There are two types of talk—small talk and big talk—and two types of people we talk to—intimates and strangers. For a long time, I pined for big talk. For deep conversations about the human condition, about the world, about complex ideas and disciplines, about sensitive matters and sacred topics. My thinking was that the perfect existence was one in which the talk is always big, regardless of whether it was with intimates or strangers. But due to recent experience, I’ve had to update that belief.
Similar to how there is no light without dark, big talk cannot be valuable without the small talk to contrast it with. For example, I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I used to think small talk pointless. If given the choice I would’ve taken an awkward silence over an amenable but seemingly meaningless conversation. That was until my partner pointed out—as she does with many things—that small talk is the foundation of most relationships. If I didn’t engage in small talk with my partner then we would be a couple existing as mutes for a large chunk of our time together.
It is almost a re-aligning of the hierarchy, in terms of communication. Big talk has got no less valuable, but small talk has assumed more of a central position in how I think about relationships.
But there is another alteration which has come about due to my extended consideration of big- and small talk with intimates and strangers. Of course, I value deep conversations with people I know well. But I think I place a greater value on deep conversations with people I’ve never met nor am likely to meet again. I had thought that this was a category of conversation which was mythical, an abstract ideal instead of a concrete possibility. I was wrong.
It never happens in groups, only one-to-one. It occurs in the nooks and crannies that surround otherwise banal events—a party, waiting outside a shop, walking on the beach. All it requires is two people who are unacquainted. It is this unacquaintedness which makes it possible to forego conversational preamble and leap straight to the heart of a matter. There are things we can say to a stranger that we would have a hard time broaching with an intimate.
Summa: small talk is more valuable than I imagined, and more valuable still is the big talk one can have with strangers.