February 17, 2016

LEUNG | Modern Talk

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February 14th, Valentine’s Day. Some people call it SAD (Singles Awareness Day) and others use it as an excuse to make their significant other reaffirm their love through consumerism and diabetic means. The talk of love and romance over the past few days has led me to question today’s relationships. With such a prevalent “hook-up culture,” and technological distractions, I found myself thinking, when do we talk? When do we have real talk, meaningful talk, big talk? How well do we actually know one another?

A lesser known section of The New York Times is a collection of essays called Modern Love. Every week, readers submit real-life essays about relationships, marriage, dating and parenthood. The stories usually have a “contemporary edge,” straying from the cliché romance stories that infiltrate pop culture and media.

One of my favorite articles that is part of Modern Love is “The End of Small Talk.” The author, Tim Boomer, recalls a memory of watching a couple on their first date. The couple discussed their commute to the bar, the weather in Boston and — taking a huge step and putting it all out there — their jobs. Although the author believes flirty joking and witty banter is indeed something to keep, the dull talk about facts and figures and weather and jobs are irrelevant. Essentially, he argues that small talk should be replaced with big talk: meaningful, deep conversations. Boomer writes, “Why can’t we … ask each other profound questions right from the start? Replace mindless chatter about commuting times with a conversation about our weightiest beliefs and most potent fears? Questions that reveal who we are and where we want to go?”

A criticism right away is that you can’t ask big questions until you know the answer to the small ones. However, with the slightest tweaking, you can easily switch from small to big. While finding out the answers to the small questions, you can also dig a little deeper. Boomer replies to the criticism by describing how he strays away from small talk. “One of the common questions I find myself asking a woman on a first date is where she has traveled. The response can quickly become a list of places, and once again we’re in résumé territory. So instead I’d ask, ‘What place most inspired you and why?’”

I believe a distinguishing factor in relationships is whether I continue to remain on small-talk level with somebody or if I can immediately dive into a conversation where I’m inspired by their answers, moved by the way they can speak and interested such that I am genuinely involved in the conversation.  First dates make me wary. Although it’s important in the beginning to get some questions out of the way, I fear that the conversation will remain surface-level. I want to move away from the “What’s your major?” “Do you have any siblings?” “What classes are you in?” “Where are you living?” questions and jump into “What do you see yourself doing after college?” “What’s the deepest love you’ve ever felt?” and “Cats or dogs?” The answer to the latter is always cats.

People fall into the pattern of small talk. Maybe it’s easier. Maybe it takes less effort. Maybe there’s something scary about letting your guard down so fast and being ready to show someone who you really are. Maybe it’s the writer in me, my desire to always want to know more, or the feeling of despair and hopelessness I get when I realize small talk doesn’t get me anywhere.

For me, falling and remaining in small talk is a sign that things aren’t progressing; things are stagnant. Boomer, in his essay, writes, “On the first night away, I found myself engaging in one of those dull work conversations people use to fill the time … ‘So how long does it take you to get to the office?’ I heard myself ask. Then I stopped in horror.” After Boomer remembers a time he had escaped small talk with a hitchhiker in Costa Rica, he takes a deep breath and asks his colleague, “‘Why did you fall in love with your wife?’  He looked at me oddly, thought about it for a moment and then told me something beautiful.”

A conversation I had with someone over the weekend reaffirmed my belief that big talk is the way to go. As I discussed the articles I had written — obviously things that are important enough to me that I find time to write about — as well as visions of where I saw myself in the future, I felt the person I had known for such a short time understood me more as an individual. I believed they got the feeling of who I was — who I am.

Big talk and small talk influences how you know another person. Some people you can describe through where they live, where they work, what their hobbies are, what they are interested in, where they have traveled and so on. And then there are people whom you might not know what their favorite color is but you know that they haven’t cried since their grandfather passed away, or that they’re afraid of commitment because of their past relationships or that they took a chance one time and ended up hurt. But uncovering these parts of them ultimately allow you to form connections that are sincere and significant.

So let’s forget the small talk, and start big.

Gaby Leung is a freshman in the College of Arts and Sciences. She can be reached atgl376@cornell.edu. Serendipitous Musings appears alternate Thursdays this semester.

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