I Miss Small Talk

I’m an introvert. And I can’t believe I’m gonna say this—I miss small talk.

The other day, I had to drop off something at someone’s house. We ended up catching up, shooting the breeze on his front porch—at a responsible radius. He’s an even stronger introvert than I am. But we both sighed something rarely heard among introverts: It was nice to catch up. We miss small talk.

In churches and even society, we tend to prioritize, dare I say idolize closeness and intimacy. As an introvert, I prioritize meaningful conversation. And while we’re all sheltering-in-place, many of us have probably had more literal ‘face-to-face’ conversations than ever, especially over Zoom or FaceTime. 

But in his book The Search to Belong, Joseph R. Myers offers a fuller picture of belonging. Myers says that we experience belonging across four different spaces. And they are all important.

spaces of belonging

  • Public belonging is like being a fellow Warriors fan, a veteran, or member of the same church. We may not know each other’s names, but we aren’t strangers.
  • Social belonging is the connection we have with people we ‘socialize’ with. That could include coworkers, the barista; most small groups and Zoom calls are in social space. We know each other and regularly exchange ‘snapshots’ of our lives.
  • Personal belonging is what we share with close family and good friends. Some small groups are more personal than social. These are people that we wouldn’t mind FaceTiming with.
  • Intimate belonging is what we share in marriage or very close family or friends. It’s the relationship(s) where we can be ‘naked and not afraid’.

Myers’ first insight is that all four spaces are important to feel connected. We tend to think the only important connections are personal and intimate ones, especially if you’re introverted too. That’s why so many of us at first rushed to FaceTime and Zoom. But one of the things I used to denigrate—small talk—I now see with painful clarity just how important it is.

For example, I miss that time before and after worship and small group —when we’d catch up on seemingly ‘shallow’ aspects of our lives: what we did over the weekend, common gripes, funny stories, sports, shopping, upcoming plans. While ‘shallow’, it connects us even if we aren’t exchanging sins and social security numbers.

But it’s also where we would make bids for deeper connection. Most conversations last less than a minute. But I cannot tell you how many shallow conversations turned into deeper conversations. Or maybe follow up conversations: Hey, what was that restaurant you went to last week? Is your mom still sick? You free for lunch next week? How do we ‘accidentally’ make new bids for deeper connections?

But Myers has another insight: While we have a God given need for intimacy, the more public the belonging, the more we need of it. I need intimacy in my marriage and close friendships. But after a while, you can only take so much of it! Plus, do we really want to have deep intimacy with 100 people? No wonder so many of us feel there’s too much online ‘face’ time—it’s too much intimacy. Meanwhile, what greater feeling is there than being in a stadium full of your fellow sports fans? Or sharing in the cultural experience of watching Game of Thrones together? Our need for public belonging is fullest when shared with lots of people.

Small talk falls somewhere in the middle of the spectrum. Now, being part of a church community, it turns out I have a reasonable amount of social connection—we have small group and ministry meetings over Zoom. And I need them all! But they all have a level of intensity and orderliness; they straddle the line between social and personal connection. But those side conversations at the dinner table, the freedom to move around to mingle, letting go of one conversation that’s going nowhere, going deeper with another that is, the cooler talk—I cannot think of a way these casual yet important connections happen in a socially-distanced world. And so it wasn’t until recently did I begin to miss them. Because I needed them. And still do. I don’t need tons of small talk. But I desire more than what I have these days.

There’s a part of me that’s thinking of ways to cultivate more small talk while we’re all keeping our distance. I can’t be the only one.

At the same time, I wonder if it is something whose absence we must simply accept and miss. Like so many things during this time.

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