Looking Up: Small Talk

Opinion by Nina M. Chung
Oct. 20, 2010, 12:21 a.m.

Looking Up: Small TalkHi!

How are you?

And this, dear readers, is the beginning of a very unique conversation. Can you figure out why?

…Once upon a time, I was convinced I was bad at small talk. I remember being on the tennis team during freshman and sophomore years of high school, feeling horribly dysfunctional. I couldn’t understand why it was so difficult for me to flow with the other girls’ conversations. It was the most basic thing. What was wrong with me that I couldn’t operate a simple chat about some person’s clothes/that ridiculous teacher/some shocking hook-up? They were the easiest things.

Events like New Student Orientation were similar ordeals: brief, unnaturally people-dense spectacles where names fly like bullets in the battle of quick!<\p>–<\p>get-acquainted. I was never at ease. I honestly didn’t want to suffer an overly friendly encounter with another person who had just played the same scripted scene with someone else a minute ago. Ominously, though, it seemed like conversational prodigies abounded all around me.

So, for a long time, I was certain I lacked the causal skills.

Now, I realize that what I actually hear the most are dead dialogues between people who will clearly forget them immediately after they part. I hear the mechanic “Hey, how are you.” I hear the “Good!” response and the “You?” and the echoed “Good, good.” I hear flat “Awws” volleyed back to unfortunate news and automatic, toneless varieties of “Good luck.” It’s too empty, too often.

It’s not possible to genuinely care about everyone else’s life all the time, but we act like it is. Maybe some think it’s better to say anything rather than nothing at all—lest we suffer the universally hated “awkward” phenomenon. Plus, it’s true that not every conversation is the stuff of epic novels, of great metaphors and philosophy. Ultimately, our everyday encounters can’t all be significantly memorable—yes, this is all undeniable. But at the same time, if the conversation isn’t going to be real, what’s really the point in pursuing it? It feels like such a waste of breath to pretend we care about someone else’s happenings when we’re not going to think twice about it afterwards. Why the social self-lies?

Over time, my definition of “awkward” has narrowed, my appreciation for silence has soared, my love for honest people has grown…and my tolerance for self-justifying chitchat has hit rock bottom. I realized how much I disliked being the victim of circular conversations and assumed-answer questions. So I stopped doing them to other people. And somehow, I hardly ever find myself in those fake situations anymore.

When I’m curious about him, I’ll talk to the guy I don’t know next to me in class. When I see my hallmate in the bathroom in the morning, I’ll ask her about her day because I hope she had a good one—I wouldn’t wish anyone anything less. But, of course, as I said before, it would be a complete lie if I said that at all times, I have mental space to consider someone else’s circumstances. Or that I can connect with everyone through interests we don’t actually share. At those times, though, I’m completely happy keeping to myself. I used to be insecure I’d be considered anti-social by someone who encountered me in those moments…until I realized that at that moment, yeah—I didn’t want to talk. And doesn’t that make so much sense?! If I forced myself to just blurt out whatever, it would be the most meaningless conversation ever, and to me that’s essentially a lie with a great smile. An old friend once told me I was the most anti-social social person she knew…and I like that possibility.

Thinking back on my former self-perceived bad small talk skills, I realize that it was ultimately discomfort with pretending: pretending I was into the topic of the moment, pretending I was intrigued by someone’s house party mishaps, pretending I was in a great mood when perhaps I was far from it. But I avoid pretenders, and I don’t ever want to be one.

I’m sure that from the outside, some of my conversations with people may look like small talk—about classes, or the summer, or a movie. But for me, it’s never small talk. I’m not fond of small talk, and that means that if I’m not interested, I’m not going to engage. So when I’ve decided to ask you how you are, I’d really like to know! In reality, it’s a pretty big question to ask, isn’t it?

Well? How is your Wednesday going? Nina is genuinely curious, because good days are great and bad days can change. Let her know, at [email protected].

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