I had a busy social calendar in February. I went out to bars and coffeeshops every weekend, where I chatted and flirted with both friends and strangers. I kind of miss those days.
Nor surprisingly, COVID-19 was rarely mentioned in these conversations.
Americans are notorious for shying away from unpleasant topics in conversations. As the saying goes, “never talk about politics, religion and death.”
Vox’s David Roberts, notes how “small talk” in conversations between strangers or at social events serves a purpose of social bonding, rather than conveying information. Thus, small topic focuses on “topics of reliable comity, and stresses fellow feeling rather than sources of disagreement.”
However, as my past life experience shows, keeping our conversations light and cushy prevents us from confronting issues of grave importance.
Imagine if we had talked about COVID-19 at the bar. We might have thought about social distancing earlier or even demanded answers from officials hesitant to tell the truth.
In the long run, Climate change poses an even greater threat to our existence, but is still considered too awkward and “nerdy” for the cocktail party.
By neglecting such topics of social importance, we fail our civic duty as citizens of a democracy to stay informed on the issues we vote on.
Some might argue that you can only have a good conversation with a person who is knowledgeable of the subject at hand. Yet, conversations about the weather are a core part of small talk, and we aren’t all meteorologists…
This is not to degrade small talk’s role in facilitating social bonding. A certain exchange of niceties at the beginning of a conversation is psychologically needed to initiate contact. This opening small talk should be differentiated from the dominance of superficial yet agreeable topics in many conversations.
Indeed, American small talk’s aversion to uncomfortable topics discourages people from opening up about their personal troubles or struggles. By foregoing topics that make them vulnerable, participants in a conversation lose an opportunity to establish a deep connection. By pushing discomfort, pain and anguish under the rug, conversational norms further a harmful stigmatization of mental health.
Having struggled with Obssessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) and Asperger’s traits for much of my life, I can vouch for the last point being far from trivial.
Much of the pain and depression I have experienced in my adult life might have been assuaged if I felt more comfortable sharing my feelings with others.
In the current crisis, let’s resist the urge to deflect conversations and shame “negativity” or geekiness.
Let’s give ourselves (and others) space to share and listen, to love and to learn.
And to support.