During the loneliest stretches of pandemic isolation, when I spent ages eternal locked in my studio apartment eating canned chili and descending into my most feral state, I missed a lot of things. Thrift stores. Dinner parties. Riding the el. But the thing I missed with the most startling acuity, as if a vital organ had been ripped from my body: small talk.
I’m talkin’ tiny talk. Miniscule dialogues with Uber drivers or baristas or nail techs. The kind of communications that leave your brain as soon as they wrap up. Small-talk naysayers label these conversations as a waste of time, but after such a long stretch held apart from them, I can see the truth clearer than ever. Small talk rules! As my post-vax, real-world interactions ramp up, I’m finding real joy in saying “TGIF” to my doorman every single Friday.
Listen, I love all talk. My favorite drinking game is a good conversation. Big, deep, necessary exchanges have their time and place. Man cannot live on platitudes alone. But I don’t need to discuss my traumas with my dental hygienist. My neighbor in the elevator does not need to know my beliefs on God.
I want to talk about how today it’s cloudy, but yesterday we got some sun, and—hey!—the weather app says this weekend will be hot! Doesn’t that sound so soothing, like playing Candy Crush on easy mode? Just a perfunctory motion, all the pieces falling into place. Talking about the weather is a free space on your conversational bingo card. Everyone experiences it, it’s always changing, and even your deepest-held opinions won’t offend anyone. No one’s going to dox you for bragging about how actually you love the rain.
Once, at a party, I got stuck talking to a girl who immediately jumped into soul-searching questions. When was the first time you experienced a sense of self? I took a gulp of wine from a red Solo cup and glanced around the room. If that question had a preamble, I might have answered. Instead, I felt put off and on the spot. We’d just met. Asking me to open up on that level felt a little presumptuous. We were supposed to talk about how the week was dragging, and then we were supposed to debate Jewel-Osco versus Mariano’s, and if we were vibing, THEN we could compare our senses of self.
Over last COVID-19 winter, I started a habit of talking to myself out loud in my apartment. I’d catch myself whispering as I moved through my kitchenette: “Does she want a little peanut butter sandwich?” She did.
But for the most part, my private monologue was not small talk on any level. It was soul-searching and self-reflection, unhinged and cyclical, a hall of mirrors that I wandered through day after day. After a few weeks of this, I texted an extroverted friend my complaints, and she said, “Low-stakes social interactions are my oxygen.” Now that I’m moving carefully through the world again, I’m gulping down these inconsequential moments.
Maybe you don’t hate small talk. Maybe it just intimidates you. The good news is that small talk is really just a game, and the rules are easy to learn. Trader Joe’s cashiers didn’t pop out of the womb knowing the exact quip to drop about your Gummy Tummies Penguins. If you want to engage in small talk, your job has two prongs: 1. Be pleasant. 2. Keep responding. Just think of it as the worst improv comedy show you’ve ever been to, an eternal “Yes, and . . . ” with no required punchlines. Being clever can be a bonus, sure, but mostly you just have to sustain the interactions. Keep it simple, baby. Lean on clichés! If it sounds like two poorly programmed AI bots having a chat, then you’re doing it right. Enjoy the ride, and don’t drag it out. The perfect conclusion to any small-talk moment is the elegant, functional “Have a good one.”
There are so many big, scary, valid things to worry about all the time. What a relief to talk about your favorite La Croix flavor with a deli clerk who will never know your name. There’s a distinct pleasure in hitting the rhythms of a conversation, even if the actual contents don’t matter so much.
When I say I missed small talk, what I really mean is that I missed people. The community I pass through every day, not friends or even acquaintances. Strangers who are nice just for the sake of it. I missed their variety and predictability, their everyday interactions that keep the globe turning, the sweetness of a social contract where we agree to exchange a handful of pleasant sentences about our shared world.
So hey, it’s good to see ya! This week’s dragging, huh? Heard we’ll get some sun this weekend! Take it easy, man. Have a good one, OK?