Join our Lenten Campaign 2024.
In the city of St. Louis, where I live, when we want to make small talk with someone we’ve just met, we ask where you went to high school. Outsiders despise this question. They don’t understand why we ask it or what the point is. Ironically, that distasteful reaction is precisely how we know you’re an outsider. Not that our city is an unwelcoming place. People from all over the world live here very happily and we love you all. If you were born somewhere else, we want to know about that place, why you moved to our city, and if you like it here. The high school question mostly annoys people because it seems like banal small talk. Who really cares where you spent four years of your life two decades ago?
I happen to love this question about high schools. St. Louis is a patchwork of small, diverse neighborhoods. With one quick exchange, I can learn what part of the city you grew up in, if we might have mutual friends, if we lived in rival neighborhoods, if you’re Catholic, or if you are from another part of the world entirely. It’s a neat way to dive into your origin story so I can get to know you, creating all sorts of conversational loose threads we can follow.
Soon enough, the question leads to free and easy conversation. Often it has the benefit of helping us avoid other far more awkward forms of small talk about, say, the weather (a conversational dead-end) or the dreaded, “So, what do you do” question. (No one wants to talk about work while at a party).
The question, I suppose, is why make small talk at all? I’ll admit that, as the unofficial brand ambassador for the introvert community, I tend to find small talk excruciating. I’d prefer to simply come right out and ask you what novel you’re currently reading, what your theological commitments are, or bluntly request that you tell me what you’re most passionate about and why. I’ve found, however, that those types of questions elicit perplexed reactions and hesitant confusion. At a first meeting, right after shaking hands and exchanging names, it really doesn’t work to dive all the way into the deep end of the conversational pool. Small talk can be frustrating but it is very much necessary. It keeps us afloat while we learn to swim.
Even though I’m an introvert, I also happen to be a parish priest and I meet new people every single week. I’ve learned to enjoy small talk and appreciate the benefit of it.
First, making small talk is polite. As much as I’m itching to dive straight into the Dostoyevsky novel I just finished and ramble for an hour about the intricacies of his writing style and thematic concerns, I know if I do this without first feeling my way into an understanding of whether you enjoy talking about literature, there’s a good chance I’ll bore you to tears. To take another example, I remember when I first discovered how much I liked long-distance running. I wanted to tell everyone about it. I couldn’t stop talking about it. But the vast majority of people aren’t runners and could not possibly be less interested in hearing me drone on about my current half-marathon time and the intricacies of my training schedule. Maybe you’re one of the few people who truly is interested. If so, I’d love to converse about it. Perhaps our small talk will lead us naturally toward the topic of running and we’ll make a connection, or it might lead somewhere different and equally interesting. I’m good either way. As long as we’re both interested in a topic, I know I’ll find it fascinating. It’s an act of kindness to engage in small talk until we find that area of mutual interest.
It’s an act of kindness to engage in small talk until we find that area of mutual interest.
Second, I love small talk because we never know where it will lead. That’s why it’s fun. It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. As we talk, the bigger picture begins to fill in and we gain momentum towards an in-depth conversation. This is why it’s so enjoyable to meet new people and conversations at parties can suddenly switch gears, leaving us elated at how lovely it was to meet so many interesting people. By sharing their experience and history with us, they make our lives richer. Small talk fills in the blanks of the puzzle with brand new words. At some point, that word will intersect with another and I can’t wait to find out which one.
It’s like doing a crossword puzzle. As we talk, the bigger picture begins to fill in and we gain momentum towards an in-depth conversation.
Finally, small talk is vital because it’s low-stakes. We don’t have to dive right into politics and religion to have a meaningful conversation. In fact, we really can’t productively discuss those topics unless we’ve formed some level of trust. Trust is only achieved by first making connections and uncovering commonalities about family, hobbies, friends, and, yes, you telling me where you went to high school.
Like it or not, small talk is the best way to meet people. It’s an art form. If we practice it in that spirit, then we each become conversational artists creating something worthwhile, maybe even beautiful.
It’s an art form. If we practice it in that spirit, then we each become conversational artists creating something worthwhile, maybe even beautiful.
Becoming the Picasso of small talk isn’t unimportant, it gives the gift of setting others at ease and making them feel included. Big relationships are built on small talk.
Human beings are social creatures. The more friends and familiar faces we can journey through life with, the happier we are. Enlarging our social circle by becoming adept at small talk makes us happier, and even more importantly, bestows the gift of happiness on others.