Opinion | How to Make Your Small Talk Big

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Start by just reaching out to people. Be the one who extends beyond chitchat, to drop the bread crumb so people who need to talk realize you could be the one to hear them. On a socially distanced walk with a friend recently, we ran into her neighbor. My friend mentioned that her aging mother, who lived across the country, was recovering from a fall. The neighbor listened, then in an instant her composure cracked. She told us that her father had just contracted Covid weeks before and died.

What before the pandemic would’ve been a pretty standard wave and hello was now an exchange that none of us saw coming. We offered condolences, she sniffled, we parted.

We left that conversation without a resolution. This felt awkward, but I recalled advice I’d heard from Karena Montag, a therapist and activist in the East Bay who leads workshops on antiracism and restorative justice. “Expect and accept a lack of closure,” she begins her sessions. That’s a helpful idea, both for wading into broad conversations about social transformation, and also for more personal exchanges.

Each of us has lost something in this last year, some much more than others, and we are adjusting and grieving in different ways. We are not going to feel better until we grapple with what’s been broken.

One by one, in our clumsy, tentative small talk, we are showing each other where the cracks are. And the relationships reinforced by that small talk become part of the mortar for those cracks, especially when we keep doing it, again and again.

In an interview years ago, the actor Ellen Burstyn told me, “When you mother a child, a relationship is formed. You become the noun by doing the verb.” The same can be said for building back supportive, strong communities. You become friends by befriending. You strengthen neighborhoods by neighboring.

In this time of immense division and hurt in America, small talk is one instrument of change available to all of us. It doesn’t require a filibuster-proof majority or herd immunity. It does take effort and humility — to make the first call, to acknowledge the difficulty, to stretch a little beyond the usual platitudes and to leave things untidy.

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