Insert a Little Depth to Turn Small Talk into Something Much Bigger — and Better

I’m OK with plain old talk. More than OK.

But God I hate small talk.

“Nice weather we’re having.” “Is this your first time here?” “Pretty good game yesterday, huh?”

Blah blah blah, blah blah blah.

We can’t really swear off of small talk, though, because a) it actually serves a useful purpose, and b) it’s part of life, no matter how much we introverts might gag at the mere thought of it.

So lately, I’ve been trying to put an introvert’s spin on small talk by doing my best to give it some depth and substance — right out of the gate. And to my surprise, I’m discovering that it often works, preserving both my energy and my sanity in the process.

Let me give you an example. I spent most of last week helping out at my kids’ elementary school, since it was ice skating week — and, therefore, the gym teachers needed lots of parents on hand to tie skates. And keep the kids from hospitalizing themselves. Or others. Or both.

I love skating week. It gives me an excuse to skate myself, I get to spend some quality time with elementary-age kids (including my own when they were younger), and on occasion I even get to teach a child how to skate.

Still, when I was sitting alone quietly in the warming house on a Wednesday morning, sipping on my coffee and waiting for the thundering herd of buffalo to show up, I cursed to myself when I saw another parent walking through the door.

Rats. Small talk, here we come.

The weather was especially nice that day, for these parts, so I could have easily gone with the weather channel during that awkward silence when someone has to actually begin the conversation. But instead I was inspired by something — something that hadn’t occurred to me before: If half the population leans toward introversion, as research suggests, then I’m just as likely to be dealing with a fellow introvert right now as I am an extravert. And she might welcome “big talk” as much as I would. It could hardly hurt to try.

So I threw out this: “Is one of your kids coming today?”

Yes, the woman said, her daughter would be in the third group of skaters.

Then silence. And the faint sounds of crickets chirping.

OK, time to get serious.

“I always enjoy this week,” I said. “I saw something really cool yesterday: A kid had his arm around his friend for a good half-hour, teaching him how to skate while everyone else was goofing around. It was really nice to see a kid helping another kid who was struggling, without being told and without making a big deal out of it.”

The woman agreed, then briefly mentioned how her daughter had struggled some in school last year but has been straightening things out this year — with a bit of a, ahem, pep talk from the principal.

“Yeah,” I agreed, “we have our struggles with our kids too. They often can’t hear me when I tell them to do something. But I’ve noticed that their response time is near instantaneous when they hear I bought cookies.”

And just like that, my fellow parent and I had let our respective guards down, chatting only briefly yet affirming for each other that raising kids is indeed tricky business. And that no one — no one who’s honest, at least — escapes the difficult parts.

Take that, “nice weather we’re having.”

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