What to Talk About When There’s Nothing to Say?

Didn't everyone standing in a crowded elevator imagine how someone could be  murdered?”– author V. M. Burns – Lana's Blog

What do you talk to strangers about? What do you talk about when you don’t really have anything to say? What do you say when silence just feels too uncomfortable?

There’s the small talk that we use when at social gatherings with strangers. I was at an event recently and talked with someone about foot surgery and the evolution of late night talk shows???  There’s also the small talk we engage in everyday in the normal routines of passing in the hall, riding the elevator, sharing over the fence and catching up before a meeting.

Small talk seems trivial, but these days, I think it’s worth thinking about. 

There’s all sorts of advice out there about how to improve your small talk so that you can be more successful especially if you find yourself frequenting social events with strangers (and need to make a good impression).

  • Make eye contact
  • Ask questions
  • Don’t interview
  • Read the room
  • Don’t converse too deep (politics, religion), stay medium (pop culture, restaurants)
  • Show your emotions, smile!

“My father has a tendency to start conversations in the middle of sentences. He’s also suspicious of anything modern – like nouns.” ― Mike Rowe

Cut little Boy sitting on the Tree by Mosuno - Kid, Park - Stocksy UnitedPersonally, I can’t stand getting stuck in social events and having to generate small talk. I can put something together and perform okay but I have much more fun sitting in the corner and watching other people interact. Especially strangers. I was walking through my neighborhood recently. It was evening, the sun was setting and I came up on a driveway with a large circle of lawn chairs filled with older neighbors all sharing. I really wanted to climb up in a tree and eavesdrop.

Maybe, for many of us, this season of quarantine has limited our access to small talk?

What about the simple talk we use every day with our friends, co-workers, neighbors and spouse? The trivial, mundane, “lovely weather we’ve been having” conversations. They pop up and then vanish like the clouds passing overhead. This kind of small talk is almost random in nature. Yet, I think it connects us to each other in all sorts of ways like the seams in our clothing.

Old people's stories more boring - study | Stuff.co.nz“My father could out-weather anybody. Like people anywhere, there were times when it was the only topic where people here felt comfortably expressive, and my father could go on earnestly, seemingly forever. When the current weather was exhausted, there was all the weather that had occurred in recorded history, weather lived through or witnessed by a relative, or even heard about on the news. Catastrophic weather of all types. And when that was done, there was all the weather that might possibly occur in the future. I’d even heard him speculate about weather in the afterlife.” ― Louise Erdrich

We are so oriented to doing business talking and venting important feelings. We use our phones to get directions, restaurant ratings and wiki knowledge. Less and less are we cluttering up our days with the small conversations, stories that don’t really have an ending or a moral. Sharing what we did, felt, the memories and bits of our story.  But I think it’s good to be reminded of how valuable small talk can be at cementing our society together, strangers, friends and lovers alike. Since March, we’ve had less and less opportunity for casual, unplanned conversations with others we pass in the halls of living our normal lives. Who can do small talk with a mask on? I think it comes with a cost.

Each time I leave a social encounter I realize how little I actually listened. These days I talk too much, without a whole lot to say. Too much isolation can produce this. I wish I could listen more to the small talk all around me. When you give time to someone else you are giving a little bit of you. It’s like a gift. So rare these days. Maybe what we all crave is someone to hear us – not what we say, but just to sit in the same room and nod, smile and acknowledge our significance. 

“In the best conversations, you don’t even remember what you talked about, only how it felt. It felt like we were in some place your body can’t visit, some place with no ceiling and no walls and no floor and no instruments” ― John Green

How To Use Empathic Listening To Cultivate Great Personal Relationships

People might be talking to others less because of perceived threats.

  • What if we get into a political debate?
  • I’m so sick of talking about this virus.
  • My feelings lately have been so down in the dumps, I’m not sure anyone wants to hear.

Actually, these are the conditions when talking MORE is the best medicine! During this time isolation, to one degree or another, people around us may have less to talk about and fewer people to talk to about it. Yet, even the small talk is critically important in everyone’s life. It’s worth staying in practice.

  • Call someone while you’re driving
  • Send more texts about not much at all, just how you’re feeling
  • Compose a great email to your kids and close friends
  • Write a card, how about a letter (remember those?)

