We’ve forgotten how to talk to people.
For more than a year, we have mostly been apart. We’ve learned to put a premium on efficiency, whether in masked exchanges on street corners or on work calls between distractions. We talk fast and abruptly shift from greetings to agenda-driven updates. Then we replay it when we’re back in isolation. Our entire social lives have become a middle school dance: unrealistic expectations in the lead-up, self-conscious regrets in the aftermath.
As someone who talks to people for a living, interviewing them about tender personal topics, I’m here to tell you: We are all relearning how to talk to one another, and this isn’t just because of the pandemic.
Americans used to lean more on institutions and rituals to stand in for conversation when it all became too big. These have been eroding for generations or, put another way, have become less confining. There’s more freedom in that, yes, but at the same time we’re left with fewer go-to scripts and shared customs as we pass worn milestones, as anyone who’s attended a Zoom funeral knows.
Our everyday personal interactions, then, are shouldering more responsibility than ever. Small talk gets a bad rap, but remember, this is how all conversations begin. We can use it to more intentionally express how much we care about one another and to admit how much each of us is struggling.
We also don’t have much of a choice. At this phase of the pandemic, as we resume more casual interactions, our conversations can’t help but run into death and sickness, lost businesses and livelihoods, questions about the future and strained coping mechanisms for our mental health.
Without broad trust in our government, media or community institutions, we rely on informal networks, the people in our lives, to help us process it all. But these social networks, our most basic relationships, are also under stress. In a Harvard study last fall, more than a third of Americans reported feeling “serious loneliness,” only deepening a loneliness epidemic that had taken root before Covid-19.
We are also hesitant about who is worthy of our clumsy attempts to connect. More than half of Americans told the Pew Research Center in 2020 that they believed most people in this country look out for themselves rather than help others. And that loss of faith compounds. As Pew noted, “The less interpersonal trust people have, the more frequently they experience bouts of anxiety, depression and loneliness.”
The scale of the work that’s needed is overwhelming, and it’s increasingly on individuals to rebuild connections on our own.
“If a person’s behavior doesn’t make sense to you, it is because you are missing a part of their context,” the social psychologist Devon Price writes. You get that context by reaching out and listening. All this requires, first, some small talk. You can use these small, discrete exchanges to signal the kind of relationship you want to have and to acknowledge the tumult we’re each experiencing.
Even with death. Megan Devine, a grief therapist and the author of the book “It’s OK That You’re Not OK,” told me how she learned this viscerally when her partner died at 39. When they were hiking together in Maine, he was swept away in a river and drowned. In the aftermath, she could feel people straining to find ways to make her feel better. Some assured her she would find someone else, while others said to let them know if they could do anything to help.
“The glaring wrongness of it was stunning,” she told me. “People feel really helpless in the face of someone else’s pain, and they want to make that pain go away so they can stop feeling so helpless.”
She found that, for her, the most comforting exchanges didn’t have a motive to fix anything. Ms. Devine told me about one short encounter with the owner of a local bookstore while she was waiting in line for coffee. He came to stand next to her and said that while he hadn’t known her partner well, he’d always been impressed with him. He added, “I just want to tell you this is going to take a lot longer than anybody will tell you before you start to feel normal in any way again.”
Then he got his coffee and left. “It was great to hear somebody tell me what I already knew to be true. It was a validation of reality,” Ms. Devine said.
Small talk is not just something we do with acquaintances, co-workers and people at the store. It’s also how we begin updates with our extended family or longtime friends, people with whom we were once close but maybe now are not so.
These are the conversations you enter with trepidation, watchful of what to share and whether to be on guard. I learned from Pam Daghlian and her stepfather George Shankland, to start by just saying how you want to talk together.
Ms. Daghlian is a life coach in San Francisco who identifies as a political liberal. After her mother developed dementia, Ms. Daghlian visited her family in Michigan more often. When her mother entered a facility in 2016, Ms. Daghlian had to spend time alone with her stepfather, a retired tool-and-die maker and conservative Baptist with whom she’d long had tension. “It was hard to escape politics and it was hard to escape that we had different politics,” she said.
But Ms. Daghlian noticed her stepfather trying to welcome her in. He usually had Fox News playing in the background, but without a word, he stopped turning it on when Ms. Daghlian was in the house. She appreciated the gesture. Instead, they’d watch “47 hours of ‘Family Feud,’ ” Ms. Daghlian recalled.
The outside world couldn’t be kept out completely. One night they were watching a presidential debate together, nervously. Finally, Ms. Daghlian said, “we both started laughing because we realized that in about 30 minutes or so, no one said a word to each other.”
That’s when Mr. Shankland just said out loud that he knew they disagreed, but her relationship really mattered to him. “He said it first,” Ms. Daghlian remembered. “That our relationship was definitely more important than politics.”
I asked him later what prompted him to establish these guardrails for their small talk. “I just let it out. It’s what I feel. You know, I’m not bashful about that,” he told me. “It all boils down to values. My value is just to have a friendship and peace with Pam. That was worth more than venting our feelings about politics. And I was the one who said that. But she came right back. That’s the way she feels too,” he added.
With that assurance in place, they started talking more about politics. Their differences are real and consequential, but they could now be curious about each other, and disagree openly, while knowing something was still bonding them.
So they were there for each other as the woman they both loved — his wife, her mother — died last summer. In the weeks after, Ms. Daghlian wrote to me, “George and I really have managed to put our bond first. I consider it one of the great achievements of my life, really.”
Even if you’re not forced together by illness or logistics, we each can make an extra effort to initiate these conversations. Because, again, we need it.
Start by just reaching out to people. Be the one who extends beyond chitchat, to drop the bread crumb so people who need to talk realize you could be the one to hear them. On a socially distanced walk with a friend recently, we ran into her neighbor. My friend mentioned that her aging mother, who lived across the country, was recovering from a fall. The neighbor listened, then in an instant her composure cracked. She told us that her father had just contracted Covid weeks before and died.
What before the pandemic would’ve been a pretty standard wave and hello was now an exchange that none of us saw coming. We offered condolences, she sniffled, we parted.
We left that conversation without a resolution. This felt awkward, but I recalled advice I’d heard from Karena Montag, a therapist and activist in the East Bay who leads workshops on antiracism and restorative justice. “Expect and accept a lack of closure,” she begins her sessions. That’s a helpful idea, both for wading into broad conversations about social transformation, and also for more personal exchanges.
Each of us has lost something in this last year, some much more than others, and we are adjusting and grieving in different ways. We are not going to feel better until we grapple with what’s been broken.
One by one, in our clumsy, tentative small talk, we are showing each other where the cracks are. And the relationships reinforced by that small talk become part of the mortar for those cracks, especially when we keep doing it, again and again.
In an interview years ago, the actor Ellen Burstyn told me, “When you mother a child, a relationship is formed. You become the noun by doing the verb.” The same can be said for building back supportive, strong communities. You become friends by befriending. You strengthen neighborhoods by neighboring.
In this time of immense division and hurt in America, small talk is one instrument of change available to all of us. It doesn’t require a filibuster-proof majority or herd immunity. It does take effort and humility — to make the first call, to acknowledge the difficulty, to stretch a little beyond the usual platitudes and to leave things untidy.
Anna Sale (@annasale) is the host of the podcast “Death, Sex & Money” and the author of the forthcoming book, “Let’s Talk About Hard Things,” from which this essay is adapted.
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