For a long time now I’ve held the belief that life is too short for small talk. Small talk is a topic which caters to the lowest common denominator of discourse: the weather, sports, TV shows, celebrities, etc. You are unlikely to offend anyone by choosing such “safe” topics, and you are equally unlikely to learn anything of importance about the person you are talking with. What you are least likely to achieve is any level of connection with another human being, which is the basic need that we as social animals desire. To me, it is amazing how some groups of people who label each other as “friends” can spend so much time together, and yet know so little about each other. By maintaining relationships at a superficial level of communication, little is risked (such as rejection, or establishment of social and personal obligation) while little is gained in terms of feeling close to another human being as a person, as a friend. We may know how many children they have, or what they do for a living, but we don’t know much, if anything, about what they think and feel about subjects like aging, sharing wealth with children and the community, moral values, struggles with the role of religion in life, or how they view their responsibility to those who have been less blessed in life than they.
I recently read a fascinating book by Po Bronson, with the title What Should I Do With My Life? The author asks this ultimate question from a variety of different people, and reports on their answers and their lives. The people he interviews are of all ages, come from all walks of life, and their answers are sometimes inspirational, sometimes thought-provoking, but never dull or forgettable, as almost all small talk tends to be. One of the many stories that struck me was that of a young woman who answered his questions all via phone or mail, and in the process, grew close enough to the author to invite him to her wedding in Texas. He in turn was sufficiently intrigued by her to attend. He meets a number of her friends the day prior to her wedding, and talks with them about her and their knowledge of her. In the course of these discussions, he discovers, much to his surprise, that there was a key story in her life which he knew about because of his interviews with her, but of which none of her friends seemed aware. The day of the wedding, he happened to have a moment alone with her, and asked how her friends could all be ignorant of this story which was so foundational to who she was as a person. She just smiled at him, and said a little sadly, “You were the only one who cared enough to ask.”
Think of the people you see, and how many of them have stories which are important, interesting, or essential to who they are as people, yet you have no knowledge of them because you never cared enough to ask, to broach subjects beyond the superficial surface on which so many acquaintances float, and which though numerous, remain unsatisfying. Why waste your time on the mundane, when there is a whole world that can captivate, inspire, or just cause you to reexamine that which you believe. Life really is too ephemeral to live inside a cocoon of ignorance.