Making an effort to just pass the time with others is a valuable investment in helping someone else survive one more day – reminding us all that we’re not alone.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.”  ― Albert Camus

Who Are You Talking To?

“Women speak because they wish to speak, whereas a man speaks only when driven to speak by something outside himself-like, for instance, he can’t find any clean socks.” ― Jean Kerr

I talk for a living.

These days I am living by myself. This situation is made even more solitary by the quarantine situation we are all enduring. I find myself roaming through the house doing a lot of talking aloud and often stop and wonder, “who are you talking to?”

I do realize that my situation leaves me brimming with words to spill out on to others when the rare social occasion arrives. This seems odd to me because historically I’ve not usually someone who feels the need to share – I will always entertain, but not always reveal. But these days, I can’t seem to stop talking.

Dear friends had dinner with me last week. I had told myself AGAIN to please keep my mouth shut and listen more. Halfway through the evening I realized I was feeling hoarse and suddenly became horrified – have I really been talking that much? Like some sort of prisoner released from solitary confinement out of the Russian gulag? What’s wrong with me?

Is this need for social connection really that powerful? This desire to communicate, to be heard, to share our experiences, to know deep down that we are not alone? I think I’m bumping into a yes answer to much of this. I can show you in all sorts of textbooks why this is true, but now I seem to know it from my own lived experience.

“When you have once seen the glow of happiness on the face of a beloved person, you know that a man can have no vocation but to awaken that light on the faces surrounding him. In the depth of winter, I finally learned that within me there lay an invincible summer.” ― Albert Camus

Even using technology; texting, emails, zooms, and face-timing have all made this life we are now living so much more bearable. We complained before about how technology had wormed its way into every crook and cranny of our living – but now we ought to be so thankful for these tools that allow human connections to continue – people are joking about that guy’s funny shirts on laptop meetings.

Where would I be if I didn’t have all of these people in my life constantly throwing out lifelines of connection to me? All those taken for granted bits of small talk, shared experiences and personal updates? These little webs of interconnection hold us together AND hold us individually together inside (keep us from turning into a cat lady).

Some Down and Dirty Rules for Talking

Listen to yourself: if you’re talking so much, so fast, dominating the time and space, then you’re not hearing yourself. You’re breaking the speed limit. Slow down when you’re no longer aware of what and how you’re speaking to everyone else in the room. Don’t become a mindless word processor that doesn’t know when to shut up or slow-down or back up.

Listen to the other person: The best conversationalists are not the talkers but the hearers. How do you know someone is hearing you? They look you in the eye, they ask follow up questions, their expressions match the mood you are setting with your story. Don’t stomp all over the end of each other’s conversation because you’ve become over-eager to tell your own story. As we get older I think this might happen because we’re all afraid if we don’t spit it out now, we will forget!

Watch your body language: Being isolated like this has kept us from being in shared space where we use body language to communicate so much of our experiences. Now, wearing a face mask will continue to make this difficult. The eyes become that much more essential conveyors of emotion. But if you’re not even going to look at someone or if you’re on a computer screen with your eyes off camera watching something else, body language is lost. This is such an important dimension of communication, when we miss out on it, it’s too late that we discover the poverty of the interaction.

Who ARE You Talking To?

What if this season of isolation was a time when you could do some more talking with God? Maybe you could make some good happen out of this misery? It’s been my experience that when we regularly talk with God our levels of frustration, fear and despair seem to diminish. Circumstances might not change, but our outlook and perspective is altered when we are consistently talking with God.

“For many of us prayer means nothing more than speaking with God. And since it usually seems to be a quite one-sided affair, prayer simply means talking to God. This idea is enough to create great frustrations. If I present a problem, I expect a solution; if I formulate a question, I expect an answer; if I ask for guidance, I expect a response. And when it seems, increasingly, that I am talking into the dark, it is not so strange that I soon begin to suspect that my dialogue with God is in fact a monologue. Then I may begin to ask myself: To whom am I really speaking, God or myself?” ― Henri J.M. Nouwen

I think this is exactly right! But maybe now there is time, time to be silent, time to be still and wait. Maybe during the lock-down in your life, there is time to listen for an answer – maybe even one that’s been there all along.

