Small talk is as American as apple pie, football or loving/hating our president.
Whether you’re walking into the most important job interview of your life or your local coffee shop waiting to be served by the most miserable-looking barista you’ve ever seen, you’re entering into one of our nation’s most ingrained and important rituals.
“Hi! How are you today?”
“I’m good, thanks! And you?”
I understand the reasoning behind it — in a perfect scenario, muddling through a few mindless sentences of small talk will lead to that “Aha” moment, a more concrete or meaningful platform to move on from. Politely navigating your way through chatter about traffic, the weather or your family might ease the transition into the more serious topic at hand.
And hey, every now and then you do meet that barista who really does want to talk about how your Tuesday morning is going before asking you what kind of milk you want.
I’m not opposed to small talk as a practice — when executed well, it enables you to find a connection, however superficial, that allows you to get more comfortable with the other person. It’s when people begin to view small talk as more of the final destination and not the journey that problems arise.
My freshman year I attended Wellesley, a women’s college outside Boston with an international population of almost 15 percent. During our week-long orientation, my friends from other countries weren’t exhausted from the hours of scavenger hunts, motivational talks and a tour of all the famous trees on campus — a very real, very long hour of my life I will never get back.
Instead, my one friend said she felt drained from simply having to converse about what she described as “nothing.” I remember walking back with her after yet another meeting that had begun with yet another tedious icebreaker. As we approached our dorm, she turned and looked at me.
“How are we supposed to know friends,” she said, “when all they want to ask is your favorite color?”
She talked about how she had never been asked how she was doing so many times in one day. How she had never resented silence before that week, how she was perfectly fine not talking to someone if there was nothing of value to say.
For all college freshmen, the prospect of making friends and finding your place can be scary, but for someone completely new to the surface-level skimmings of American conversation, it can be terrifying.
I was scared too. Growing up I was by far the quietest of my sisters, rarely elaborating beyond the bare minimum in a conversation. If someone asked how I was doing I might smile, say good, and ask how they were. But I wouldn’t be the one to start about the rain we were expecting or how delayed my train was.
I would feel guilty — I was ashamed of the pauses in conversations, the silence ringing in my ears as I wracked my brain to find something, however trivial, to bring up to keep the conversation going. I would dread long bus rides with classmates or talking in large groups, since I felt I was unable to find anything interesting or relevant to bring up.
Small talk is a dance over a frozen pond — you want to form a connection, maybe you want to impress or stand out, but there’s the unspoken fear of breaking through. We allow ourselves to be perfectly fine with just skating over the surface for the sake of keeping one another comfortable.
It can seem menial, simply a vehicle to the more important conversations. The danger arises when we become complacent, so afraid of going past the polite pattering that sustains our talks. It’s the fear of intrusion, fear of intimacy that mars our conversations.
We see it every day on campus, a place we want to consider a bastion of free thought and intellectual opportunity. We inherently shy away from talking about political views in class, instead allowing unspoken frustrations and differing opinions to be repressed until they reach a boiling point. We see female students hold back on their opinions to avoid sounding “bitchy,” and guys do the same so they aren’t seen as “douchebags.”
It’s when the people who have been our friends for years still feel guilty or ashamed of opening up, because they’re worried we might treat them differently if we talk about something more substantial than The Bachelor or going for a Dunkin’ run. It’s when we smile and tell our friends we’re “good,” not because we really are, but because we’d feel like we were burdening them with the real answer.
If the average human spends about 9.1 years of their life watching TV and 25 years asleep, how much time is wasted on the obligatory “How are you?” that goes with walking into a store or running into an old acquaintance. How much is lost afterward on that knee-jerk “good?”
America may be the land of the free, but all too often we allow ourselves to toil under the confines small talk.
Meg Kelly, ‘17, is the deputy news editor for The Brown and White. She can be reached at [email protected].