Reviving small talk and casual friendships post-pandemic
I used to hate small talk — the awkward silences as my eyes connected with someone else’s and we both struggled to fill the space with fragmented sentences about the weather, our weekends and the workload we endured the past week. I would try not to be rude as my mind drifted off elsewhere, anywhere really to help me escape the repetitive monotony of the small talk I experienced during my first year at Brandeis. The constant mini-biographical questions of, “What is your name?” “What year are you?” “What is your major?” and, “What are your plans for the future?” bored me to death. At one point I considered wearing a name tag with answers to all of these questions, so I wouldn’t have to sound like a broken record repeating words that appeared so separate from me for what seemed like the 100th time.
Now, as a junior emerging from a year and a half of virtual learning, I strangely miss the conversations that once made my eyes roll so far back in my head. Yes, even the mini-biographical questions that drove me crazy during my first year have begun to symbolize new beginnings for me. More precisely, what I miss are the low-stakes conversations. Conversations that do not revolve around our failing democracy, our burning earth and our collapsing society. Simply put, the conversations I once hated have become a respite from the serious political, economic, social and environmental conversations that all need to be spoken about and certainly have their place, but that I no longer have the energy to entertain outside of my classes.
The hyper-active virtual landscape the pandemic created over the last 18 months has become a double-edged sword. On one hand, as I reluctantly logged into my Zoom classes, my professors and classmates revealed moments of vulnerability in response to ongoing political turmoil that have made me value humanity even more.
On the flip side, the politically turbulent times have destroyed friendships and ruptured family ties. Everyone was and continues to be so aware of the devastating state of our world that it is often all we talk about. Even conversations with my closest friends over these past months have transformed from playful banter to depressing and sobering reality checks, leaving me to wonder how our conversation about Korean dramas turned into a deep-dive into the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
As I reflected on my relationships throughout the pandemic, I clung to my closest friends and family to provide all the social interaction I thought I needed. But after being back at Brandeis for a little over a month, I realized that the organic interactions between classmates, coworkers and acquaintances are just as important as fostering close ties with family and friends. On the University of California Davis Health website, clinical psychologist Kaye Hermanson argues that casual friendships, “are important pieces of our emotional lives that we’re missing.”
Without causal friendships, our interactions with other individuals begin to lack range and versatility. As Hermanson put it, “It’s like our emotional picture is still in color but there are some hues completely washed out.” Without the seemingly trivial conversations about the weather, classes or K-dramas, our lives start to become unbalanced. We lean toward centering our time only on the devastation and the disappointment of multiple aspects of our society, instead of recharging ourselves with the conversations and the people who fill the space in our lives, even if we only know their first names.
What has surprised me most about being back in person is that many of the small talk conversations I have been a part of have brought more smiles to my face than the deeper, meaningful conversations about society. It is the conversations that are so unsuspecting that reveal the most about ourselves and human nature.
The most recent example of this was on another jam-packed weekday, when I sped-walked from my dorm to my classes with minutes to spare and made eye contact with a person walking in the opposite direction for much longer than I intended. As I was about to avert my eyes, she asked me what my name was, and I was pretty surprised. I had not seen her on campus before and I had never been in this type of situation. Usually I received vacant, empty stares with no words, but here this girl was asking me my name, and we stopped to speak to each other, exchanging the answers to the mini-biographical questions. After we chatted for about a minute or so, I actually thanked her for stopping and asking me my name and walked away with a smile on my face because it was so unexpected.
I only know her first name and class year, but every time we pass each other on campus we smile at each other through our masks. I do not know her life story or political views and I do not need to. This small, simple but kind interaction with a stranger added something to my day that I lacked during most days of Zoom monotony — acknowledgement. William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University explains in an article in The Atlantic, “The people that we see in any number of everyday activities that we say, ‘Hey, how are you doing?’ That’s an affirmation of each other, and this is a comprehensive part of the world that I think has been stopped, to a great extent, in its tracks.”
Over the course of the pandemic, as we have interacted more with our families and close friends, we forgot to acknowledge each other. Instead, we fast forwarded straight into the trauma-dumping without any small talk to ease ourselves into deeper conversations.
Small talk and casual friendships should not be conflated with empty conversations. That was my mistake during my first year, as I assumed every conversation that lacked depth the way I defined it was not beneficial to my social development.
It took a pandemic to realize, however, that without our daily interactions with people outside our inner circles, our lives take on another level of boredom and repetitiveness. Not everyone is meant to be our best friend, and not everyone should be, but if we learn to value the people we share quick glances, friendly smiles and low-stakes conversations with, then we are truly moving toward appreciating a new type of life as we begin to emerge from our pandemic slumber.