Jiyoon Park

I often complain that I feel like relationships in the United States are too superficial. The unquestioning and naive approach of Americans to social interactions makes me feel like our encounters are not as valuable to them as they are to me.

I did not grow up in a social environment in which being overly nice to everybody was the expected norm. Of course, people back home are — mostly — polite and civil; however, it’s rare to witness the aloof excitement one can find on a regular basis in American small talk. I usually find myself questioning the sincerity of such behavior, then feeling bad about being that suspicious with people, and almost always concluding that even though this scripted attitude can be annoying, it is not really harmful.

The restrictions of understanding make it so it’s actually quite difficult to accurately know the intention and meaning behind different behaviors. In a sense, social interaction only phenomenally allows one to overcome loneliness, as it is not actually a process of connection but one of interpretation. And interpretation is more telling of its subject than its object. As such, I believe interactions to be more about self-discovery rather than actually understanding the “other.”

Having abandoned the idea that we can never really know others, self-discovery through others can indeed seem like a valuable alternative. However, admittedly, it does not help with loneliness. Is there any way one can feel less lonely? What does it take to break the mirrors all around to see what’s behind?

Inasmuch theory goes, it seems quite impossible to escape one’s subjectivity. And yet, if you are lucky, you probably have in mind that one person — a relative, a friend, a lover — you felt you actually connected with. Was that just another projection? I believe not; such deep relationships can be explained as coming from a place of profound vulnerability. In a sense, interpretation and interaction are suspended, with sincere expression and faith taking their place. Lasting for a brief moment, or for a bit longer, it certainly is memorable when it happens.

Of course, one cannot expect these “miraculous” events of relationships to occur as often. Taking a leap of faith into the meaning produced by someone else is neither the expectation of most relationships nor that easy today. If anything, deep human connections seem like the kind of event that is mostly outside of our control.

Even if we can accept that indeed these events do happen somehow randomly, admittedly, the environment of social connections that we perpetuate does not exactly help. We are too comfortable in the scriptedness of interaction we perpetuate, at the same time trapped and liberated by small talk. That way we don’t have to deal with unnecessary unexpected encounters, even though it can and does get a bit boring and lonely.

Operating on the script of small talk denies us a valuable understanding of ourselves through others. Self-discovery is not possible if all social interactions sound and look exactly the same. Surely, this might create the illusion of certainty and stability. Social interactions don’t challenge our social positions, resulting to us identifying with faceless structures like our professional or financial status. Fortunately, we are way more than that; we just don’t know it, and we’re too scared to figure it out.

If “miraculous” connections are based on vulnerability, real human interaction requires some too. Unfortunately, regardless of how smiley or loving and excited we usually seem when we see other people on the street, hiding inside the script of small talk, we repeat again and again, we are really showcasing how much we don’t trust anybody — even ourselves — to improvise, and maybe, to surprise us.

The way I see it the “let’s get a meal” culture perfectly fits into American small talk in that it lacks effort. The problem with navigating social interactions here is not that we are always projecting, but rather that we are even afraid to really enter them in the first place. We prefer to stressfully resort to a script, through which we enjoy the comfort of not being alone and not having to change. Yes, this way, we might think, we are getting the best of both worlds; but I can assure you, we are missing the magic.

Viktor Dimas | viktor.dimas@yale.edu