The following is the full transcript of world culture storyteller Omid Scheybani’s TEDx Talk: Breaking the Habit of Smalltalk at TEDxKish.
Right click to download the MP3 audio:
Omid Scheybani – Serial wanderluster, polyglot, blogger
So last year, on a sunny summer morning, I was in the old city of Antigua in Guatemala, hailing a cab to go visit a client. I got into the car, I was sitting on the back seat, busily preparing for the meeting I was about to have, when the driver attempted to engage me in conversation. “Where are you from? What is your name? Are you here for work? What do you do?” And it didn’t take too long for him to ask me: “How do you like the weather here in Guatemala?”
I’ve been very fortunate to have a job that allowed me to travel the world, and to interact with people from all different cultures. From the taxi driver, that drove me around Guatemala City, to the barista, who served me a cup of coffee in a small coffee shop in Sydney, Australia, to the photographer, whose photo exhibition I happened to walk in while I was strolling through the streets of London, all these people start a conversation asking me the same type of questions.
Questions that would make the conversation feel scripted, and that would put the conversation on a path of what I call: “Predictable superficiality”. I mean, how much can you actually learn about a person if you end up doing small talk about the weather?
All of this changed sometime last year when I had the unexpected opportunity to participate in any event called: “A Conversation Gala.” Now imagine receiving an invitation to an event where you don’t know the host, you don’t know the other guests, and you also don’t know the occasion. However, you do know that there’s one rule that everyone has to stick to. You’re encouraged to meet other people, and have conversations, but you’re not allowed to ask questions, or discuss topics that can otherwise be discovered through the other person’s Facebook profile.
So I got to the event with absolutely no idea what to expect, and I found myself in a room full of unfamiliar faces, and to break the ice, and to get the conversation going, the host had provided handwritten cards with questions on them. Questions like: “Do you believe in karma? What quality do you most appreciate in your mother? What scar of yours has the most interesting story to tell? Rihanna or Beyonce? And seriously, do we still need cursive writing?”
So I took one of those cards, I approached a person and I started a conversation, and then another person, and then a couple, and then a group of people, and by the end of the night, we had talked about each other’s family values, and childhood details. We went deep into the things that keep us up at night, and the things that get us out of bed in the morning, and we also touched on the things that we felt, and the things we feared. All of that, with people whom I had met for only one evening, and then never saw again. I barely knew their names, but I had learned about their relationship with their parents.
And while I didn’t know what they were doing for a living, I certainly knew their biggest regrets in life. The evening was very unique, and anything but usual. And it got me thinking — thinking about how one simple rule made all the difference that evening, in terms of the strong connections that were built, and the meaningful stories that were shared. And it also got me reflecting. Reflecting upon how often we have a chance to meet a new person in our lives, and how sometimes these encounters end up being yearlong friendships, while other encounters, we cannot even remember a few years later.
So what I didn’t know that evening was that I was a guinea pig. I was a guinea pig in a social experiment hosted by a non-profit company called: Irrational Labs. The social experiment was based on a research paper, published in the Journal of Psychological Science, which has found that more meaningful conversations can actually lead to increased levels of happiness, and well-being. Not necessarily because the content of the conversation is of a more positive nature, but because deeper conversations help us find more meaning and importance in our own lives.
Nevertheless, even when we’re surrounded by the smartest people, and the people that have the most interesting stories to share, we default to the lowest common denominator and small talk prevails. Researchers have also found that there are some things we keep doing even when we understand that they’re not ideal for us. I think most of us would agree that using the phone behind the wheel can be lethally dangerous. In fact, 94% of all drivers surveyed support a ban on it. Nevertheless, drivers still pick up the phone.