Don’t knock small talk

Words by Maeson (they/them), 21 WA

If you’re really struggling with your mental health, I will always recommend seeking professional psychological care.

But if you’ve reached a point where generally speaking, you’re doing ok, maybe just a little lonely or stressed or tired with the everydayness of life, then here’s a wild suggestion – don’t pass up an opportunity to connect with a stranger.

I think as humans we tend to underestimate the value conversations can bring. Logically, we know that chatting with someone provides the space to exchange information, ideas, or knowledge. But there are less obvious benefits to a good chat too. When we’re struggling with something, when we’re stressed out, or anxious, or feeling sad, having a conversation with someone who cares about you can really help to make us feel a little better.

A good conversation can make us feel seen and less alone.

There is so much value that a positive conversation can bring, including the ones we have with people entirely unknown to us. Chatting with strangers can’t replace meaningful, long-term close relationships with friends and loved ones, but it can complement that social connection.

I think it’s in our bones as a generation to ignore strangers in real life. Maybe it’s all those ‘stranger danger’ lessons from primary school. But when we avoid seeing strangers as people who we can interact with, we never fully realise they are, in fact, really people. Good people. And when we avoid interactions with good people, we lose an opportunity for positive social connection – something that we’ve all missed out on the last few years.

When we acknowledge each other’s existences and talk with people we don’t know, we acknowledge that as individuals within this society we care about each other. Studies have shown that talking with strangers can make us happier, more connected to our communities, mentally sharper, healthier, less lonely, and more trustful and optimistic.

We all like to say we hate ‘small talk’, but I don’t think it’s the talk itself we hate. It’s the worry we have that people don’t want to talk to us, the belief that they aren’t interested in us, that they don’t like us, or won’t like the conversation. It’s not true. Numerous studies have found that both parties who engaged in small talk enjoyed the interaction afterwards. So, despite my introverted brain trying desperately to rein me in, I believe that we should be connecting more with people we don’t know.

Now, I definitely don’t recommend sitting at some random person’s table in a restaurant one day and telling them your life story – they may not respond well to that. But genuinely showing you care about the people around you in small ways, can go a long way to making you feel like you’re part of something bigger than yourself. We all live in this crazy world together and recognising that may just help us all feel a little bit better.

Sometimes the only people who’ve been able to lift my spirits are complete strangers to me. It can be the most inane, inconsequential interactions with strangers that pull me out of bad moments. There are times when that familiar dark cloud has been hovering above me; I’m feeling anxious, down, sad, and something as absurd as a six-foot-tall burly gentleman with a leather vest jacket and handlebar moustache pointing out a funny looking seagull to me while standing in line at a café was the only thing that made me genuinely smile.

It wasn’t a full-blown conversation. And maybe it didn’t directly help my mental health; I mean he didn’t even know that I was feeling down. But what he did do is see me existing and decide to share some of his joy with me.

Talking to strangers can be hard, and weird, and sometimes it’s easier to decide that they don’t want to talk to you – they’re just living their life, how dare you intrude? But sharing some joy with a person you don’t know is a gift; having a five-minute conversation with the lady you’re sitting next to on the train about how ridiculous you found the movie ‘Thor: Love and Thunder’ because a bus passed you with a poster of it on the side and she muttered something about the screaming goats can brighten both of your days, or at the very least your train ride.

Small talk with your regular barista about their weekend not only can give you a sense of community with them, but it can make them feel seen – more than just the guy who makes your coffee. It’s not a long conversation, but it conveys a sense of feeling like we both belong here. I see you, you see me, and we’re in this shit together.

It’s kind to show people you acknowledge their existence. And it’s kind to have strangers acknowledge yours in positive ways. And just because at first it might feel a little odd to compliment a person’s cool rainbow sneakers as you walk by, you might just make them smile. And isn’t that a good thing? Don’t we want to make people smile? What’s the point of all this if we can’t bring a little bit of joy and connection to our lives, and to the lives of others?

Even if the conversation is less than a minute, or less than three words long, it’s a place where you both belong, sharing experiences, showing you care.

Illustration by Sam
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