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HAS THE PANDEMIC KILLED SMALL TALK?

Starved of interesting anecdotes, we’re getting deep, dramatic and direct. And it’s thrilling...

04.05.2021

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Lately, I’ve been mourning the loss of near-instant best friends I haven’t met in the pub smoking area or club loo. You remember the ones - you might not know their name, but you probably know they're going through a break up, and you certainly think that you’re going to be friends for life. You met them two and half minutes ago and you will never see or hear from them again.

The instant affinity we feel with these strangers is down to two things: an excess of alcohol and a natural lack of small talk. Loo friends cut to the chase, free from inhibition and all too willing to get deep, dramatic and direct from the off. The bond may be superficial, but the energy and honesty is joyously liberating. I’ve got a theory that the pandemic, with its unique ability to delete interesting anecdotes and exciting plans from our conversational arsenal, is making us channel something of this daring energy into our everyday lives.

Starved of our usual small talk stalwarts – nobody’s off anywhere nice this summer – and sick and tired of the same old lockdown debriefs, our upper lips are softening and our interactions are getting deeper, quicker. Behold: the rise of big talk. And while there’s nothing wrong with talking about the weather or what you did last weekend, upending the conversational norm might just be a positive change: at work, in love, and at the hairdressers.

In the dating world, the collective dearth of small talk is giving rise to immediate, incautious intimacy. What we may lack in feasible (heated) meeting spots, we are making up for in fiery, if premature, DMCs (Deep Meaningful Conversations). One friend told me that with all of her usual talking points irrelevant, she found herself discussing sex with her ex-partner, at length, on a first Hinge date. Another, who’s no stranger to the art of boldly intimate conversation, told me that during the pandemic, her dates have followed her lead.

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"These days, the people I’m dating are far more forthcoming about usually taboo subjects – mental health, past relationships, philosophical musings on the meaning of life," she says. "Add to this the inevitable six-pack of tinnies and the electrifying excitement of being within touching distance of an actual human again, and it takes but a few hours for you both to become convinced you’re soulmates. Unfortunately, after my fifth soulmate dropped off the face of the earth (still waiting on that text back, Joao), I had to accept that although said 'bond' is immediate, it might not be lasting."

It may not have worked out for Clem and Joao, but at least they enjoyed a few thrilling hours and avoided the usual dating drudgery of making forgettable small talk with a stranger. When it comes to work, WFH has brought the office into our bedrooms and made trivial chats by the microwave a surreal memory of a bygone era. With boundaries crossed, office convention forgotten and stress ongoing, it’s natural that we are displaying an emotional depth that we wouldn’t have braved back in the day.

Oversharing can cause problems down the line – nobody wants to be asked how their pub date was on the next morning’s Zoom with a thinly veiled hangover – but with nothing else to report, a little romantic drama can provide some much-needed light relief and bond a distanced team. More importantly, opening up at work can challenge outdated ideas about discretion and professionalism, and even break that cardinal workplace rule: do not cry.

"During one particularly overwhelming week, I broke down on call with my beloved work spouse," one editor tells me. "It seemed futile to pretend I was OK when I really wasn’t. And actually, this lack of pretence was a turning point. Tears should not equal weakness in a work setting. Stoicism can often be pointless in the quest for progress, in both a personal and professional capacity. And post-floodgate, we sought solutions to get things – AKA me – back on track. I would say, all in all, a pretty successful meeting.

This kind of intimacy may be neither immediate nor incautious, but it is drawn from the same place of emotional honesty and can be as invigorating as it is productive. So I say let’s go forth and spill our guts to whoever is allowed close enough to listen. Until we can make friends in the club loo again, that is – see you there.