The following is the full transcript of world culture storyteller Omid Scheybani’s TEDx Talk: Breaking the Habit of Smalltalk at TEDxKish.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Breaking the Habit of Smalltalk by Omid Scheybani at TEDxKish
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.
Same thing with projects, and the fact that we start them very late, even though we have deadlines, and that always, most certainly, results in high anxiety, and late nights. But we still procrastinate.
And what about dinner conversation? Well, nobody said that talking about the weather is either exciting or fulfilling. Yet we engage.
So how can we get ourselves to break this habit of small talk even when we understand — even when it’s sometimes harder not to? So here’s the thing to keep in mind. There are 7 billion people in this world, each with an amazing, and unique story to share. The dreams that we pursue are different. The challenges that we have to overcome, and that shape us, are different, and the memories that we carry in our hearts are different. That makes 7 billion treasure boxes full of life lessons, wisdom, and experience.
So the next time you meet someone for the first time, and you lose yourself to the mere exchange of small talk it is as if you went to museum in which you could explore the beauties of our past and marvel at the wonders of our future, but instead you just sit there, and you play on your smartphone. Why would you do that?
Now imagine how much you can actually learn about someone, and from someone, if you approach each conversation with the innate curiosity that you normally demonstrate as an infant. How much you could learn if you embraced the unknown knowing that each person out there can help you become a better version tomorrow, of who you are today, and if you opened yourself to the vast possibilities of how one single encounter with someone can truly change the trajectory of your life?
All it takes for us could be to be genuinely and authentically interested in the other person. Not necessarily by their title, their resume, achievements or status, but in who they are as a human being, and the story that they have to share. And oftentimes it’s the simplest people who can teach you the most.
I could’ve asked the barista in Sydney about the weather in Australia. But I was rather interested in his motivation to be a barista. So I asked him: “What makes you so passionate about coffee?” And he told me that his grandfather had migrated from Italy to Australia, and that it has been a family tradition for over 5 generations to work as a barista.
The photographer whose exhibition I happened to walk in, I didn’t ask him how his exhibition went, I was rather interested in his memories. So I asked him: “Which of your pictures evokes the most profound memories?” He then walked me to a photograph, describing it as: “The last picture he took as a homeless person living on the streets of London.”
And my taxi driver in Guatemala, I could have asked him: “How is your day?” But I was rather interested in his emotions. So I asked him: “What made you happy today?” It turned out it was his 10-year wedding anniversary, and he was sharing this very, very beautiful story with me, of how his wife once entered his cab as a passenger, many years ago.
Yes, all of these conversations started with small talk, and yes, to a certain degree, it was needed to build some initial rapport and comfort. But the key was really to get off this track of predictable superficiality, and really touch on the things, and topics that make us who we are, our motivations, our memories, and our emotions. Such a slight change in language and intention can really open up a small window into the true spirit of another person, and allow us to have in-depth conversations that can truly lead to such meaningful and memorable moments.
Just imagine how many more strong connections we could build, how much more cross-cultural understanding we could create, and how many interpersonal bridges we could build with people that, one day, can impact our lives. This way, we could maybe finally see that each stranger out there is actually just another friend that we haven’t met yet.