Small talk. It used to be reserved for awkward acquaintances and obscure relatives, but it’s gaining popularity. It’s now used almost anytime you run into anyone you know unexpectedly. It goes a little like this:
“How are you?”
“Really good, you?”
“Good. So, how are the kids?”
“Good. How about yours?”
“Yeah. Hey, listen, it’s so nice to see you. We should catch up sometime. Lunch, maybe?”
“I would love that! Call or text me. Let’s set something up!”
It’s such a great tool because it can be done with anyone, anytime, with any variations necessary. It’s easy to begin, easy to end, and keeps us squarely in the “well-mannered” category of humanity. But, I’m beginning to wonder if I use it too much.
Last month I went to my cousin’s wedding reception. I saw my aunt and uncle that I rarely get to see. I was fully prepared to shoot the bull because I have four kids, and there would be tons of people there for them to talk to as parents of the groom, and because small talk dominates every table top at every wedding ever.
They came over to our table and sat down. I turned to begin the “How are you’s” and my uncle stopped me with a very different kind of beginning.”You’ve been having a really tough time lately. I’ve been reading your blog, and it sounds like things have been really difficult for you. Tell me about that.”
He skipped all the niceties and went straight for the meat of what the “how are you’s” should have covered, but likely wouldn’t have because I would have stayed on the surface. Bless him for asking more from me than my surface.
What followed was an in-depth talk about my experiences, and my feelings about my experiences. He asked deep questions, he expressed interest and concern and it didn’t take much longer than the surface crap would have taken. Also, it took less energy because I didn’t have to put up any walls. And I felt loved. Genuinely cared for.
Crazy awesome, right? But then, that was in a situation where we had time. And there were treats to keep my kids occupied for a bit while I chatted. It’s not always reasonable to dig deeper into someone’s soul in the grocery store, for instance.
Last week at the mall I ran into a really good friend from high school. I was sure the traditional small-talk would put up a wall we’d have to tear down to have a proper conversation. But we were at the mall with our kids, we didn’t have time for a proper conversation. Except, she never gave me her surface. She said, “I really want to catch up with you, and I don’t have time right now. Dang it! Can we do lunch or a phone call soon?”
She didn’t have a pretend conversation with me. She defended her time boundaries without throwing up a small-talk wall. I felt loved. Genuinely cared for.
So I’ve been watching. Some of my friends are so good at connecting, and I think it’s because they’ve ditched the small talk. What if, in using small-talk as a time-management tool we are inadvertently putting distance between ourselves and people we could build or be built by, without actually saving ourselves time. We are giving the politest parts of ourselves, without leaving an opening for the deeper truths and connections. How much different would it be if we could feel comfortable answering a “how are you?” with “I’m so freaking tired, I think my husband is constantly disappointed in me and my kids secretly wish my neighbor was their mom.”
I’m willing to bet it wouldn’t add that much time to the rote memorized dialogue we’d have if we held the truth back. I’m also willing to bet it would add a level of depth and connection to each other that just might surprise us. And build us.
So, when you ask me how I am, buckle up. I’m going full-blown uncle Carl with this. I’m going to give you more than my surface, and I can’t wait to get the same from you.