 

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What’s Under Your Tree?

“In the old days, it was not called the Holiday Season; the Christians called it ‘Christmas’ and went to church; the Jews called it ‘Hanukkah’ and went to synagogue; the atheists went to parties and drank. People passing each other on the street would say ‘Merry Christmas!’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah!’ or (to the atheists) ‘Look out for the wall!” ― Dave Barry

“Peace is the only battle worth waging.” ― Albert Camus

Sometimes getting prepared for Christmas seems like waging war. There are gifts to think about, purchase, wrap, hide, remember and haul around. All that beautiful wrapping paper and ribbons to wad up and push into garbage bags. Dinners to plan, prepare and clear up (10 minutes later). So much decorating! Why is there all this traffic on the way to every social event?

I’m a professor, and in my house getting ready for the holiday season also means ending a semester with exams, papers and grading. So many loose ends to tie up. Why did so many students not worry about their grade until the last seconds? Happens every year since Plato I guess.

“One of the great disadvantages of hurry is that it takes such a long time.”  ― G.K. Chesterton

Our American version of Christmas can mess up your mind and heart if you’re not careful. Keep watch over your mood, how you treat others and what’s really important. Go to church, hear a Christmas musical, remember again what this all really means.

Loving others the way God loves us, every day, is the eternal gift that people never outgrow.

Are you starting to get every name checked off your list? Isn’t shopping online a wonderful new invention? Drawing names in a family also works well – dispersing the thoughtfulness more evenly and keeping the extravagance in check. I hate running around trying to fill up a bowl of obligation. Be certain to take the time to place under your tree gifts that matter. Something that conveys your own devotion not just a duty.

“Oh look, yet another Christmas TV special! How touching to have the meaning of Christmas brought to us by cola, fast food, and beer…. Who’d have ever guessed that product consumption, popular entertainment, and spirituality would mix so harmoniously? ” ― Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes)

Steal a few moments from all the commotion around the table and tell each other something important. Pray out loud. Hold hands. Go over and sit next that aunt with the funny hairdo. Ask her to tell you about her favorite Christmas memory. Before it’s too late, think about the people on your list who are alone during this time of year – and do something about it. Make sure that your tree of blessing is seen and shared by others.

“Are you willing to stoop down and consider the needs and desires of little children; to remember the weaknesses and loneliness of people who are growing old; to stop asking how much your friends love you, and to ask yourself if you love them enough; to bear in mind the things that other people have to bear on their hearts; to trim your lamp so that it will give more light and less smoke, and to carry it in front so that your shadow will fall behind you; to make a grave for your ugly thoughts and a garden for your kindly feelings, with the gate open? Are you willing to do these things for a day? Then you are ready to keep Christmas!” ― Henry Van Dyke

It really isn’t that complicated, it’s not hard, but it is like shoveling snow (I imagine). Buried beneath all the clutter are the simple gestures of kindness, humanity and love. Just open the gate of your life a little more this month. Let the peace on earth and good will toward all run out like escaped pet dogs. This year, let’s all look at our trees as if they were our last. Let’s not take anything for granted. Let’s number our days and make each one count.

“For many of us the great danger is not that we will renounce our faith. It is that we will become so distracted and rushed and preoccupied that we will settle for a mediocre version of it. We will just skim our lives instead of actually living them.”  ― John Ortberg

Stop every day during this season and wait, watch and listen. Find a corner to hide  in and reflect. Make sure that you don’t miss the train. There’s meaning all around you, but it can speed past if you aren’t watchful and mindful. Turn off the technology! Look carefully at your tree, is it ornamented with meaning? With objects of love and memory that you can share as often as anyone passes?

You remember the classic Shaker song (a dance number actually) that teaches so much about how to live in this world we’ve built for ourselves. It’s hard to imagine what the Shakers who first sang this in 1848 would think of today’s pace of life.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free
‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,
And when we find ourselves in the place just right,
‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.
When true simplicity is gained,
To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,
To turn, turn will be our delight,
Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

Be sure to save a simple moment today and be free from your busy-ness and everything that doesn’t really matter.

Free yourself to make this Christmas count.