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My love-hate relationship with small talk

The introvert in me avoids it. I dreaded O-Week for this very reason. Sharing small talk with people I don’t know and will likely never run into again has always felt so trivial to me, especially at the gloriously chaotic “2025 Welcome Carnival.” Yet, I know that small talk is the polite thing to do — and sometimes the only thing you can do — so, I’ve grown to tolerate it. Plus, I would be naïve to think I’d ever be able to avoid these conversations entirely. 

Though I wouldn’t have considered myself a devout theater kid in high school, I still took away some valuable skills from my time on stage: If I could play Antigone and act like I fully cared about (or even understood) the Sophoclean nonsense that was coming out of my mouth, then I could certainly act like I cared about  brief small-talk exchanges. So, although I quickly grew tired of answering the typical O-Week “get to know you” questions — Where are you from? What dorm are you in? What’s your major? Do you plan on rushing? — I feigned interest and engagement in these conversations, whether I was asking the questions or answering them. 

It's no doubt that people enjoy talking about themselves, and I’m not trying to say that I’m any different. Yet the reason small talk often feels so pointless to me is because the conversations feel so obligatory. Though it is exciting when you discover an actual talking point of substance with someone new, most of the connections that I form through small talk are meaningless. It still seems like neither person ever really cares about what the other is saying. (Like, I can’t be the only one who feels like this, right?)

But, at the same time, small talk is often the highlight of my day. I sound like such a hypocrite, I know, but it’s true. I look forward to running into the same girl in the bathroom at 2 a.m. every night just as much as I enjoy walking back from lecture with my chatty classmate that I wish I talked to more often. What really makes my day are the pleasant surprises like the server at Sprout in the dining hall asking about how my exams went and the guy on my floor that I don’t really know checking in on how my math studying was going at who knows how late at night. Though none of these conversations last long or are ever of any real importance, they feel fulfilling to me in a way that get-to-know-you-chatter just doesn’t. 

In the past year, I’ve lived in four different houses and moved hundreds of miles away from all my high school friends. Add the pandemic onto that — most of which I spent living near my grandparents as opposed to my usual neighborhood. I’ve experienced waves of isolation – that I’m sure everyone  is familiar with by now – which have left me longing for constant, meaningful connections as life slowly comes back to normal.

After a particularly tough transition to high school, during which I was too shy for most small talk and avoided it in the silent section of the library, I was as eager as I was nervous to start at Duke and start the whole process of meeting new people again. I wanted so badly to find connections of similar weight to those I left behind in high school, although I knew that it would take a while and that small talk would inevitably occupy the meantime.

As the semester comes to a close and I look back on the first half of my freshman year, I’ve noticed myself becoming more outgoing when it comes to meeting new people and talking with strangers (thankfully, I haven’t become a total loner). Though my feelings about small talk constantly fluctuate, I’ve come to realize the value of making an effort in connecting with people that are outside of your close circle. All of our lives have been in a constant season of change since the pandemic, so granting each other grace and offering small bits of support – whether that’s a shoulder to cry on, a listening ear or a quick check-in – truly makes all the difference.

So, if you happen to see me around on the bus or in the dining hall or coming from class, know that even a quick conversation in passing will make a positive impact on my day. But if you ask me what major I’m considering and I reply verbatim, “I’m thinking PubPol, but that might change,” don’t be surprised if you notice me force a smile and roll my eyes the tiniest bit. But I’ll still love you all the same. 

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