It was a long and exhausting day as I sat in an overcrowded waiting room at Nawaloka Hospital recently waiting for a friend to come out of her MRI session. As I adjusted my derriere for the umpteenth time trying to find a comfortable position in the uncomfortable hospital chair, I poked my elbow at the lady sitting next to me. I apologized and smiled at her when our eyes met for a brief interlude. And that’s generally the cue for small talk, where we launch in to conversation on why we are here, what ails us (or the person whom we accompanied), how common or uncommon the illness is, how good and why we chose the particular doctor and if we really hit it off we might throw in a horror story or two of what happened to so and so. Because nothing unites people within the walls of a hospital than horror stories. Alas, it is not so. My co-passenger in our ride on the medical train didn’t acknowledge my gesture and went back to staring at the screen of her mobile phone. There was no smile in return, not even a cursory nod or maybe a raised eyebrow, a scowl? Anything? She just had a blank glazed look. Was I offended? Concerned? Nope. It was a “move along, nothing to see here” situation for me. And it’s becoming all too common. So I turn my head around, curse myself for leaving my mobile phone at home and watch the crowd and twiddle my thumbs wondering how long I need to be alone in this crowded room.
Ladies and gentlemen, this signals the death of small talk. And it frustrates me. You see, small talk is not gossiping. Wikipedia defines Small talk as “an informal type of discourse that does not cover any functional topics of conversation or any transactions that need to be addressed”. Small talk is basically an icebreaker for human interaction. It is not about filling awkward silences or smoothing difficult pauses. Small talk is about fellowship. It’s about finding common ground between people of different walks of life. It’s about reaching out to fellow human beings. It’s about connecting with someone outside your circle, even if it is for a few minutes in a long long day.
Personally, I feel us minding our business far too much is the reason for all the world’s problems. You might think that I am overreacting and over analyzing this whole situation. But hear me out. When our young ones enter kindergarten taking the first steps alone into the vast world of wonders, we teach our children to be kind to each other, to share, to play nice, extend the hand of friendship and so on. All the while doing the exact opposite of what we preach in our day to day life as grown-ups. We might not be meeting each other in playgrounds to follow those rules, but hospital waiting rooms, those winding lines in the banks and supermarkets, while waiting for your turn at the hairdressers are metaphorical playgrounds that we encounter each other in a daily basis. We prefer to distance ourselves in our own cocoon under the guise of minding our business, not poking our nose into other’s affairs and my favourite, not preferring to gossip. At this day and age forget about small talk, smiling at a stranger provokes looks of distrust.
There are many amongst us feeling nervous and super self-conscious to walk into a party, movie, a wedding, a funeral, basically any place with fellow humans who do not closely associate with us. Why so? It’s because the art of small talk is breathing its last breath. There are some of us who feel absolutely naked without our mobile phones with us. I am an old soul when it comes to small talk. I enjoy it. Sometimes one might argue it’s just useless information about other people’s lives (and what Kim Kardashian wore when she went to the supermarket is highly useful information *eye roll*). But you learn so much when you talk to a complete stranger. And when you get a glimpse into another’s mind you learn to be more tolerant, empathetic and accepting. And you learn to understand body language and listen to what’s unsaid, to read between the lines.
The more we take monumental leaps as a human race in terms of science and technology, we seem to be losing the human touch. So this holiday season, take a risk and talk to a fellow human being. Don’t pull your mobile phone out the moment you feel alone. Just turn to the person next to you and say hi! They might be surprised, might give you incredulous looks or they might even brush you off. Take heart and do it for the future generations. Don’t be a part of the problem, be the solution. Think of it as an exercise in facing your fears. Take the plunge. Talk to a stranger.