When We Make (Awkward) Small Talk

I used to talk to strangers a lot more than I do now. Of course that was when I lived in China, was single, and took every opportunity imaginable to practice my Chinese. Conversing with my neighbor was a win-win. I got language practice and my neighbors could satisfy their curiosity and ask me ALL the questions:

“How much money do you make?”

“Are you married?”

“Do you want me to find you a Chinese boyfriend?”

And because of that, I got to ask them everything I wanted to know as well.

One day in China I was waiting for the bus at rush hour. There were no lines, no “But I was here first’s” and no personal space. This was every man and woman for themselves. So I decided to sit on the bench with my packages and just wait for the sea to subside. I watched with amusement as elbows and knees were thrown. The mob moved as one to try and ooze into the small opening of the bus.

But as I watched, I began to notice something.

Someone.

One man in particular ran up to the crowd, pressing in against them, then retreated right before the bus drove away. I watched as this happened at least five times. Eventually, I noticed something else. As this man pressed in, I saw his hands search pockets and purses. This man was a thief.

I continued to sit and watch. Eventually, the man noticed the waiguoren (outside person/foreigner) sitting on the bench, lap piled high with packages, watching him. I finally got up my nerve.

“So how much money do you make in a day?” I asked.

Without missing a beat, he answered, “About 1000 yuan a day.” This was easily a month’s wages for a lower middle class Chinese person in my city.

Another bus approached. He glanced past me, “Excuse me,” he said. “I need to work.” I watched him run up against the crowd again, then retreat at the last moment. We chatted between each of his “work trips” and I asked about his home, his family and if he felt bad about what he was doing. “Mei ban fa,” he said. No other way.

When the crowds began to subside, I kept a hand on my bag and bid my new acquaintance goodbye. “Man zou,” Go slowly, he said. “Man zou,” I replied.

***

Since moving back to the states seven years ago, I have gotten rusty in my social skills. I no longer talk to strangers, am awkward when the grocery store cashier asks me how my day is going, and prefer texting to talking on the phone. But since moving to a new home two months ago, I am hoping for a fresh start. I want to do the things I once did in China to get to know my neighbors. Surely those methods translate to my home culture?

So two nights ago when I ran out to buy beer (yes), I hesitated when two men stood smoking in front of the entrance to the liquor store. But my old brave self took over, pushing aside my minivan-driving, latte-drinking mom self. Just do it. Go in, she said.

The men parted quickly as I approached them, the one in the hood scurried around the corner, the skinny one entered the store, apologizing. “Can I help you find anything?” he said.

“Do you have any seasonal beers?” I asked. He pointed out a few.

Bottles lined the entire back wall behind the cashier, from floor to ceiling. I was the only one in the store. “So it sounded like that guy was speaking another language,” I mentioned.

“Yeah, I think it was Hebrew,” he said. “He comes around here a lot, but he usually comes back drunk within an hour.”

“So what do you do in a case like that?” I asked. “When someone comes in drunk, do you serve them?”

We chatted a bit more and I left, my pony tail swinging as I put my Blue Moon in the passenger seat. I felt like my old self again. The self who was curious, asked questions and was interested in people. (Okay, perhaps I’m mainly interested in those who are different from me, but still.) It felt good to be inquisitive again.

***

I recently listened to a TED talk about a community on an Italian island where there are ten times the amount of centenarians than in North America. Research shows that their longevity is not due to their diet, exercise or even positive thinking. The main reason for their extended life expectancy seems to be that they live in a tight-knit community where they have daily social interactions. They make eye contact, greet one another and exchange small talk.

Though suburban living has the potential to isolate me from my neighbor, I can still seek out community. I want to greet my neighbors, make eye contact, and ask probing questions. I want to use the tools for language learning I developed in China to get to know my neighbors right here in America. What’s the main ingredient in noticing my neighbor?

Intentionality.

If we are not intentional about getting to know our neighbors, it will not happen.

So how am I going to do this? I’m taking my children trick-or-treating for Halloween. We’re going on walks around the block and stopping to chat with neighbors along the way. I’m forcing myself to talk to random teenagers or moms at the park. And I’m asking cashiers how their day is going before they have a chance to ask me.

I’m embracing my awkward for the sake of community because Jesus tells me to love my neighbor. And sometimes loving is awkward, isn’t it? Jesus doesn’t say loving our neighbor is comfortable or convenient. In fact, the story right after he commands this unreasonable love for our neighbor is about two men who side-stepped someone in need and another man who stopped to help even though it required time, money and effort he may not have wanted to give.

I’m praying for a holy curiosity in all the people around me.

I want to start loving with my ears. Every encounter with every person in my day is pre-ordained by God and full of potential. I don’t want to assume I know people’s stories, because even the most ordinary-seeming person can astound us.

5 Replies to “When We Make (Awkward) Small Talk”

  1. I’ve been thinking about this post a lot this week. I work in the deli of a grocery store, so opportunities for awkward small talk abound. As an introvert, it’s far too easy for me to try to avoid it, but I find that when I truly engage people (even if only for 1 minute) I get to learn the most interesting things! Thanks for sharing this!

    1. I’m so glad! You know, just writing this is making me accountable to actually practice what I preach. It’s hard–but life is so much interesting when you find out little things about the people around you, isn’t it? Glad you’re taking the challenge, too!

  2. For me, it helps that I’m part of a training program that holds me accountable for social interactions. But I’m a data girl!

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