deck, there is a card that gives all the principles, and that’s one of the big things I mention: that we’re not here to prove how awesome, funny or brilliant we are. We’re just here to get to know another person and truly see who they are.
We’re just here to get to know another person and truly see who they are.
How has creating So Cards impacted your personal ability to connect with people?
So here’s the big irony I guess: when you turn your hobby into your work, it sucks a little bit of joy out of it, and whenever you get home, you want to do stuff that has nothing to do with your work. So now there are moments where I’m just like, “I don’t want to talk to anyone about deep shit.” There’s a strange level of expectation, I guess. This is a thing that I’m championing, so everyone expects me to be open. But there are days when I’m not and I’m not as ready to be vulnerable and talk to people.
I think that’s an interesting point about vulnerability. We hear a lot about the value of it these days, but there’s also a time and a place for it I suppose. Is it always something that we should be accessing?
We definitely need vulnerability. I think it is a prerequisite for us to experience life in its fullness. But also, vulnerability is so inconvenient.
In which way?
You lose control. You surrender control when you’re vulnerable. You’re at the mercy of who you’re with or what’s around you. You’re at the mercy of your thoughts and emotions and how they might affect your ability to function for the rest of the day. It’s strange. It’s something I’ve been promoting and pushing and wanting people to do more of for so long, but then there are moments when it’s just like, “Ugh. I like my walls.”
Well, I guess, it’s like everything. There’s a balance, right?
Yeah, and going back to how it’s affected my own ability to connect with people. It has made it clear to me that you can have deep, profound discussions with a person and that does not guarantee that you two will necessarily connect.
Interesting. Why do you think that is?
It’s tough. I don’t know. I think discussion can set a beautiful foundation. It can create a nice memory, but you can’t be complacent. In relationships, for the most part, unless you have this incredible chemistry, which is rare, it always takes effort. It always takes time.
How do you measure your impact with So Cards?
I measure it by the impact I see on a person. When I host the events, I have my way of gauging how good they are based on how long people tend to stick around after it’s done. At the beginning of the events, I tell everyone, “You can’t talk about work, school, news or the weather,” and at the end, I say, “Now, you’re allowed to.” But when I go around and eavesdrop and still no one has gone in that direction, I feel like things are working. It doesn’t feel like I’ve put shackles on them and now they’re relieved to take them off. It really feels like I’ve brought them into this other direction not previously considered.
So, in terms of impact, I don’t have a very concrete way of measuring it. I don’t pay as much attention to my numbers of followers. I’m honestly kind of bad at that. But when I receive messages from people detailing conversations they had with people they just met or when I meet someone who had special moments come out of playing the cards and they tell me a story of what they’ve discovered about their siblings or their significant other — that makes me think, “Okay, this thing does make a difference. It does mean something.”
> Learn more about this project at moments-of-impact.com.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.