How I Banished Small Talk & Brought Big Conversations Back Into My Life
I've always thought it odd that, when we're young and dumb and inexperienced, we spend a lot of time talking about the big stuff - life, the universe and all that jazz. However, as we get older and acquire greater knowledge, experience and self awareness we seem to stop having conversations of substance and settle for small talk instead.
Think about it, how often have you endured a conversation like this?
"How you doin'?"
"Not so bad, yourself?"
"Can't complain. How's business?"
"We're ticking along, how's work?"
"It'll do me for now."
- Pause -
"Did you hear about Dave?
"His kids go private you know?"
"Not for much longer."
"Your kids doing alright?"
"Yeah, still got all their fingers and toes."
That, right there, is a minute of your life you're never getting back. Now, multiply that by the number of conversations you have, like this, each day; at home, at work, at dinner parties (festivals of small talk!), and you start to realise that life is too short and words too precious to waste on such fluff.
When does the art of conversation turn from technicolour to beige, and why?
My own experience suggests that thirty-five is the watershed at which the quality of conversation decreases in inverse proportion to the amount of personal responsibility one acquires. In our untethered teens and twenties conversations are full of fanciful "what ifs" but as we make our choices and narrow our horizons they become only about what is.
What is? Work is. Wife is. Kids is. Mortgage is. The more commitments we make, the less free we are and the more fixed our reality becomes until it is like a monolith in our minds so deep and tall and wide we can no longer see past it into our imagination. At this point, any attempt to start a "what if" conversation is treated as subversive. Really. If you don't believe me the next time you're at a dinner party drop a "what if: question into the conversation and gauge the response. Here's a few examples:
What if we're living in some version of The Matrix and all of this is a simulation?
What if Bill Gates hadn't used his money to fight polio and, instead, amassed a private nuclear arsenal?
What if you had to pay to use Facebook?
What if all Brexiteers aren't racists?
What if identity politics is racist?
How I put colour back into my conversations.
In March 2020 Singapore went into lockdown and the concept of the virtual cocktail or "quarantini" was born. This was a novel idea and, I felt, an opportunity to reach out to people with a low-commitment invitation to a drink - no need to save up, dress up or even leave the house. If you're not enjoying it you can simply make up an excuse and/or slam down the phone icon. So, I went through my phone book and approached people whom I had only met once or twice or not spoken to in years and ask, if they were as bored as me, would they fancy it? I'll be honest, most didn't respond but to those who did I made my intentions clear, I told them outright that I was lacking stimulation and looking for a different kind of conversation. Thankfully at least two of those people were of a similar frame of mind.
The first was the global CEO of a major advertising agency I'd met once maybe six years prior. He was interesting and charismatic and we had crossed paths a couple times at industry events, nodding at each other but never really saying hello. He was known to be a big thinker so I thought, why not? As luck would have it he was open to the idea and we had a slightly awkward initial appointment, feeling each other out, trying to determine the objective which, as I said, for me was simply a better quality of banter. Once that objective was established we were able to forge ahead with deep, challenging chats about the nature of business, capitalism, purpose and how these might change in a post-pandemic world. I came out of every conversation feeling stimulated and refreshed, endorphins flowing from the mental workout.
The second person was someone I'd met in London fifteen years earlier. I'd lost contact with her until she turned up in Singapore on a business trip from her new role in Bangkok. She became a client of mine for a while until I sold my half of the agency I co-founded and we both went back to business-as-usual, communicating largely through Facebook. However, come the pandemic I gave her a call to reconnect, which we did in a very powerful way. Being of similar age and circumstance we talked about how we'd changed since we first met in 2005, the nature of happiness, the purpose of ambition, the necessity of art. I now look forward to these conversations so much that I block out my diary, make a cocktail, light a cigar and settle in with no time limit in mind.
Over the last 16 months both conversations have become weekly affairs, on a Tuesday morning and a Wednesday night respectively. The first has led to a joint venture with the former ad-man and the second has evolved into one of my most valued relationships. Ironically, being able to speak deeply twice a week with an intelligent, vulnerable and curious conversational partner, has made me much more able to tolerate small talk the rest of the time. And now I have science to back me on the benefits of banning small talk too: Science Discovered That Banning Small Talk from Your Conversations Makes You Happier.
At the start of the pandemic I had already been craving more mental stimulus for a long time but didn't have the guts to ask if anyone else felt the same. When the virus upended societal norms it opened the door to doing something different, but...what if we could simply ask each other to get deep every now and again?