Small talk doesn’t bore me, but it scares me. I’m perpetually terrified that I’ll run out of things to say or questions to ask. There are some relationships, however, that don’t start with small talk. The result is fascinating.
Over the Thanksgiving holidays, I spent the night at one of my friend’s dorms. He goes to a school close by home and I would very easily call him one of my best friends. When I sit down and think about how we became friends, however, it isn’t normal. We didn’t become friends through the normal progression of small talk and then familiarity and then closeness. Instead, we worked together and, as a result, became close. We skipped the small talk altogether. I think that plays a big part in why our friendship is the way that it is.
We were never friends in high school. We were in theater together. We worked together a lot, and we spent a lot of time around each other because of that, but I would never say we were close friends. The summer after our senior year, we became much closer. Here’s the thing I love about our friendship, though: it started off as a creative working relationship, so we don’t do small talk. We talk about ideas. We trust each other’s opinions. I tell him off if he says something stupid, and he challenges me when I get too far off base.
I have not been friends with him for long, but I would call him in a crisis because of the nature of that relationship. I don’t know everything about him, but I trust him. That’s a more relevant part.
I can’t help but think that part of that is because we never did small talk. We didn’t have to. I didn’t meet this guy and want to be his friend. I didn’t meet him and want him to like me. I met him, and I wanted his opinions and thoughts on a play we were reading in class or a short film I wanted to make over the summer. Along the way, I figured out he’s an incredible person, but by that point, it was very easy to be his friend because we were comfortable being around each other.
There is something platonically intimate about the discussion of ideas, especially in reference to art – in our case, theater. The nature of telling a story collaboratively in any form requires a level of vulnerability. It’s hard not to feel connected when you’ve picked apart a highly emotional scene with them and tried to figure out how to make that appear genuine onstage. Even if you don’t like them, it’s hard not to feel close to them. That’s sort of what happened with this friend. In tandem with that vulnerability, a level of trust is assumed. It is required.
I think that friendships are more about how you feel about a person than how you much you know about a person. Because, if we’re coming across those feelings honestly, they should be informed by the things we know about the people we are around. The sheer mass of that is not particularly relevant.
I don’t know his favorite color or biggest pet peeve or what middle school he went to. And yes, those are things that a lot of close friends know about each other. But I’ve happened to become this guy’s friend in a less than traditional way. We skipped the small talk, and that’s where I would’ve learned those things. Fortunately, however, I know the way he asks questions, the insecurities he has about himself as a performer. I know about his relationship with theater and we’ve picked apart romantic and familial and platonic relationships in each others’ lives as they relate to larger ideas.
At the end of the day, it is hard to care about small talk with the people that you don’t know. In the first week of college, I probably met over a hundred people, all of whom told me their names, their majors, what dorms they were living in and where they were from. I remember almost none of it because, like most people, I don’t care. My best friends in college were met that first week, but I don’t remember what they told me because you don’t anticipate being friends with a stranger, even though that’s how every friendship starts.
When, on the other hand, you dive in with debates and ideas and putting on shows and projects together before all of that, you get to know that this is a person you want to be around. And you start to care about where they went to middle school or what their favorite color is, not because those are the defining characteristics to them as a person, but because their experiences and relationships with those things can help you understand them better.
I got to know the stuff about Mac that would’ve determined whether or not I wanted to be his friend before I was trying to be his friend. That was so incredibly helpful because I now have a sense of who this guy is. I know that he is a person I love and want to be around, so now I don’t mind the small talk. It doesn’t scare me. It fascinates me because it isn’t something to fill up the space between the cafeteria and the dorms. It’s something to help me understand why this person is the way that they are, not who this person is. It’s something to fill in the blank spaces instead of something to fill in the silent spaces.
I guess what I’m trying to say here is that asking deep, emotionally charged questions is uncomfortable sometimes. Most times. And I’m not suggesting that we go out and start asking strangers about their deepest, darkest secrets. But maybe small talk is more of a tool to understand why a person is rather than who a person is. Maybe we should take that into consideration.