The spiritual practice of small talk

Hate chatting about the weather, The Bachelorette, the traffic? Don’t despair: small talk can lead to strong friendships.

Jovo Jovanovic | Stocksy United

I dread small talk. In my mid-twenties, soon after I got married, I entered the grown-up world of cocktail parties, where I inwardly groaned over the inevitable conversational effort that would be required of me. I always felt that my husband had a magical gift that allowed him to be pulled into exciting conversations about theology or good books, while I always found myself in the corner, trapped in a back and forth over the latest episode of The Bachelorette. I wanted to talk about important things.

I had an itch to change the discussion to what I considered “real.” I wanted to interrupt the Will Krista and Ryan last as a couple? talk with So, how is your relationship with your mother? Have you ever struggled with depression? Do you ever worry that you’re completely missing out on the one thing you were created to do with your life?

Not everyone wants to leap right into the deep end

Thankfully, I never did blurt out those questions on unsuspecting party-goers. Thankfully, time has taught me that “real” doesn’t always mean sincere. Time has taught me that sometimes small talk is actually the most generous path to take in conversation.

Ten years later, I now understand more about the way I interact with the world. It’s natural for me to spend a lot of my interior life contemplating big things: death, pain, suffering. This is not necessarily the way people around me spend their idle moments. That doesn’t mean I’m special or extra deep. In fact, it often means that I’m haughty and judgmental. My natural tendency to think about “Sad Things” is the part of me that makes me a writer. The fact that it’s not hard to go deep is part of the gift I have to offer to the world. (It’s also the part that drives my fun-loving husband crazy!)

This understanding has helped me a lot when thinking about why sitting in a circle discussing when babies should nap or the latest Hollywood couple to go bust gives me the heebie-jeebies. But it’s also helped me understand that getting past my tendency to get the small-talk-hives is healthy, and more importantly, a step toward generosity.

Small talk is just the first step

Sometimes small talk is the only way to get to deep talk. Sometimes small talk is the path toward showing another person that he or she is valuable and worth listening to, whatever the topic.

Here are four things I know for sure when it come to small versus deep conversations.

Most conversations and relationships begin small

There is nothing wrong with small things. In fact, all great things start as small things. I met my husband at a concert and we connected afterwards over the beauty of a double bacon cheese burger. Some of my deepest friendships have started with a conversation about the smallest details of child-rearing—those very conversations I dreaded at cocktail parties.

All of life matters. A conversation about baby nutrition matters because the woman talking about it matters.”

The year after I received a master’s degree in poetry, I worked part time as an administrative assistant at a construction company. Instead of spending my time writing meaningful poems I filed and fielded phone calls from gruff-voiced men who referred to me as “the girl.”

During that year, I experienced God’s nudge, reminding me of the words of Zechariah 4:10: “Who dares despise the day of small things?” Though a conversation at a cocktail party about how many servings of veggies a baby should have each day may be the equivalent of a wannabe poet filing letters from a concrete company, all of life matters. The conversation about baby vegetable intake matters because the woman talking about it matters. Which leads me to my next point.

Depth in a conversation has less to do with topic and more to do with compassion

Let’s say my new friend makes a joke about about how terrible men are at remembering details of how to care for children and, also, by the way, at cleaning up after themselves. When I can take the lens off me and my conversational needs, I might begin to see that her joke actually conveys a truth about what’s going on in her life. Am I curious enough to ask her the right questions? Am I empathetic enough to hear the deeper story underneath her casual assumption about men?

Sure, maybe she’s just making a generic joke. But perhaps she actually needs someone to ask her the questions that elicit her true feelings. Maybe she’s in a relationship where she feels ignored, or feels as if she is being asked to carry all the burden of child-rearing. Maybe she made that joke about “all men” because the most important man in her life is failing to be who she longs for him to be. Can I speak kindness to her pain? Maybe what she needs to hear the most is that that she’s not failing, that being married is, in fact, hard. My response might just be a type of balm for her internal suffering, but only if I’m willing to listen for the reality underneath her words.

Going deeper in conversations always begins with curiosity

No one wants to talk about religion or politics with a know-it-all who is only interested in her own opinion. Instead, the curious people are those who genuinely want to understand others and the way another person views the world, whether they agree with that perspective or not. The people I most respect are those who know how to ask a good question.

Whether the conversation is about the latest series to drop on Netflix or about the presidential election, learning to ask questions is like doing pushups. The more you practice, the easier it comes. Every person wants to talk about what they love. When you learn to ask the right questions, you can help the other person open him or herself up, revealing the love (and sometimes, the fear) that drives their opinions and choices.

Let your conversation always be full of grace and seasoned with salt

Saint Paul said these words in his letter to the Colossians, and the wisdom of this instruction is profound. Whether it’s in the way I respond to my kids when they refuse to do what I’ve asked, or how I choose to answer the stranger from my kids’ school (who I want to dismiss with my perhaps hasty judgment of her character or intellect), as a follower of Jesus I have to ask myself if my conversation, whether small or deep, is seasoned with wisdom, kindness, and grace.

Small talk becomes deep talk only when we recognize that every person we encounter each day is, as the famous quote goes, ‘fighting a great battle.'”

Love is an action, and its presence or lack thereof will show up in our conversations. So how will we enter into the big conversations and the little ones? It starts with grace: seeing the humanity, the holy belovedness of the person in front of us. It follows with an intentional choice to choose the humble path—to listen, ask questions, and feel empathy. Small talk becomes deep talk only when we recognize that every person we encounter each day is, as the famous quote goes, “fighting a great battle.” Will they experience the love of God in the words we speak to them?

Maybe all talk can be deep. Even when the lady beside you at a wedding shower chats incessantly about how much she loves those cheese balls. After all, a good cheese ball is definitely worth talking about, don’t you think?

Micha Boyett
Micha Boyett
Micha (pronounced "MY-cah") Boyett is the author of 'Found: A Story of Questions, Grace & Everyday Prayer.' Passionate about monasticism and ancient Christian spiritual practices and how they inform the contemporary life of faith, she writes about prayer, motherhood, and her new journey with Down syndrome at michaboyett.com.

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