My knee-jerk reaction when someone asks me how I’m doing is “the best I’ve ever been.” Spoiler alert: it is never true.
It’s a bit that in theory is the epitome of the disingenuousness that I find to be the problem with some approaches to small talk — it’s an insincere answer to what might have been a sincere question.
It’s so sarcastic and overly-enthusiastic that it’s obviously not true — so after my eccentric default answer, I make a point to engage with follow ups in an intentional way. These conversations are a break from what might otherwise drive us into the dreaded “Hi, how are you?” “Good.” “That’s good.” loop.
Small talk is unavoidable, so I say we ought to embrace it beyond the circular pleasantries.
The fact of the matter is all relationships begin with small talk. The first conversations we have with the majority of people in our lives don’t go beyond what the caf is serving on a given day or how we’re formatting an impending essay.
The key to enjoying small talk, as I experience it, is to treat it as important, even if it’s surface level at best. Be present in the moment with whoever it is. The content doesn’t matter as much as the intent — someone is taking the time out of their day to engage with you. Honor that and show up for two minutes.
I read a book last semester about what to do when life is unfair to the people we love and there’s really nothing we can do to help. Basically the conclusion is that it’s better to say something, even an insubstantial comment on good ol’ Minnesota weather, than to be too paralyzed to talk to someone at all. It doesn’t have to be anything life-altering, but bringing some sincerity and humanity is reassuring no matter the words being said.
And I think that’s at the crux of what I feel about small talk; oftentimes, if I’m upset or in a bad mood, I’d rather make small talk with someone with whom I’m only tangentially acquainted with than dive into my life’s problems with my best friend.
That’s because small talk is an escape of sorts — when we’re at our worst, it can be comforting to know that the whole universe isn’t crashing down. Things and people and entire worlds outside of ourselves exist, and we’re still invited into them — a sense of normalcy outside of our own tragedy.
Even if an interaction is stuck in the “Good, and you?” loop, there’s a comfort in the script there — everyone knows their lines in the world’s most boring play. It can be mindless if it must be (though ideally it’s not).
Alternatively, when we’re at our best, it’s fun to be able to crack a few jokes or just bask in a shared humanity alongside someone you’re lucky enough to exist in the same space as.
My push for sincerity isn’t an urge to bear your soul in the post office line, but rather a plea to be intentional about showing up for those around you, even in the tiniest of ways. So truly engage in small talk, it might just make you the best you’ve ever been.
Claire Strother ’22 is from
Arlington Heights, IL.
Her majors are American studies and women’s & gender studies.