Rethinking small talk

The chitchat revolt
by Nancy B. Loughlin
Published in News Press on November 11, 2014  Posted with permission.

rina laughing in blue

Yogi Rina Jacubowicz urges all to rethink the chitchat.

Over the summer, I attended a weekend retreat in the Michigan woods. At the event’s start, we were instructed to find four people with whom we shared something in common.

I’ve done this icebreaker before, and I’m a pro. It’s easy to locate people who eat chocolate, like rollercoasters, enjoy the beach and have seen at least one of the Star Wars movies.

After we shared, the retreat leader exploded.

“We don’t have time for this (two expletives deleted).”

He pointed to a man on the other side of the room. “Do you ever feel uncomfortable in your own skin?”

He looked at me. “Are there past experiences that fill you with shame?”

“If all that can come out of your mouth is small talk, then shut the (expletive deleted) up,” he said.

That wasn’t small. I had been told.

The Chitchat Epidemic

Sometimes I think chickens are surrounding me. The squawking cacophony forces my fingertips into my ears.

I can be a chicken, too.

Small talk criticism is trending. After the Michigan retreat, I attended a four-day immersion in October led by Miami yogi Rina Jakubowicz. At the start, we signed a Student Code of Conduct. Rule #14 was “Minimize chitchatting.”

Striking up light conversation, I once believed, was a method for building bridges.

My strategy would begin with Conversation Light. I like your pants. Oh, I see you’re reading “Gone Girl.” I hear you are from New Jersey.

I kept it charming, and then I would assess when I would, if ever, fire the Deeper Connection bullet.

I can’t imagine myself approaching an acquaintance or fellow party-goer and asking Hannibal Lecter-style, “What’s your most painful memory of childhood?” Not right away.

But it might be worth the experiment because small talk’s benefits are slight. It’s communication as a vetting process. Each speaker takes turns in the spotlight, and it’s a light that only illuminates our likes and dislikes, opinions and non-revelatory personal anecdotes that nip-and-tuck our egos. At its most innocuous, this energy sucker is pointless Pong. But, small talk becomes manipulative at the “How to Win Friends and Influence People” level: coaxing others to talk about subjects that interest them, using their first names over and over, politely giggling over jokes that aren’t funny. We stroke their egos because these people might be useful to us later.

This is small talk at its most wicked. It’s Bloodsport.

Maybe we should all shut the hell up.

Following Rule #14

rina in front of group outside

Rina leads a workshop where all participants are expected to monitor the small talk.

When the yoga immersion moved into the second day, the “Minimize Chitchatting” rule was a formidable foe. The workshop participants filed into the meeting room, and the din cooked until an assistant admonished, “Mind the chitchat.”

A few interpreted that line as a directive to lower their voices; others became silent. When Jakubowicz entered the room, she didn’t acknowledge anyone’s presence. She moved to her seat in the circle, assembled her materials for the morning and then sat silently with her eyes closed.

We followed her lead. And we liked it.

Jakubowicz said: “The depth of your conversations and communications with others reflects the depth of your connection within yourself. Remaining in chitchat mode with friends or family will only create a minimal and superficial bond.”

The workshop continued. We talked about yoga. We discussed Vedanta. Throughout, we were expected to study our chitchat.

Some take-home activities:

  1. Monitor your fibs.

How many times do you say, “I remember,” when you don’t? Have you said, “I noticed that, too,” when you didn’t?

Do you say, “I know,” when you don’t?

These are all attempts to preserve conversational flow with lies.

“These little fibs, although they may seem harmless, create a false experience between you and the person you’re talking to,” Jakubowicz said.

Tell the truth, even on the little bits, because you are creating an authentic exchange of respect, interest and openness.

  1. Spend a minimum of three hours in silence when you are around other people.

In order for this exercise to be effective, you cannot use your cell phone, text or view emails. You cannot wear headphones or read a book. Simply be among others, wear your “I’m silent today” sticker and listen to them talk. Observe how often you feel as if you must jump into conversations. Would you have added anything new, or would you have merely repeated another person’s comment?

Observe who dominates the flow of conversation.

How much time is devoted to discussing people who aren’t in the room? Is the subject a Pong ball that’s just volleyed, or is collective effort shaping ideas?

  1. Speak in the third person for a minimum of one hour.

Whenever you would say “I,” “me,” “myself” or “mine,” say your first name instead. Pretend you are talking about someone else. Observe how difficult it is to rephrase your speech in this way. Invite others to play with you.

It will be clear how often you talk about yourself. You will also witness the extent to which your conversations are ego showcases. When you start using the third person, do you feel more attached to your feelings or less?

  1. Invite friends over for a silent two-hour dinner party.

Make sure the expectation is clear with the invitation. A potluck dinner is a great choice. Guests can arrive, place their dishes on the table, eat and leave.

“What’s the point?” someone might ask. Isn’t the point of gathering with others to share?

But Jakubowicz suggests that true intimacy is experienced when a group of people are in silence together yet acknowledging others’ existences.

You’re sharing food, energy, space and time. You’re sharing the experience of moving inward together. You’re sharing silence.

“Be willing to communicate with your eyes and your heart. This takes depth and comfort in your own skin,” she said.

You can talk about it later.

For more information about Rina Jakubowicz, visit www.RinaYoga.com.

Nancy B. Loughlin is a writer and yogi in Ft. Myers. She can be reached at NancyLoughlin@yahoo.com or Twitter @NancyLoughlin

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