At a party the other night, I heard the words, “How’s life?” come out of my mouth. As they left my lips, I cringed. That’s not something that I would ever normally say in conversation with friends, but in the situation I was in, in a circle of people whom I knew peripherally at best, that’s the first and only thing that I could think of to say. I blame an invisible but incredibly powerful culprit: small talk.
The use of small talk is understandable; talking about basic, impersonal topics has become a way to alleviate, if only slightly, the painful awkwardness of interacting at length with someone you’ve just met and don’t really know how to talk to. Without small talk, we’re left with confronting our own awkwardness. But I’ve started to wonder: Does small talk actually lubricate our social interactions, or does it just take us farther from real social connection by keeping us stranded in the “How’s life?” phase longer than we might actually need to be there?
When I went abroad to Tel Aviv last semester, one of the most shocking cultural differences that I encountered was the limited small talk. I was taken aback at the quick transition from exchanging names to asking questions like “How do you think your religious identity has changed now that you’re spending a semester abroad in Israel?” The questions were never intrusive. They flowed naturally from the subject of our initial casual discussion (in the case of my example, the fact that I had gone to a Jewish day school). I realized that in most conversations I’d experienced before, these types of questions would likely not have come up as quickly. People tiptoe around the real questions, at least until they’re a bit more confident about the possibility of a real social connection. But how can that connection ever grow unless we move beyond the small talk?
Orientation put this question into sharp focus for me. Throughout that first week at Wesleyan, wherever I was, whatever I was doing, I remember that same sensation of talking just a little too loudly over the buzz of a packed Memorial Chapel as we waited for a speech to start or while sitting at Usdan with my new housemates, waiting for that one person that I knew vaguely to come back from getting food. I asked the same questions and gave the same answers over and over: “What classes are you taking? Where are you living? Oh, me too! So, I’m taking ‘The European Novel’…” All the while, my head was abuzz with the real questions that I wanted to ask: “Do we have anything in common? Do we want the same things out of our college experience? Will we be friends in a few weeks?”
The answer to that last question was both yes and no: some of the people I met at orientation became what I’d come to call “orientation friends,” or the people that I had one pleasant conversation with and never crossed paths with again, save for the occasional smile-nod across SciLi. A few others would become friends that I have to this day, as I start my junior year. But the process that led to both outcomes started the exact same way: with small talk.
The consistent small talk that necessarily comes with meeting so many new people in such a short period of time can make a first-year doubt whether those conversations are leading to anything meaningful at all. I remember calling my mom in a panic in the middle of orientation, saying, “I’m talking to people every second of every day, but I’m not sure if I have any friends yet.” Small talk seems to disconnected from real personal relationships, but the truth is that whether we like it or not, it is the first mandatory step for any relationship. So, first-years, embrace the small talk. Some of the conversations that you have at orientation might end at that. Others might be the first of hundreds of long talks over Usdan dinners that might come to define your college experience in a few years. You never know, and so all that’s left to do is jump in, embrace the awkward questions and stilted answers, and see where they might lead.
We don’t have to be entirely complacent with our small talk culture, though. We can’t get rid of the phenomenon completely, but we can all take small steps to make sure that our conversations, even the preliminary ones, are as intentional and genuine as possible. Use small talk as a way to learn as much about your new peers as possible. Don’t be afraid to make the leap to a more personal question, even if you happen to be the first to breach the distance. The Wesleyan community is the most genuine environment that I’ve ever been a part of, and honest human connection is the heartbeat of this school. People want to get to know you, so have faith. Once you ride out the wave of awkwardness that comes with all new beginnings, you’ll find yourself looking back at the days of “Where are you from?” as a thing of the past.
Isabel Fattal is a member of the Class of 2017.