Perfect Strangers: Making the Leap from Small Talk to Friendship

chatting - Perfect Strangers: Making the Leap from Small Talk to Friendship
Photo by Karen Mardahl.

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living. I want to know what you ache for, and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.
— Oriah Mountain Dreamer, The Invitation, 1999

I finally realized why I hate small talk.

I’m a therapist. I like getting down and dirty, delving into the nitty gritty of what makes us human, and feeling deep connection with whomever I’m with.

I’m uncomfortable with the superficial, triteness of small talk.

We tend to be a serious, earnest bunch. As existential and depth therapists, we listen to the woes of the world and are privy to details from the underbelly of human existence. We sit with the existential dilemmas that our clients face, all while attempting to maintain a sense of awe and wonder at the beauty of life.

Small talk irks me because it isn’t always small. Instead, it has the potential to bring up deep, dark, painful issues at a time or place when it is not safe to explore them, and they probably don’t belong in conversations with perfect strangers or newly made acquaintances.

Examples of seemingly innocent questions from well-intentioned perfect strangers include:
1)    Where are you from?
2)    Do you work?
3)    Are you married?
4)    Do you have children? How many?

Nothing wrong with those questions, surely? They’re perfectly normal questions to ask someone you’ve just met, right? How can any of them be insulting or hurtful?

Let’s take a closer look.
Where are you from?
I speak with an English accent so that’s often the first question I have to tackle. I’m from England. I’m also Chinese. Apparently this confuses a lot of people, so I am then faced with Round 2: “Yes, I can hear that. But where are you really from?” It’s hard for me to respond to that one without thinking of the ‘What kind of Asian are you?’  that’s been circulating on social media sites recently. The underlying message here is that I don’t belong.

Do you work?
This was tough for me when I first moved to the States because I had never been unemployed before. I found myself justifying why I couldn’t work yet and what I hoped to do when my work permit arrived. I see my friends who are stay-at-home moms, or other ex-pat housewives whose careers have been interrupted through multiple relocations by their husband’s jobs, struggle with this question time and time again. The assumption is that what they do to support their husbands and families is not enough, and it only counts as work if you get paid.

Are you married?
Personally, yes. This one isn’t painful for me. But what about those who are going through a divorce or those who aren’t married but would like to be? A single friend of mine is often asked why she isn’t married yet and whether she is against marriage. There is an assumption there that she is too picky or abnormal. A friend who was going through a painful divorce was repeatedly asked if there was another woman involved. And what if I was gay, lesbian, bi-sexual or transgender? Is this the time to come out to this perfect stranger? Is it safe to do so, or might I be in danger of being ostracized, or worse?

Do you have children?
For many people, being childless is not a choice. It is a painful journey of hope and despair. Being told that I still have time, or worse, asked if I am still trying, is painful and intrusive. For those that have lost children, I have witnessed their dilemma of answering truthfully or superficially. One friend struggles when asked how many children she has as she lost her first child through a stillbirth, but now has two toddlers and another on the way. Another has had multiple pregnancies that all resulted in stillbirths. Can she say that she feels like she has children without explaining her painful reality? There are so many assumptions at play in this inquiry based on society’s expectations that women should have children.

I am not advocating for everyone to walk on eggshells for fear of being offensive. Nor am I proposing some kind of extreme political correctness. What I am suggesting is the need to be more mindful about the impact of questions like these, and perhaps find an alternative way of getting to know your new neighbor/work colleague/social acquaintance. Sometimes it’s not the opening questions that are the most hurtful, but in the responses and opinions offered, particularly in the last two questions. The legal right to marry is not a given for many people in the USA, and the ability to have children is a blessing that cannot be taken for granted. Happily ever after is also not guaranteed.

Flippant comments or opinions offered during small talk often acts to deflect from any awkwardness felt from receiving an unexpected answer. Avoiding awkwardness doesn’t make insensitivity acceptable.

Despite my aversion to small talk, I recognize that it can be an important way of beginning the journey towards friendship, so perhaps we can find ways to make that experience more enjoyable for each other. Much of the hurtful impact of small talk is in the cultural biases and prejudices that we all make. How we respond depends on our cultural identity and sense of belonging, as well as other personal experiences that might make one topic more painful than another. It makes sense that we often begin by trying to find something in common with the person we’ve just met, but my experience is that this leads to a rapid categorization full of assumptions of the person we are with, which actually distances us from each other. Rather than running down a standard checklist of questions, maybe we can look for a more inclusive way to find out more about the person we are with. Small talk can be used as either a buffer to keep your distance or as an invitation to the other for stepping into your life. It can be a way for perfect strangers to become friends.

In my mind, my “perfect” stranger might ask me ‘Where do you call home?’

— Veronica Lac

Today’s guest contributor, Veronica Lac, MA, LPC, is studying for her PhD in psychology (Existential, Humanistic, and Transpersonal specialization) at Saybrook University. She is a British Chinese Gestalt psychotherapist currently living in Columbus, OH, and working as an equine-assisted therapist with clients suffering from eating disorders.

Read more stories by Veronica Lac

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