Talking About the Weather to Gain Trust

When I think back on the things that I believed as a self-assured young twenty-something, one of the more glaringly dumb ideas that comes to mind was my distaste for “small talk.” I even wrote an essay on this site pretty clearly (and aggressively) elaborating my reasons. Surely, there was some merit to it — even today I can find constant discussion of the weather, sporting events, or other recent news, kind of dull — but it was blind to a whole other facet of reality.

When I most enjoy a conversation, it’s when we’ve moved beyond the superficial and safe topics. It’s when we’re talking deeply about some topic that people don’t talk about much for fear that it exposes too much of themselves. Some of my most cherished conversations were ones about dealing with overwhelm, fear, or other traditionally protected topics.

Where my 21-year-old self was woefully stupid is that I thought it was either possible or desirable to just drop into a conversation with a stranger and expect to talk about something as deep as their spirituality or their highest aspirations for their time on Earth.

Most people are, understandably, protected and a bit apprehensive to dive in deeply very quickly. Time has taught them that they can’t and shouldn’t just trust every stranger with their deepest hopes and fears. This is a rational and understandable protection strategy. And even as I frequently pined for a world free of small-talk, I engaged in this very protection strategy. I just didn’t understand this logic of protection.

To disclose their deepest secrets to someone, anyone with a self-preservation instinct will want some assurance of safety. And for most people, trust that they understand a person, their drives, and motives is that assurance. And without some history of interacting with someone and having good outcomes result, people are unlikely to touch any topic that has a reasonable probability of leading to a bad outcome.

You disagree with someone about the weather and you laugh. You disagree with someone about politics, or the existence of God, or the fundamental purpose of life, and you may well want to strap in your seatbelt for an explosion. That — not stupidity, nor malice, nor vanity — is why many conversations are constrained to safe and dull topics.

Now I get that. And I’m getting better at, “Hello, stranger. Nice day isn’t it?”

trust carved into wall

Decreasing Fear by Increasing Trust

The thing about fear is that you feel it. Every part of your body is animated when you’re afraid. There’s a sound reason for this: you’re probably scared because you’re in danger. You’re probably in danger because something bigger, stronger, or more powerful than you is threatening. And in the face of this threat you’d probably benefit from being ready to fight or flee. So fear is there for you: tensing your muscles, putting everything on high alert.

And then you walk up and ask the girl, “Wanna go out on Friday?”

The evolutionary usefulness of fear is pretty easy to understand. The absurdity of most of the places it manifests in the modern world is also pretty easy to understand. But one of the core things I know is that the fact that such a gap exists doesn’t mean that we are able to get past the irrationality we know exists in the current situation.

When you trust that things will work out, whether in your life, or your afterlife, or the world that you leave behind, it’s much easier for you to face down fear.

One of the harder things about rational handling of fear is that we don’t really have a good handle on what to do with fear. It’s a really dominant biological sensation that gets in our way and makes it hard to do a lot of things. But it’s also so dominant that the best answer we typically have is to “power through”. And there’s clearly some usefulness in that “feel the fear and do it anyway” school. The intellectual gap is best handled in the present moment by not letting the biological response determine your action.

But I think there’s a more powerful, if slower, way to cope with fear: trust. This can feel a little out there, but I really do think there’s nothing more powerful as an antidote to fear than having faith and trust in something. How many Christian martyrs do you count, made strong by their faith God? How many activists do we admire who went on fearlessly because of their trust in the worthiness and purity of their cause?

When you trust that things will work out, whether in your life, or your afterlife, or the world that you leave behind, it’s much easier for you to face down fear. To know that your cause is worthy, that your actions are just, that you’re on the right side of the truth. With these on your side you can do things that astonish the rest of us, sitting worried about how we’ll pay the bills and where we’ll ever find the love we desire (but don’t necessarily feel we deserve).

Cultivating trust, though, isn’t easy. It’s a scary thing, to take the leap of faith that while this girl will turn down your request for drinks she won’t chastise you for asking. It’s scary to believe that while your boss doesn’t necessarily think you’re ready for a promotion just yet, she really does want to do what’s best for you. It’s sometimes hard to have the strength to believe that threatening-seeming actions of people may be their best attempt to deal with their fear. That your nonviolent resistance will convince the indifferent world of your humanity and right to be treated fairly.

This faith isn’t free, and it has its hazards. But if you’re looking to diminish the fear you feel in your life, starting to cultivate a trust in the things that make you afraid is almost certainly a great place to start. Can’t do that? Trust in something bigger than the thing you’re scared of and don’t yet have the ability to trust.

Think through the fear, feel into into it, make an effort to feel that trust. Offer that thing you’re scared of a bit of trust that it’s not as bad as you fear. Progress is likely to be slow: we make indiscernible amounts of progress in each attempt. But small changes add up, and  eventually you may be able to do the things that scare you without that slightest race of your heart.