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?”