Small Talk

I've been slowly working my way through Letters by a Modern Mystic, a truly fascinating book documenting author Frank Laubach's quest for spiritual fulfillment. Laubach's letters are consistently genuine, thought-provoking exercises in purposeful introspection, but this quotation stood out even among his own insight:

In defense of my opening my soul and laying it bare to the public gaze in this fashion, I may say that it seems to me that we really seldom do anybody much good except as we share the deepest experiences of our souls in this way. It is not the fashion to tell your inmost thoughts but there are many wrong fashions, and concealment of the best in us is wrong. I disapprove of the usual practice of talking "small talk" whenever we meet, and holding a veil over our souls. If we are so impoverished that we have nothing to reveal but small talk, then we need to struggle for more richness of soul. As for me, I am convinced that this spiritual pilgrimage which I am making is infinitely worthwhile, the most important thing I know of to talk about. And talk I shall while there is anybody to listen. And I hunger -- O how I hunger! for others to tell me their soul adventures.
-Frank Laubach

Wow. How much time do I waste with small talk? Or, more importantly, how many people have I failed to connect with because all we did was talk about the weather? Politics, religion, relationships: all the topics that are the most interesting and revealing, topics that would forge actual kinship, are considered indecorous. Consequently, when I meet somebody new, we follow the established social pattern, navigating among safe topics until a sufficient amount of time has passed for us to part without affront. This is hardly fulfilling, so why do we do it?

I hypothesize that this veiling of our souls is the result of insecurity. The human fear of judgment or rejection is surprisingly and irrationally powerful. If I open a conversation and try to talk about religion, I may offend somebody, and if I do, one of two things can happen: he may reject me over our differences, or he may feel that I'm judging him for the same reason. I have little control over the former, but a respectful tone and a genuine nature should be sufficiently negate the latter. As such, the only real danger in opening my soul is the possibility that somebody might decide that I'm crazy, stupid, or unworthy. Is that fear of rejection compelling? Wouldn't the benefits of having stimulating, genuine interaction with some people outweigh the loss of frivolous time-filler with others?

Everywhere people are beautiful or at least they have a beautiful side. On the boat from Manila last week was a painted woman, alone. I spoke to her because she was lonesome. Three of the ship's officers nearby tittered as though they thought a scandal was brewing, so I talked loud enough for them to hear. I told her I was looking for God. As naturally as a preacher she replied, "God is everywhere around us and in us if we only open our eyes. All the world is beautiful if we have eyes to see the beauty, for the world is packed with God." "Thank you for that," I said, "I love it! What are you going to Cebu for?" "To put on my special act. You see I dance before seven mirrors. Nobody else, so far as I know, in the world, has just this act. I am traveling alone, making my own engagements, for it is too expensive to have a property man. I was treated wonderfully well through India, wonderfully well!" I liked the way she pronounced that word, and the memories which lingered in her tired eyes. "And many people in Manila wrote me lovely letters, asking me to come back. Oh, the world is full of good people, full of good people." When the dinner bell rang I said, "I am going about the world trying to find wonderful hours, and I shall remember this as one of them.

It would be difficult to conceive of a more awkward social scenario than a missionary talking to a prostitute, yet Laubach is undaunted, and I cannot stop thinking of how I can emulate his certitude. What can I change? How can I cut through social formalities and really talk to people? When somebody asks me "how's it going?" I don't want to respond with "good" any more. So I'm making a conscious, deliberate effort to abstain from small talk, to instead say "Great! I had a sweet devotional this morning," or "You know, I had a really interesting conversation with a total stranger, and my day has been happy ever since," or even "It's funny you should ask, 'cause I'm reading this book, and it mentions small talk..."


We learned so much about ourselves

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