One of the things I miss during this pandemic season is small talk. You know, the conversation with colleagues as you walk up a flight of stairs on the way to the same meeting. Or the brief exchange with coworkers as you move from the parking lot into the office. Or the conversation at lunch, whether in the break room or surrounding a meeting, in which you learn about your friend’s family or their latest home projects or the amazing show they watched over the weekend. When you meet virtually, people show up just in time for the meeting to begin. And the virtual meeting room is shut down when the last piece of business is concluded.
So, I have been thinking about how to be more intentional in my interactions. What questions can I ask in order to begin more directed conversations?
“How are you?” just doesn’t do the trick. Even though this is an open-ended question, it results in a rote answer: “I am fine.” Or a quick OK. Or a more honest — “I’m hanging in there.” But we might as well just say hello in answer to another hello.
In a recent article in the Atlantic, the author suggests that the question, “How are you?” in a pandemic is completely worthless. “Everyone is doing badly.” Or at least we are all experiencing our own levels and days that range from OK to not great to really not great. She suggests that asking about a person’s health or state of being in a pandemic is akin to asking someone if they have eaten anything in the middle of a famine.
Instead of giving the other person the option of not answering the perfunctory “How are you?” we should consider other questions.
What have you done this week to help you cope with the latest pandemic-related stressors?
Where have you experienced joy today?
What did you do today that you would not have done a year ago today?
How are you coping with the new altered patterns in your life?
Who have you had an in-person conversation with this week?
What has made you laugh in the past 24 hours?
What new recipe have you tried lately?
What do you think about when you lie awake at night?
In other words, start the conversations. We need to be more intentional about those conversations that used to happen in the course of the day.
The next time you are on a virtual meeting, ask yourself, “Who, in this gathering, do I want to intentionally reach out to before we meet again?” Engage them in a conversation with a call after the virtual session, it doesn’t have to be long. But connect with them as if you stopped by their office on the way to the water cooler or next to the table at the coffee hour after church and check in.
Those conversations that seem like small talk are really the glue that binds our relationships together. Those opportunities to hear about each other’s lives are the things that connect us. It is the small life details that help us see we are struggling with similar feelings and striving for similar outcomes. And it is in small talk that we extend our own fears and hopes with the larger fabric of the community around us.
So, go ahead, pick up the phone and use it as a phone! Call the person who used to work at the desk/office/room next to yours. Call the person who usually sits in the row in front of you in church. Check in with parent you used to see regularly at the side of the playground.
Let them know that you miss them. And ask them something other than “How are you?” Then be prepared to really listen to their answer. Hear their story. And in so doing, you come to truly know how they are. In turn, your world will be expanded, and they will come to more fully know you.