After RJ’s recent party, I realized that my perception of and approach to small talk had shifted quite a bit from what it was a few years ago. In the past, I used to feel annoyed with how small talk conversations tend to cover the same ground repeatedly (“So, what do you do?”) and how they didn’t often result in follow-up actions or connections. Now I see small talk as a way to explore and appreciate other people’s stories (especially since few people blog) and discover which aspects of myself might resonate with other people (and vice versa). It’s also a lot of fun to play with the mental models that other people build up, which is why I’ve been experimenting with introducing myself as a housewife and then letting the conversations bring out other weird aspects. ;)
It’s also fun building up little chains of stories with the kinds of hooks that make people say, “Wait, what?” Some examples of things that are incongruous or that provoke curiosity: semi-retirement, step-parenting a 17-year-old, combining laser-cutting and sewing, disassembling a washer/dryer, wearing a vest with an unusual number of pockets.
Weirdness is useful. Ideally, this weirdness brings out disclosures of other people’s weirdness, or prompts them to connect me with someone else they know, or demystifies something and encourages them to explore it. As for me, I like finding out if someone is the kind of person I might want to get to know further – perhaps collaborate with or mentally model. I look for people with shared values, interesting experiments, and a sense of growth.
Experiments are good because we learn from the divergences. That said, sometimes I can be too weird – when something I do or something I experiment with is just too far from someone’s worldview to relate to or understand. For example, sometimes I talk to people who just don’t get Stoicism, simple living, homebody-ness, tech customization (especially Emacs), quantified/experimental thinking, or blogging.
That’s cool. I don’t need other people to validate me and I don’t need to convert other people to my perspective, so it’s really more of an opportunity to explore.
When people ask questions about one of my experiments, I’ve been leaving it up to them to drive the conversation since I’m happy to answer questions. Sometimes these end up in unproductive loops. It occurred to me that it might be fun to take a more sociological/anthropological approach to this: to deliberately explore other people’s perspectives and dig into why they think the way they do, possibly from the position that I make perfect sense to myself and it’s other people who are odd and deserving of study. ;)
Here’s a more detailed example. I talk about value judgments surprisingly often because people often press for information on whether I’d like to have kids, which I suppose is a standard small-talk question for women around this age. Harumph. They usually have strong opinions one way or the other. This is one of the things that I’m careful to not have strong value judgments around or be attached to specific outcomes for. Sometimes I use this as an opportunity to prod people to be more considerate about things by considering a wider range of scenarios. Sometimes I frame my response in terms of being happy either way. It’s pretty rare to find people for whom this position makes sense. Many people are quite boggled by it. But I talk about equanimity anyway in case that resonates with someone who’s been looking for that concept, and even if it doesn’t sink in, I can rest in the knowledge that it makes sense to me.
On the other hand, my favourite kinds of conversations are with people who have deliberately cultivated their own differences from the mainstream and who can reflect on those experiments. Then our conversations become a high-bandwidth sort of brainstorming and swapping of notes. =) We might be doing different experiments, but we can understand and learn from each other’s perspectives.
So, small talk. It’s an opportunity to discover interesting things about people (captured in quick notes after the party, because who knows), play with sharing aspects of myself and messing up people’s mental models, and learn more about things I do differently. Even when I’m talking to people who find it difficult to understand external perspectives or whose conversational skills are somewhat impaired by alcohol, I can pick up useful information about other people and myself. As I meet more interesting people and as those people grow through their own experiences, I trust that small talk will become even more fun. =)