January 30, 2022

DO | Small Talk in a Big World

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Few things in this world aggravate my poor type D soul quite like small talk. Uninteresting chats about the mundanities of day-to-day life, low-hanging fruit conversation starters, uninspired Buzzfeed quiz-esque inquiries about which shade of lilac I most identify with – my face contorts with discomfort just thinking about it.

Still, small talk is a social necessity. Our brains insist that the awkward demographic babble is a prerequisite for meatier discussions, no matter how unremarkable or just plain boring those details may be. You mean you’re in Dyson and want to go into consulting? No way! You’re studying CS and just completed a coding interview for Amazon? Wow, never heard that one before. You’re a pre-med who’s dreading the prospect of another eight years of education? Inconceivable! Maybe I’m just a short-fused hermit, but it’s these kinds of conversations that have me wishing I could flee to my dorm for my nightly descent into a vegetative media overload. 

Sustaining small talk is a skill, one that I evidently do not have. And that’s a shame, because what I do have, or at least what I’d like to think I have, is a genuine interest in other peoples’ lives. The problem is that one’s name, year, major, hometown and favorite ice cream flavor usually aren’t at the center of that interest. I love hearing peoples’ stories, learning about the hardships and important lessons of their lives. Discovering why someone is the way that they are forges a closeness that small talk can hardly scratch. I don’t care so much about where you’re from, but rather, what you’re from. 

My character today is greatly informed by the decisions and adversities of my family before me — subjects that I could never touch via small talk.

My mother’s father was an artist. His talent for painting was a once-in-a-lifetime phenomenon. During my mother’s childhood, he traveled to art shows all over the East Coast, selling oil paintings of lighthouses, autumn leaves and waterfalls, all with the post-war industriousness and broken English of a poor Korean immigrant.

My mother’s father came to the States in 1977, bringing with him a wife, two toddler-aged daughters and an incredible ability to paint. More important than his ability, though, was his love for his career. His choice to do work that he enjoyed made him a kind and loving father amidst a sea of bitter, hardened immigrants — much to the envy of my mom’s friends. Today, my mom is an incredibly loving and giving person who has received both the material and emotional blessings of her father and multiplied them tenfold. 

My dad is an immigrant like my grandfather. His home life was far more tumultuous than my mom’s, characterized by the jaded dysfunction of many immigrant households. He grew up playing mediator, forced to reconcile how his father could both love and mistreat his family in the same alcohol-stained breath. Through my dad’s role in his family and his discovery of faith, he has become an incredibly affable and wise person. 

His ability to connect with people and bring them into his world is a gift born of hardship. I see in him the beauty of loving others while seeking to understand them, even with their flaws. The wisdom he has drawn from the harshness of his childhood is a blessing to him and to me.

My parents have both strongly influenced my life. My mom’s unique blend of immigrant work ethic and devoted affection reminds me everyday that sacrifice is the truest form of love. In my dad I see the capacity to draw humanity from anyone, no matter how troubled or coarse they may be. Their stories are my stories, and they cannot be overlooked when trying to understand who I am and how I think. But you wouldn’t know it from my name, year, major, hometown or favorite ice cream flavor (Noah, 2024, HBHS, Virginia Beach, cookies and cream).

Knowing someone as the product of their life experiences makes the small talk worth dredging through. In the process of building understanding, we make meaningful and consequential bonds. My close friends aren’t the people I share favorite TV shows or a Hogwarts house with, but those I view as fully-fledged individuals, the results of their unique life circumstances. My perceptions of them are fraught with nuance which makes me appreciate their willingness to share life with me. They’ve opened up their stories to me, and I’ve been blessed to be able to see the world through their eyes. 

Our lives are the intersections of countless unlikely events. The chances of you becoming exactly you are so incredibly low that your story deserves to be shared with others, and others’ with you. Your tendencies and fears and dreams are precious because they are impossible to replicate. 

Small talk is, by function, a disservice to our understanding of the human condition. It relies on our commonalities to make discussion, when it’s really our differences that are the most fruitful wells of opportunity. Questions of family, culture, traumas, anxieties: these are the entrances into one’s humanity. Every first encounter with a new person is the first and last of its kind, because you will never meet anyone exactly like them ever again. Surely you can do better than small talk.

Noah Do is a sophomore in the College of Human Ecology. He can be reached at [email protected]  Noah’s Arc runs every other Monday this semester.