The Beautiful World beyond Small Talk.


“There are no strangers here; Only friends you haven’t yet met.” – William Butler Yeats

What’s so fascinating about the HONY (Human’s of New York) concept?  The concept is quite simple: Brandon Stanton, the creator of HONY, approaches people on the streets of New York for a photograph and a chat. And the results are nothing short of profound, life-changing quotes. In just a few years, he has become one of the most vitalizing visual storytellers and humanists of our time through Humans of New York. The popularity of HONY was never about the quality of the photographs or how beautiful someone looked. But it was about how we connected with the stories of regular people on the streets. Brandon didn’t see them as people on the streets, he saw each one of them as unique stories walking down the street. The stories when shared gave a more humane feel to the city of sky scrappers. The universal appeal of the concept comes from the common “yearning for connection” and no wonder the concept has been replicated in many cities across the world. 

Now think about the million missed opportunities when the mindless questions we only ask someone else are – What’s up? How is it going? or How is the weather? Most of the time responded in monosyllables. Do these questions demand an answer? Not really. These are the so called “Small Talk”. Small talk is defined as the polite conversation about unimportant or uncontroversial matters, especially as engaged in on social occasions. I wouldn’t deny the need of small talk to break the ice and get a conversation started. Like Debra Fine, author of The Fine Art of Small Talk said – Small talk is the appetizer for any relationship.” But the point is, what if the only thing we have are appetizers? Ideally appetizers should lead to the main course right :). Socrates pointed out long ago that the least important things, we think about are talked about the most, while the most important things, we think about are talked about the least. 

Deep Conversation
Image Source – http://www.carpejuvenis.com

In the myriad meaningless notifications and updates, the memory of a middle-aged man from my high school days are so very etched in my mind. He had started a coffee shop opposite our school. I can’t recollect how we got talking, but I soon realized that he had lost both his kidneys and was living on dialysis. I still have vivid memories of how he would look into my eyes and say – “Sophy I want to live!” He celebrated each day as he cheerfully and courageously fought death. I liked being part of this cheerful celebration doing the ordinary things but with total mindfulness – arranging the flowers, tasting a new coffee flavor and genuine conversations about life. After the board exams were over, we moved out of that city and in a few months, I realized,  death ultimately won. He taught me how grateful I should be for all that I would otherwise take for granted, and how we can find joy in the ordinary and the most mundane.

What do you ask people whom you hardly know? Won’t it feel like intruding their personal space? What I have realized is that most people love to talk beyond the small talk if they feel you would genuinely listen without being judgmental. I remember an 80 year old US biker whom I frequently crossed paths during my evening walks in the summer. Once I asked him about what his tattoos meant and the conversation went on about his daughter and life and more, or the hair stylist from Argentina when I told her I recently watched “The Motor Cycle Diaries” and the conversation went on and on about Che (Che Guevara) and his early years in Argentina, a taxi driver from Afghanistan on what he felt about  the Syrian problem,  or a Hazara family when I told them the only window  I had to the life and struggles of the Hazara community was from reading Khaled Hosseini’s “The Kite Runner” and  here I got the chance to listen to their stories of struggle first hand. All these conversations went on and on until we stopped it forcibly due to time constraints. There is a story behind every person, and a soul beneath their skin. It’s up to us to get enriched. Or move on with polite smiles and thoughtless questions.

There is a story behind every person, and a soul beneath their skin. It’s up to us to get enriched. Or move on with polite smiles and thoughtless questions.

I know of someone in Bangalore, who is doing very well with his corporate job, but chooses to offer Uber taxi service to people while commuting to work. You may wonder why? Like Brandon Stanton he sees these passengers as human stories and this is a chance to connect to people from different walks of life. Isn’t that interesting?

The Case for “Big Talk”

Psychologists have long said that connecting with others is central to human well-being. In one study headed by Dr. Matthias Mehl, researchers eavesdropped on undergraduates for four days, then cataloged each overheard conversation as either “small talk” (“What do you have there? Popcorn? Yummy!”) or “substantive” (“So did they get divorced soon after?”). They found that the second type correlated with happiness.

The happiest students had roughly twice as many substantive talks as the unhappiest ones. Small talk, meanwhile, made up only 10 percent of their conversation, versus almost 30 percent of conversation among the least content students. 

Dr Mehl proposed that the substantive conversation seemed to hold the key to happiness for two main reasons: 1) human beings are driven to find and create meaning in their lives, and because 2) we are social animals who want and need to connect with other people.

But then, what stops us from moving beyond the small talk and the predictable superficiality? As Krista Tippett puts it – “Vulnerability is at the heart of listening.” To genuinely ask a question and engage in an authentic conversation, you have to be willing to accept that the answer might change or affect you in some way. But beyond the fear of vulnerability lies the opportunity to enrich yourself with wider perspectives, becoming  self aware of one’s own prejudices and a chance to open up.

Leaving you with a thoughtful TED Talk and just in case you are pressed on time, here is a quote from the talk that just sums it all up.  Ciao!

“There are 7 billion people in this world, each with an amazing, and unique story to share. That makes 7 billion treasure boxes full of life lessons, wisdom, and experience. Even when we’re surrounded by the smartest people, and the people that have the most interesting stories to share, we default to the lowest common denominator and small talk prevails.” – Omid Scheybani

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www.SoulCafe.co.in – Connecting over Soulful Conversations.

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