You ever listen to someone describe why he or she dislikes small talk?
The reasoning usually goes something like this:
1. "I'm _______ type of person."
2. "Therefore, I have a particular conversational preference."
3. "Small talk violates that preference."
4. "Therefore, I prefer deeper conversations over small talk."
It's pretty logical.
After all, small talk in just about any social context can feel pretty limiting right?
"So how was your week?" "What do you do again for a living?" "What school and year are you? Major?" "How's the family and church?"
Yeah, it's not that exciting.
Engage in small talk around a bunch of familiar people? It can feel shallow.
Do small talk around a bunch of unfamiliar people? It can feel repetitive.
It can also be draining.
Small talk, after all, doesn't facilitate the best environment for others to pour into you through encouragement or transparency. Rarely do people leave a series of small talks thinking, "Wow, the human soul, just, wow."
Instead, doesn't it kind of feel like someone threw a stapled series of random newspaper clippings at you? Someone is "fine" while another is "tired." Someone had breaking news about a new job or internship opportunity while another person's game recap from the previous night felt eerily plagiaristic of the sports section.
I totally get why some people despise small talk and would rather opt for "deeper" and more meaningful conversations. One-on-one's are my conversational preference too.
But I just can't help but wonder if our disdain for small talk reveals a little bit of our self absorption rather than a fair assessment of a legitimate and necessary type of human interaction.
Here's what I mean.
1 . small talk requires you to step outside of your own interests
Imagine seeing someone you recognize and decide to walk over to "shoot the breeze."
You know what you wouldn't do?
Walk over and start talking about everything you want to talk about.
Why not? Because we deem that to be socially unacceptable. We would say that's rude and self-centered.
But isn't that precisely why we don't like small talk? We don't like it because we can't talk about whatever we want to talk about. When we engage in small talk, we know we have to step outside of ourselves, our interests and personal desires. Basically, we have to be selfless.
Isn't it interesting how we'll hold to certain social values (selflessness) while wanting to violate them at the same time in the name of another value (comfort)?
Small talk is remarkable because it's this free-flowing social dance where two people try to lay aside their own preferences and interests to inquire of the other person's interests, where one person is essentially saying, "What would you like to talk about? I give you permission to drive the conversation."
Isn't that virtuous?
So when you ask someone, "Hey! How was your week?" That's a big deal.
You're telling that person, "Hey! I really want to talk about my week but I'm gonna let you dictate the conversation."
And the crazy thing is, by asking that question, you're potentially forfeiting the opportunity to talk about yourself completely because he or she could spend the entire time talking about him or herself.
But let's be honest, who wants that?
Isn't it easier to leave the social gathering, avoid the awkward small talk moments, get together with the same old friends so we can talk about our favorite subject in the entire world - ourselves?
But small talk puts all of that in jeopardy.
2. Small talk requires you to listen more than being listened to
You know what will ruin a small talk moment as soon as it begins?
A disengaged listener. Why?
Because there's limited conversation storage. The two people don't really know each other that well so if one person tunes out, the conversation could end awkwardly any moment.
But small talk requires us to really listen. Yes, to the words. Yes, to the tone of the words. And arguably even more importantly, the words they're not saying, the things they're actually saying "in between the lines" if we're really paying attention.
And listening is tiring. It is exhausting.
And oftentimes, it's a one way street isn't it? Where you really end up listening to someone, but you're not really heard. Why? Because the other person is a poor listener or you listened so well, they opened up more than they ever imagined themselves to?
"And that's why it's not worth it! I heard a bunch of stuff about them, but they didn't take the time to get to know me."
Wait, but isn't that beautiful? You got to better know another human being.
And odds are, they left thinking, "Wow, that person is awesome. I felt so heard and listened to, I should hang around her (or him) more often."
So in their mind, you are way more awesome because you listened rather than if you had stood there and blabbered about yourself for 10 minutes.
