In Praise of Small Talk

"I can't stand chit chat. I hate small talk. I just cannot do it. I want to go deep with people."

I hear this a lot. I also frequently see posts like this on social media:

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Photo credit: Brad Miersma

And like this:

I get it. I want to talk about deep and meaningful things. I want conversation, not chit chat. I want connection, not social conventions.

But today I am writing in praise of small talk. Here's why.

For much of my life, I felt socially awkward. I had learned to mimic others, to put a fairly good front on -- although the illusions of my confidence came crashing down anytime there was alcohol in my body, when I would wail and cry, revealing the depth of self-loathing that consumed me almost daily.

I became a shapeshifter in adolescence, changing my appearance, my language, my musical preferences, opinions and even my voice to mirror whichever person or people I was around.

In my late teens and early twenties, I learned how to use work jargon, picking up all the terms in my first corporate job within a couple of days. I could witter on about firm sale, sale or return, margins, cost price, POS and KPIs, although Imposter syndrome nagged away at me underneath the surface.

But 'chit chat' sent shudders through my being. I mean, what the heck to people talk about? For hours?!

I hated small talk. I hated parties unless there was a dance floor, where I would dance beyond exhaustion so I didn't have to make small talk. I looked in silent awe at the groups of pretty girls sitting on high stools for the duration of the evening, batting their eyelashes and laughing and gossiping and beautifying themselves in the nightclub bathroom. I felt like I was of a different species. (Still do, sometimes.)

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Photo credit: Kevin Curtis via Unsplash

It was as if I had an internal alarm clock built in: after 60 minutes of socialising, I would start to feel really uncomfortable and worry about whether the person I was hanging out with was bored of me yet. I got really good at swiftly exiting a situation.

One of the worst instances happened in 2007 at V festival with my best friend Liz. We had driven a couple of hundred miles to go to the festival, and I was so excited. I had visions of us running around having so much fun, creating mischief and jumping about wildly in the mosh pits. But it was the introverted Elloa, not the extroverted one, that showed up that day, and after half a day at the festival, we left. I felt like such a humongous failure, and so embarrassed and disappointed that I couldn't just be confident, happy and fun.

By this time, I was okay at public speaking thanks to all the 'sharing' I'd done in 12-step fellowships for what was three years at that point. I was good if there was structure and no real interaction required. I could blurt out all my stuff and then sit there and breathe through my anxiety about whether I was okay or not.

But just being with people felt really scary. I worried constantly. My fear-based beliefs about myself -- there is something wrong with me, I am fundamentally flawed, if you knew me you'd reject me, I am not enough -- totally ran the show.

And then Nige came into my life. Nige, the confident, chatty extrovert who is now my husband. With Nige, I learned how to relax, how to just hang out, how to spend extended periods of time with one person without worrying about running out of things to say. If ever I had nothing to say or didn't know where to take the conversation, he would jump in.

Over time, I feel like my whole nervous system calmed down as I came to understand that not everything that happened was a reflection of my worth as a human being.

As my self-worth grew from an imperceptible teeny, tiny seed into a real, solid, rooted thing -- a foundation on which to build a whole life -- I began to show up to my interactions differently. Not just thanks to Nige and our relationship of course, but the acceptance he extended towards me and his natural capacity to fill the space with chit chat really helped.

My focus shifted away from myself and onto others. I got curious about the people I was spending time with, and I started to become irresistibly fascinated by humanity.

As I came to understand my inherent sameness with every other human being on the planet, my curiosity to get to know them and find out what I could learn about myself -- rather than what I could conclude about myself -- began to infuse my interactions.

This, like any process, was not linear. There were many occasions where I stayed stuck in needing approval, or wanting to control or present myself a certain way, but I can, hand on heart, say that I look at people nowadays through different eyes.

And from this place, guess what?

I love small talk.

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Photo credit: Seemi Peltoniemi via Unsplash

I relish it, most of the time. I love doing the idle chit chat thing with fellow dog walkers. I love witnessing the predictable subjects get dragged out in everyday conversations -- the weather, our dogs, the weather again, more about the dogs.

I love feeling like part of the human race.

I love knowing that we're all part of this crazy dance of keeping up social conventions.

I love playing with going deeper, depending on the context.

I love surprising people with atypical responses to the typical questions from a place of love -- just to see if they're listening.

I love knowing that there is always so much more going on than the weather and the questions that aren't really questions.

Today, I fill my tank with nourishing, heart-expanding, vulnerable, authentic conversations on a daily basis (something I feel so lucky for that I decided to extend it out into the world via my podcast).

This means I do not need the supermarket cashier or my neighbour to show up a certain way so that I can experience intimacy, which frees me up to show up in a different way, to be genuinely curious about their experience as opposed to being critical of them. Because the truth is, every single person you and I cross paths with is a three-dimensional human being.

Every single one of us has wounds, hopes, failures, losses, dreams, relationships, struggles and defences. We all wear masks in the everyday world, and behind that we all feel things, often very deeply. We all bleed. We all yearn. And we are all walking around this planet pretending we know what on earth we're doing.

If we are on a path of personal development, I believe we have a responsibility to be conscious and curious about how we show up.

If I only reserve my heart for those people who go deep with me, then I shut much of humanity out. Which, in my opinion, isn't very deep and isn't very fulfilling.

It's sad to feel separate and disconnected from the world and other people. I lived that life for many years. And if someone really doesn't know how to go deep -- if they haven't gone there for years, I feel that warrants my compassion, engagement and curiosity rather than my judgement and withdrawal.

So I am flying the flag today in praise of small talk.

May we engage in it. May we embrace it. May we recognise that there are windows into another person's soul in every conversation.

In closing, my heart wants to urge you: the next time you find yourself having one of those seemingly inconsequential, predictable and boring conversations, catch yourself.

Keep your heart open.
Get curious about who this person in front of you actually is.
See if you can get into their world, even if just for a few moments.

See if you dare to be the one who will open up first, who will take off your mask and dare to be real, to be seen and known. The cure for hating small talk is curiosity and empathy. There is an infinite sense of connectedness available to you in even the most mundane of conversations.

You just have to be willing to look for it.

Join Elloa at elloaatkinson.com for real, raw, authentic conversation on the topics of spirituality, conscious relationships and living a wide open, fully alive life.