Column | Feb. 27

Reforming small talk

Humans are odd creatures. We’ve excelled as a species because of our ability to communicate and work together. We’ve ridden our social cohesion straight to the top of the food chain. And yet, despite such a masterful grasp of communication and social interaction, much of the time, we are surprisingly terrible at actually saying anything at all.

Most people who know me will agree that I generally like to speak my mind. I don’t mean this in a confrontational sort of way. I simply mean that given the chance to have a conversation, I relish in the opportunity to honestly speak to someone, to say what’s on my mind, and to hear how other people think and feel. As a result, I often find that people are surprised by my sincerity. If someone asks how I am, I won’t hesitate to say if I’m having an awful day. This is in stark contrast to the automated answering machines that we put on in our day-to-day conversations, the mind-numbingly repetitive and utterly superficial ritual that is small talk.

The first week on campus freshman year, you inevitably learn more names than you could ever hope to remember. Each name comes with a five-minute halfhearted attempt at conversation, each question followed by a completely trivial answer. How are your classes? Good. How’s your room?  Nice. As a result, almost instantaneously, your brain throws away the information and the name that goes with it. Why save space for it? You never actually learned anything important, just heard the standard list of courtesies and handed back the list of your own. In some sense, especially in situations like this, small talk is a necessary evil. With so many people and so much information, nobody can remember it all, so saying anything worthwhile is futile. Unfortunately, this ritual of simultaneously saying something and nothing at the same time doesn’t go away. We grow accustomed to it and use it in place of conversation that could really mean something.

And what is the result of our concerted effort to hide how we’re truly feeling?  It’s exactly that. Each of us walks away from a conversation with completely inaccurate information about each other. Why is it such a problem that so many people do not feel adequate enough to be here?  It’s because nobody ever says how they truly feel. This idea has been noted before, that students here feel the need to pretend they are perfectly fine. But I think it goes deeper than our competitive natures. How can we really come to understand anyone else if we are too busy commenting on the weather or remarking how far Forbes College is from everything else?

OK, maybe I’m being a bit unrealistic with my expectations. Small talk does have its use for some people. After a long day, a tough test and tons of homework, it’s understandable to not want to commit yourself to a serious conversation. But personally, I find small talk exhausting and not particularly useful. Don’t feel obligated to say something, especially just for the sake of saying something. Going through the motions of superficially responding to questions just feels pointless. I’d much rather hear what you really think. What better way to unwind?  You don’t need to argue with me about geopolitical feuds in the Middle East to have a meaningful conversation.

In many ways it’s considered rude or taboo to say what’s on your mind, especially to strangers. Please. Don’t let the fact that we have no prior social interaction be a barrier to being honest about your thoughts or feelings. In fact, there is so much more to say considering how little we know about each other. Why waste time talking about the trivial when we have so much to learn? If you don’t feel like talking at the moment, then don’t. I won’t be offended. But hey, as long as we’re talking, why don’t you tell me what’s really on your mind?

Christian Wawrzonek is a sophomore from Pittsburgh, Pa. He can be reached at cjw5@princeton.edu.

 

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