Ditch the Small Talk

When I was younger, I was very much one of those people who hated small talk. I’m a strong introvert and I was painfully shy as a child. Small talk was too much social effort for something I considered trivial and unimportant. If I had to interact with people, I would much prefer to share deep meaningful conversation than chat about nothing. Deep meaningful conversation is worth the energy; small talk costs too much for something with no substance.

I reconsidered my stance on small talk as I got older. For one thing, I grew less shy and less frightened by the prospect of interacting with strangers. But, too, I realized it’s a matter of respect. I have to earn the right to know someone’s deepest thoughts and feelings. That’s not a level of intimacy I can demand from anyone. You have to earn a person’s trust first and that takes time. It requires an investment of attention and care. Relationships matter more than any single conversation, and I need to do the work to build a relationship so someone will know they’re safe to share more meaningful things with me.

Small talk is how people start to establish that sense of safety with each other. It’s how people feel each other out without too much risk to start. It’s the first step on a path to earn someone’s trust.

But then I read this article:

Why Emotionally Intelligent People Embrace the Rule of the Awkward Conversation, Backed by Science: The next time you meet someone new, ditch the small talk. Science says they—and you—will be glad you did.
(by Jeff Haden, published on Inc.com, accessed November 22, 2021)

It appears my younger self was right. Ditching small talk with strangers and engaging in deeper, more meaningful conversations right out of the gate creates more satisfying experiences. It makes sense: People want to feel like their lives are meaningful. When someone shows genuine interest in you and your life, pays real attention to the stuff about you that matters, it can be deeply validating.

So what about my conviction that small talk is how you start to build trust? I’m reminded of the quote from Ernest Hemingway:

“The way to make people trust-worthy is to trust them.”
(from Selected Letters, 1917-1961, New York: Charles Scribner’s, 1981.)

(More commonly paraphrased as, “The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.”)

To take an example from my own life: You know all those things they say you should never talk about on a first date? My wife and I talked about all of them on our first date. All the big, deep, meaningful stuff that you’re afraid will scare people away. But neither of us were scared away by it. That big, deep, meaningful stuff is how we knew we were a good fit. We’re still happily married 13 years later.

The best way to find out if you can trust somebody is to trust them.

I wonder how to apply this idea in work contexts. It could have real benefits in team building. I think a lot of people would prefer something like this to the standard ice breakers we’re always forced to do. But I also have concerns: Such a strategy gets too close to blurring the line between work and personal. Many people need to maintain a distinction between these different parts of their lives for their own health and wellbeing, and I respect that.

It’s one thing to share deep personal stuff with a stranger you may never see again. It’s very different when you’re sharing with a coworker. There’s more risk when it’s someone you’re going to see every day.

It’s pretty common for people to feel safer sharing potentially embarrassing secrets with strangers than with friends or family, because a stranger presents less risk. A stranger isn’t part of your life day to day, so you won’t have to deal with much fall out. There’s less consequence when it’s a one-and-done type of exchange. What happens if you share something deep with a stranger and then try to build a relationship with them? How does such a beginning play out over time?

Referring once again to my wife and me: It can play out very well, if you’re with the right people. And if you’re not with the right people, the deep, meaningful, risky conversations may help you discover that faster.

Speaking for myself, I love the thought of having these sorts of conversations with people. I’d much rather spend my social energy at this than making small talk. It’s far more interesting and rewarding. I don’t really have any reservations about oversharing with others: I’m not easily embarrassed and have little ego about whether I’ll end up looking like a fool. You don’t have the right to expect such intimacy from me, but I’m willing to give it freely.

It’s important to keep in mind that these conversations must be undertaken without judgment. No one wants to share deeply of themselves only to be judged for it. End of conversation if you do. End of potential relationship. These interactions only work if you’re genuinely interested in learning about the other person and remain open-minded about their answers.

I’m curious to know how this strategy affects people long-term. The exchanges described in the article only measure participant satisfaction immediately after a deep conversation with a stranger. What happens if the conversation leads to a longer-lasting relationship? Do people come to regret oversharing in the days or weeks after such an exchange?

There’s a lot more to dig into with all of this.

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