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Small Talk

December 8, 2011 | by Emuna Braverman

Elevating the conversation by being fascinated with other people.

Interviewing children in the early days of television, Art Linkletter popularized the idea that Kids Say the Darndest Things. Listening to talk radio the other day in the car, I realized that it is not limited to children!

It went something like this. A father called in to complain about his daughter. “She has removed herself from popular culture; she no longer watches TV.”

“And your problem is…?” queried the puzzled host.

“It’s very hard to have a conversation with her. She doesn’t know how to make small talk. She only wants to discuss lofty issues.”

“And your problem is…?”

I couldn’t believe my ears. I wanted to go out and find this daughter immediately – just what I’ve been looking for – someone who could rescue me from years of mind-numbing “cocktail party” conversations about restaurants, movies, shopping and the behavior of Hollywood celebs. Why was this father appalled? Shouldn’t he be grateful? Shouldn’t he be proud to have raised a child whose concerns rise about the trivial and the mundane?

Initially, I was shocked, then saddened. Then I laughed aloud at the absurdity of it all (I hope no one was looking in my car window at the time!). Is this who we’ve all become, people who value small talk over deeper conversations?

Some may argue that there is a place for small talk (do you think it got that name for a reason?). You have to get to know someone before you can address deeper issues. “Hi, do you know what you are living for?” is usually a bust as an ice breaker.

But I believe there is a way to make and build a relationship with someone new that isn’t small. Chit chat seems to suggest that you aren’t really interested in a conversation (is that why you keep looking over my head to see if there’s someone else you’d rather talk to?!). But if you care about me, if you ask questions about my life, my family, my career, my goals, then the talk is no longer small. It is then also lofty; it is then elevated. It is relationship-building.

Real friends, like spouses, connect through shared goals and discussions of deeper interests and concerns.

Additionally, I believe that friendships are like marriages. You and your husband may have the same taste in movies but that’s not a foundation for a lasting commitment. True friendships are similar. You may both enjoy trying out the latest restaurant but that’s not the basis for a relationship that will get you through life’s tough challenges. Real friends, like spouses, connect through shared goals. Real relationships are forged through discussions of deeper interests and concerns.

But maybe you’re not always looking for deep relationship (although why the father in question didn’t want one with his daughter is another issue). There are certainly social situations where we’re just called upon to be polite, where we may never see these people again or where it’s a business obligation.

Yet why should we rob ourselves and them of an opportunity to connect and learn? We have a mitzvah to love humanity. Every person is fascinating. Everyone has a story. Every individual has something to teach us.

I feel sorry for the radio caller. He has limited his world, he has limited his life, and he has certainly limited his relationship with his daughter. He has missed getting to know the experience the most dynamic and diverse creature the Almighty has created – other human beings.

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