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    young people talking

    Small Talk Is Not Small

    Casual conversation is not a waste of time but a fundamental practice of hospitality.

    By Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt

    February 15, 2022
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    • Adrian Burke

      I am a Benedictine monk, and an important part of our monastic observance involves periods we call "common recreation", times when we can share the art of simple conversation with one another, for instance in the half hour after supper in the evening or during the midday lunch period. Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt's article on small talk was helpful insofar as it helped me appreciate the value of simple conversation as acts of hospitality. To me, being hospitable involves openness to the other, a genuine form of receptivity that is welcoming and not burdensome. In a sense, small talk is a way to daily practice and hone the skills of welcoming since, in my view, until we can welcome one another within community our community's ability to welcome the guest as Christ, as our Rule instructs, will limp. As a strong introvert, I had to learn (am still learning after 30 years of monastic life!) that community cohesion is built on these kinds of simple exchanges of hospitality, and to withdraw from them because I "disdain small talk", or would rather "do my own thing", is detrimental to community harmony and unity. Thanks for this wonderful insight!

    • Martin

      This was helpful. It requires practice. It is not necessarily easy for everyone to engage in small talk. Some (more than we think?) are more ready to respond in essay form like we were trained in school than the small talk that we had to learn (or not) at the lunch cafeteria table. Zoom meetings and old fashioned don’t help this practice. Thank You for these insights.

    • Paula St. John

      This was enlightening for someone like me who avoids "small talk". You wrote: "I had done the conversational equivalent of shoving her into the deep end of the pool without even knowing if she could swim. Trying the gentler waters of more casual conversation could have built confidence that we both had the stamina to swim out deeper and still get back safely". This hooked me, and I got it! Thank you for this gift of a new perspective.

    Reticence is heritable. My family of origin continued a long tradition of not discussing formative experiences or airing big questions. I never talked with my parents about hope or God or prayer, and I had no words for the emptiness that sometimes accosted me unawares. I finished high school starved for meaning. When I enrolled at a Christian college and got a taste of the rich mix of “faith and learning,” my life changed forever. I came home that summer wearing my intensity on my sleeve. I eagerly got in touch with a church friend to propose regular Bible studies where we would lay bare our hearts and pray together. She called to decline: “I can’t do this – it’s too intense.”

    I registered mild surprise as she hung up. My first instinct was to attribute her rebuff to a shallow faith, but I knew that wasn’t really the reason. It was really to do with the quality of our relationship and how I broached the subject. I had done the conversational equivalent of shoving her into the deep end of the pool without even knowing if she could swim. Trying the gentler waters of more casual conversation could have built confidence that we both had the stamina to swim out deeper and still get back safely. But I didn’t connect the dots then. Small talk seemed to me nothing more than the listless chatter of small minds.

    Many Christians hold a similarly dim view of verbal pleasantries, perhaps because we’re afraid that it constitutes the godless chatter or empty words that Saint Paul warns us about. Christians can get carried away with an urge to move all of our conversations as directly as possible to ultimate things. We go right for the spiritual jugular. Eugene Peterson recounted feeling exposed and embarrassed when his childhood pastor greeted him with, “How is your soul?” Small talk by contrast is an unobtrusive act of welcome. It harnesses mundane moments to create a context of awareness and civility; in short, a place to love our neighbor in real time. Nowhere else do we as Christians have the most frequent opportunity, like Jane Eyre, to “shed one drop of the balm of sympathy” into the lives of our neighbors.

    young people talking

    Photograph by Alexis Brown

    Small talk is “small” in that it fits the fleeting fragments of time we share with others: time waiting, time in-between, time on our way to somewhere else. A small ale is low in alcohol, and neither is small talk rich in content. It’s not the medium for imparting knowledge, stirring controversy, or looking smart, which may explain why some of us discount it. Among our neighbors, we can become like dour Mr. Darcy in Pride and Prejudice, “unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room.” Our casual conversation will rarely be amazing. But that is just not the point of it.

    Small talk is a fundamental practice of hospitality. We might not think of hospitality as something occurring away from home or something we carry along with us, but Jesus’ whole calling involved this kind of itinerant hospitality. Whether among strangers or friends, he welcomed his listeners with a recognition of their mutual context and a particular concern for their individual needs. He calls us to follow him in a daily practice creating contexts of welcome, and small talk is the key to creating contexts sturdy enough to foster serious conversation. Discussing the big topics of life involves risk. To risk being candid about the things closest to our hearts or heaviest on our souls, we need to trust that we are safe doing so.

    Lack of safety had me scrambling recently as I considered how to respond to an acquaintance who asked, “How are you?” My mind jumped immediately to the very real worry plaguing me, over the unsafe behaviors of one of my kids. Yet launching into our serious family problems as a response to my acquaintance felt big and intense. Before I could venture an honest reply, I needed to trust the generosity of her response. I needed to know she was “faithful in a very little thing” before trusting her with more (Luke 16:10). I needed more small talk.

     
     
     
     

    Most discussions of small talk center on conversations between strangers and with acquaintances. Yet small talk also belongs in our close relationships. Without it, our conversations with friends are impoverished and even derailed. We take ourselves too seriously when we dive directly into topics of deep solemnity and import. In my teenage blunder with my church friend, I was reckless in proposing an intensely personal conversation without first attending to the safety and trust between us. Using small talk to retrace the contours of empathy in our friendship would have made it possible to approach weightier topics. The fabric of friendship is enriched by the addition of thin fibers among the thick.

    These days, I try to practice small talk with family, especially my teenage children. I have a lot of parental advice that I want to share as they grow up. But an atmosphere of constant instruction and evaluation is grating. Polite and untaxing, small talk helps shape an approach of curiosity and deference that we often neglect to give our closest companions and becomes a way to daily cherish our loved ones. The lightness of small talk counteracts the crusty solemnity that frequently develops over long-standing relationships. Light-hearted, casual conversation can be a temporary truce from the engagement of more pressing issues that arise in any family, and even a path toward reconciliation.

    Sometimes small talk takes on salvific properties. I saw this when a family member developed a pattern of disruptive behavior that affected his health, education, and relationships. His volatility burned out everyone. My husband and I ended up feeling desperately like we were the only ones left in his life. We saw him nearly daily, but his problems were so deep-seated that any personal conversation would touch on them – and then he would shut us out. Small talk was our only recourse. When we saw him, we talked about the progress of the roadwork nearby, what was for lunch, and what was playing on the radio. These unimportant exchanges kept our relationship with him tenable enough to let other treatments take effect. Small talk, as trifling as it seemed, allowed us to stay engaged in a broken situation.

    Broken situations are all around us. And following Jesus demands that we stay engaged, awake and watchful for the fulfillment of God’s good purposes. But it does not mean we need to lunge for that spiritual jugular when a drop of balm will do. Small talk, polite and sympathetic, reflects a kind of attentiveness, a curiosity that expects the good in every encounter. Sometimes those encounters will be unremarkable, but sometimes they will bear marvelous fruit.

    Contributed By

    Wendy Hoashi-Erhardt is a plant breeder of fruit crops in the Pacific Northwest, a foster and adoptive parent, and a writer focusing on adoption, friendship, and church. She lives in Tacoma, Washington.

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