I don’t like small talk.
I can appreciate a casual, friendly conversation, and I like to think I’m a pretty good listener. But it’s hard to enjoy small talk because I’m not very good at it.
Part of the problem is that I can’t relate to most of it, as I have very little in common with other people. I don’t care about sports. I don’t like modern entertainment. I have no wife or kids to talk about, no funny stories to share, and probably no personal plans for the weekend. I spend most of my time reading, writing, even drawing; and while those make good pastimes, they don’t make for very good conversation or social opportunities. Bottom line: I’m not very interesting (at least on the outside).
But the bigger problem is, I hold a worldview that most of our society has abandoned – and I actually take it seriously. So I do have things to say on most subjects – just not what people want to hear. When they talk about their wasted time at the casino, the trashy TV shows they’re binging, or their children’s awful behavior, I don’t want to laugh like everyone else or nod along for the sake of being agreeable; I want to express my disdain. That means potentially offending someone (or everyone), and it means having a much deeper discussion than the kind I’m talking about.
And that’s just fine with me. I prefer deep discussion. Since there’s not much to talk about in my own life (and even if there was), I would rather talk about something that really matters. Small talk, to me, feels like an intentional distraction – which is fine when it’s not the majority or the entirety of our thoughts and conversation. Most people claim to care about important issues and even still profess deep-seated beliefs. But in the words of Jesus, “out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.” If we only talk about superficial nonsense, it probably means we don’t care enough about what lies beneath.
Much of what passes for “deep” discussion is really just a lot of empty talk. We might agree that so-and-so should’ve been treated better or that such-and-such is a crying shame, but it’s sort of an unspoken rule that we’re not allowed to express unpopular points of view. When the body of a missing person is found, we can all express sympathy and anger, but we can’t, for example, say very much about the causes or implications of the event without prompting someone to change the subject. Suggesting that the victim (or even the perpetrator) made terrible life choices might force us to reflect on our own.
Over the past several decades, we’ve decided that really meaningful topics – the dreaded “politics and religion” – are off limits because they’re too controversial. As a result, our society is increasingly unable to discuss (or therefore understand) them at all… which in turn means we’re too uninterested to try. The superficial nonsense is less stressful and more fun, so we fill our time with that. And now, I’m afraid we’re too silly and self-centered to know why it matters. We don’t ignore current issues just to avoid confrontation; we legitimately care more about the fluff and filth than we do about understanding the world or the human race – or even God.
We tend to use small talk as a way of breaking the ice and getting to know people. I understand that logic to an extent – like asking someone where they’re from or if they have a family. But knowing someone’s favorite color, food, and movie doesn’t tell me very much about you as a person – unless you’re extremely shallow. The only way to really know who you are is to find out what you believe in and why. We’re usually afraid to ask those questions now; and if we do ask, we’re afraid to give an honest response. So we steer clear of serious discussion until we accidentally find out what we need to know about one another.
In the past, it was more common to engage new people in conversation about their personal views. Now, if we’re interested in those things at all, we’re afraid of stepping on a land mine (and I’m speaking for myself here too, much as I regret it). But relying on small talk is backwards, in my opinion. I would rather shoot the breeze with people I know. It’s more fun when you’re already familiar and comfortable with one another. And the only kind of small talk I really enjoy is the kind that’s free to go where it will, without having to worry about offending someone or wondering what they really think.
I can talk about Star Wars at length. But I’m not a child anymore. If I’m going to waste time discussing it, it might be about more than Ewoks and Jar Jar Binks. I may want to talk about how poorly crafted Rey’s character was just because she was a woman; or how George Lucas tried to make a political point through Obi-Wan Kenobi and contradicted himself; or how the idea of neutrality between the dark and light sides of the Force is repulsive; or even how Darth Vader’s redemption is a moral absurdity, given that he only chose to save the one person he cared about (which is selfish) after failing to kill him twice and murdering billions. But it’s no fun talking to someone who disagrees for no reason, who has to change the subject because they have no counter-argument.
Maybe I’m strange, but if I want to get to know someone, I would rather launch right into their opinion on God and government and how it impacts their lives. If we agree, fantastic. If we don’t, that’s fine too; I’m always up for a friendly debate. It gives us a chance to explain our perspective to someone who may not have heard it before; and maybe we’ll learn from each other. Either way, small talk will be less awkward – dare I say, less necessary – if we really know and understand each other on a deeper level.
I’m not naïve. I know that “friendly debates” often turn hostile. But I think the cause and effect of this problem are the same: not actually engaging in real conversation to begin with. Whether you believe in gun rights or gun control – maybe a bit of both – you may not understand the issue very well if you’ve never heard an intelligent case from the other side. (Believe me, this was my experience a few years ago on that very debate.) If you don’t know how to have a conversation with someone you disagree with, maybe the solution would be to have one. Let them explain their side while you listen.
Believe me, it makes for much more fulfilling conversation. And if we truly care about improving our society, the best way to start is by improving our own character and personal experiences.
And for the record, I’m not asking people to avoid talking to me. I’m just asking you to find a more challenging topic from time to time, for everyone’s sake. Find something you’re passionate about – the more controversial, the better – and ask me what I think. Just be ready for an honest answer… and be prepared to tell me why you disagree.