My six year-old son recently had an accident at summer camp that resulted in a trip to Urgent Care. He is doing well and healing but for a week, he had a large wound closure just above the bridge of his nose…right in the middle of his face. It happened the day before we took a trip to California and fortunately he was not in pain but the bandage made him self-conscious. Lots of stranger stares and smaller children with pointed fingers while we traveled made it harder for him but that wasn’t the worst of it. The hardest part were people seating next to us at the gate or waiting behind us in line who engaged in small talk by saying something along the lines of “Oh man….what happened to you, Buddy?”
Each time someone would ask, my normally social son would look up as if begging me to save him from answering the question for the first, third or tenth time. Sometimes I would respond on his behalf, sometimes I would ask him to respond but each time I thought to myself: “Why is this complete stranger asking a child a private question?” When I finally lost track of how many times the question was asked, it dawned on me – for the first time, my six year old was suffering from the consequences of small talk.
As an adult, I am all too familiar with small talk. But as an ambivert, certain social settings can be draining and engaging in small talk is often exhausting. But beyond that, when friends, family, co-workers or (especially) strangers ask “small talk-ish” questions, like my six year-old, I am (inwardly) begging for respite.
Research has shown us that humans are happier when we engage in “twice as many genuine conversations and one third as much small talk.” Beyond the fact that genuine communication is better for our happiness, there are also small talk topics that we shouldn’t engage in at all! In case you need a refresher, here is a handy list of the best and worst small talk topics.
By nature, small talk is as it is described in its name…tiny, of little impact and generally insignificant. But as my six year old learned in the Sky Harbor International Airport in Phoenix, small talk can have big consequences. The repeated questions made an already dejected child more miserable. There were moments when he forgot the wound was even there but those were short-lived as another traveler asked us where we lived, where we were going, and what was wrong with his face.
Luckily for my son, his wound has healed and the bandage can be removed. But there are certain wounds that are less obvious but are ten times as vulnerable to the impact of small talk. Questions about relationship statuses, when a couple is going to have children, why someone maintains a job despite a lack of passion for the field, and the list goes on.
Just know that this is not an attack on small talk or an “anti-small talk manifesto.” I merely call each of us to be more conscious of what we say when we deign to engage in small talk. The questions we ask may seem miniscule and the statements could be made in casual passing, but we must be aware of the impact our words have on those around us.
The awkward silence we often share with others is less consequential than an awkward faux pas that was the result of small talk. And if you insist on starting up small talk with the passenger sitting next to you on the plane, stick with questions about the weather…you can’t go wrong.