We feel great when we talk about ourselves, but that doesn't mean we're perceived that way.
Listening is way more winsome than blabbering social morale into the ground.
3. small talk requires YOU to ask thoughtful questions
One of the hardest things about conversations is asking thoughtful questions.
It's difficult because it presupposes two things.
First, it presupposes good listening. You can't ask good questions if you don't have any connecting material to continue the conversation from. Secondly, it presupposes genuine interest and curiosity. It requires strain in sustained interest out of sincerity and maybe this is where most small talk conversations die. Why?
Because we're not that curious and interested in others.
Why aren't we?
Because we're more interested in ourselves.
See, I have a theory and it's a depressing one. I think in most social settings the average person is more curious about other people being curious about them (inward focus), rather than being curious about the very people they're surrounded with (outward focus). So we almost wait for someone else to inquire about us and feel discouraged when people don't pry into our lives rather than taking the selfless initiative to inquire about someone else.
I felt a tinge of sadness after typing out that paragraph.
Small talk is challenging because we have to be genuinely interested in the other person. We have to really wonder. We have to have an itch about that person that catapults a question to be flung out from our flashing brains through our vocal chords. And as the other person answers and gives us more data, it should increase further curiosity which causes more questions to be flung in their direction.
But when's the last time someone asked you a series of really thoughtful questions? When's the last time you asked someone good questions?
I sympathize with your answers if you're drawing a blank because asking questions is difficult. It's a social muscle that must be developed.
I realized this is why I say so many conversational filler phrases like, "Yeah man. Totally." "Dude, I feel you." My mind is trying to formulate questions and I'm subconsciously filling in conversation space through surfer vernacular forms with the hopes of de-pressurizing awkwardness, thereby generating more awkwardness, and therefore more, "No way, that's insane man" slogans as I commit the error of run on sentences, while inadvertently breaking the 4th wall as I stumble into the conclusion.
Before you think I'm just being critical, please know this is really my confessional.
I used to be this guy. I used to trumpet my dislike for small talk. I was all about the "deep" one-on-ones.
Don't get me wrong, I still love one-on-one conversations, but I just think it's a misnomer that they're necessarily better or more profound than small talk conversations.
In fact, a lot of one-on-ones can be pretty shallow from a quality standpoint considering how much of it is senseless gossiping and child-like venting. And some small talk moments are actually pretty deep if you consider what someone actually shares.
This is because depth or shallowness of a conversation is largely determined by its context.
This is why automatically equating small talk as being "shallow" and one-on-ones as being "deep" is a mistake. It just really depends based on various factors.
Both conversation types have their rightful place in the realm of social engagement.
They're different forms that serve different purposes and outcomes and we have to honor that.
So if this is providing some cognitive dissonance, here are two simple encouragements in closing.
1. Be fair to each and every social interaction.
If you find yourself in a one-on-one context and that's your bread and butter, dive in and have a blast.
But if you're in some type of social or church function, don't pout or too quickly surrender to your discomfort or insecurity.
Go talk to someone. Smile. Laugh at yourself. Engage.
You may be surprised by how refreshing those moments can be if you give it fair treatment.
2. Earn deep conversations by treading through the shallow ones.
It's reasonable to want transparency from another person. Just know, it's earned.
It's earned as you first meet and tread with them through the shallow waters by asking good questions, listening well, and taking a sincere interest in who that person is.
And if you're unwilling to meet them where they are, don't expect them to tread with you in the deep waters. No one appreciates those who feel entitled to the transparency of everyone else.
Instead, just enjoy the company of people in whatever context you may find yourself in. This will take the pressure off of having "deep" relationships while potentially initiating the very forging process of some.
I think Jesus was the master of small talk.
Whether he was talking to someone at a wedding feast before turning water into wine, or meeting a prominent religious leader late in the night, or asking for a drink from a socially ostracized woman at a water well at noon, I think Jesus was genuinely interested in other people.
Of course, he was. Jesus was selfless.