“I hate small talk.”
I recently wrote that on my Instagram profile after having asked and answered “Which classes are you taking?” a thousand times.
“Where are you from?” “What are you majoring in?” “How do you like Yale and America so far?” These are the questions that provide an escape from the uncomfortable silence when we are meeting new people. We reply with generic, already memorized answers until one of us finds an excuse to leave. Only then we feel a sense of relief, happy to be left alone again.
Everyone at Yale has had a fair share of such encounters throughout their time here. It was especially surprising and painful for me because I come from a country where small talk does not exist at all. This doesn’t mean that Turkish people are necessarily the most sincere or attentive people in the world, but you quite often find yourself discussing your love life with the person you met only 15 minutes ago. If there is alcohol involved, it usually doesn’t even take that long.
One could easily argue that this is a cultural difference, but I believe this difference also reveals a much more personal inherent issue about our interactions with one another. We are hesitant to open ourselves to strangers and form a connection. We are afraid of being judged if we reveal too much too soon. As a result, we hide behind small talk and master the art of diverting personal questions.
We can blame the pandemic for a lot of things, but this overwhelming sense of entrapment in our social circles is our own doing. Regardless of the pandemic, when we are in the presence of others, we spend time calculating how we are perceived and setting boundaries instead of enjoying their company. The worst of all is that we don’t even realize that we are building this mental block. But there is one more thing that we usually fail to see: Behind that mental block, we all crave human interaction and deep emotional connection.
Look at the number of people who signed up for Datamatch. It is true that some people may see it as a joke and others may just find it useful for hookups, but perhaps there is some truth — and hope — in our sarcastic jokes about finding a soulmate on an online platform. This is not even about romance or finding someone to spend Valentine’s Day with. As we filled out the survey questions, no matter how much we joked about it, we still thought for a split second: We want to be matched with like-minded people so that the transition from small talk to true friendship would be easier.
But in reality, there is no algorithm to match us with such people. When we approach someone, we have no idea what their personality, background or tastes are like. There is no guarantee that we will get along well, let alone stay friends in the next five or 10 years. Why should we even bother to have deep conversations if those friends will not even stay in our lives? But we can’t let this fear of investing in the wrong people dictate our relationships. We need to willingly try and make the transition to true friendship easier — and beginning our conversations with small talk is not the answer.
Every human connection necessitates some amount of vulnerability that only we can choose to portray. That’s the beauty and complexity of every relationship. In our contemporary society, however, vulnerability is not the most cherished personality trait. Deciding to trust someone and letting them see who we really are is not easy. Everyone has likely made the mistake of trusting the wrong person at least once in their lifetime. That is why a lot of people use initial small talk to assess whether we can trust a person or not.
Some could argue that small talk is still a useful tool as long as we pass that stage at some point in our friendships. But quite often, we find it easier to hide behind small talk and keep people at a distance. Even if that person proves to be deserving of our trust, we still don’t take that risk. We remain on friendly terms and greet each other in the hallway, but avoid opening up completely.
We don’t need to adopt the Turkish style of opening up very early on. It may take some time to feel comfortable with people we don’t really know. But we shouldn’t let small talk be the reason we can’t have meaningful connections with others. If our need for small talk stems from our fear of attachment, then we need to address that fear.
We need to accept that not everyone will stay in our lives forever, but every relationship will teach us something about this world and ourselves. If there is one thing that the pandemic has taught us, it is the importance of cherishing and living every moment to its fullest, because we don’t know when everything will come to an end. So why not take the risk?
SUDE YENILMEZ is a first year in Berkeley college. Her column, titled “Piecing together,” runs every other Thursday. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.