The Last Word

I have developed a severe new allergy since COVID-19. And though we are slowly returning to normal — are we really now? — my allergy has worsened.

I am newly allergic to small talk — the inane, circular go-nowhere verbiage wasted between people who know each other. As Katy Perry repeats in the chorus of her song, “Small Talk,” it’s the “blah blah blah blah blah” that I feel unable to tolerate in this post-pandemic universe.

Having had such restrictive social isolation — Zoom sessions are not a fair substitute — for the past year and a half, I need two-way intellectual sustenance from my in-person encounters. Socially starved and primed for depth, my banal banter of my former life is just not cutting it anymore.

“Might rain later.”

“How about those Cubs?”

I understand that sometimes the small stuff is the preface to the conversations that are mind-opening, so perhaps I just need to be patient — like waiting for the amaryllis on the back porch to bloom. But it has been my recent experience that perhaps we are so unused to having non-virtual interactions that we have become immersed in superficial blah blah to the exclusion of meaningful exchanges.

I suggest that even the prompt, “How are you feeling?” can lead to something deeper than “Fine.”

This verbal shallowness may have a lot to do with the kinds of questions we ask. Getting to conversations about what we value, what is important on a larger scale requires more attention than asking off the cuff, “What’s new?” Perhaps instead we can ask each other, “What are you thinking about? What are you grateful for? What is different for you now?”

Yes, we all know people we barely know who over-share, so I am not advising that the person in front of you in line at Target or Jewel inform you of the latest health status of a grandparent or the financial wrongdoings of a partner. And please don’t ask a stranger about the small bump on your whatever that has you madly googling diagnoses.

My suggestion is that for those family, friends, neighbors and colleagues in your immediate sphere — plus maybe your second tier of folks — that you transcend the mundanely obvious. Share inspiration, aspiration, fears, discoveries, surprises. Because what you may learn might change you.

I recently was the blessed addition to a dinner group of six, including four people I had never met along with my dear friend, Pam, and her husband. Almost immediately, we launched into a discussion of work, meaning, travels, spirituality, life mission, vision — dare I say the lot of humanity. It was a glorious download of substance.

I inhaled the conversation faster than I did my kale Caesar salad with chicken. I arrived home energized, bursting with collaboration possibilities and the affirmation that you can randomly meet people who make fascinating community and world contributions. All you have to do is ask.

A search of books on small talk reveals at least a dozen with “small talk” in the title and then a few thousand more about how to make conversation. Since so many people appear to revel in small talk, perhaps few are as averse to it as I have become since lockdown.

One of the books I discovered was Malcolm Gladwell’s 2019 Talking To Strangers: What We Should Know About The People We Don’t Know. For the record, I am huge fan of the author, whom I have also seen live on stage talking about his big ideas. I am not sure he is even capable of small talk.

But what I learned from his book was that British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain engaged in a series of non-confrontational social conversations with Adolph Hitler in 1938, as a way to astutely discover what he had planned. Called “Plan Z,” the operation was intent on drowning Hitler in sycophantic small talk to derive his motives and intentions. It worked.

So unless you are trying to decide if your neighbor is planning world domination, I suggest you avoid the small talk and get real. Instead of shedding moments on superficial niceties, you can ask big questions and deliver large scale niceties.

Prolonged small talk does not make me sneeze, it makes me squirm. Because what I have learned from COVID is that we do not have time to waste words. And that is no small discovery.