I’ve been thinking a lot about the people I used to see on Sunday mornings. We would sit near each other in church, exchange a few pleasantries during coffee hour after the service. We might even serve on a committee or together. I might not know their kids’ names or where they work, but I do feel like I know them. In some ways, it almost seems like we know each other’s values and priorities — what really matters to us — more than people I would consider good friends.
Yet, I haven’t talked to some of these people in nearly a year. Sure, we still “see” each other at Zoom church on Sunday (or rather, I seem them since I keep my camera off most of the time since I’ve usually just jumped out of the shower and am not exactly camera ready), but it’s definitely not the same. This isn’t for lack of trying. We still have coffee hour each Sunday (over Zoom, of course), and there is plenty of outreach. But what I’m really missing — what I never thought I’d miss — is the small talk, those random and fleeting “how are yous” and sharing highlights of recent vacation.
Out of all the things I’ve learned during the pandemic, the most surprising is that, as much as I love a good heart-to-heart and value quality over quantity in my friendships, I really miss — and need — my small-talk friends too. A LOT.
Sure, there are options. There’s Zoom, phone calls, and text messaging. But by the end of a long week of meetings via Microsoft Teams, the last thing I want to do is look at the computer screen for another conversation. I’m in a constant state of overwhelm trying to stay connected to the family members I don’t live with — parents, siblings, in-laws — and a couple close friends, trying to keep up with my job(s) and volunteer work, that I have nothing left in the tank. And sure, we could chat on the phone, but part of the beauty of these kinds of relationships is that they weren’t expectations to keep in touch. The keeping in touch just sort of happened because you shared common space or activity.
I miss these friends.
“The pandemic has evaporated entire categories of friendship, and by doing so, depleted the joys that make up a human life — and buoy human health,” Amanda Mull wrote in The Atlantic.
Small talk friends seem to be one of those categories of friends.
“During the past year, it’s often felt like the pandemic has come for all but the closest of my close ties. There are people on the outer periphery of my life for whom the concept of ‘keeping up’ makes little sense,” Mull wrote.
Sure, there are still ways to have “small talk” through Facebook or liking Instagram Stories, but these seem tenuous and devoid of personal connection. Commenting on someone’s puppy photos isn’t the same as seeing the twinkle in their eye when the tell you the pup’s name. Sharing memes about the terrible weather or abysmal state of American politics isn’t the same as hearing someone spend three minutes telling you about what it was like to phone bank in the fall. And sharing Netflix recommendations on Facebook isn’t the same as hearing someone tell you they love the new shoes you’re wearing.
A few months ago I fell into a funk of loneliness and couldn’t figure out why. I was keeping in touch with a couple of friends, my siblings, and my parents. But most of these conversations consisted of updates or venting. We filled each other in on the important things going on. Or we complained. After a long conversation with my therapist, I realized that what I was missing were those long, rambling conversations about nothing at all. I missed sharing the details about some of the volunteer work I was doing — things that seemed self-serving or inappropriate to share on social media but were really important to me. I missed talking about the tidbits of your life in a way that happens when you have time to really sink into a conversation. And I was missing all those small-talk friendships that don’t seem to stand out but form the very foundation of your social life. You know … the neighbors in your school carpool. The hairdresser you see every couple months. Folks you chat with after church on a Sunday morning. I miss them all.
As an introvert, realizing just how much I miss small talk has been surprising, to say the least. But you know, I don’t actually miss the small talk; I miss the small talk friends. I miss the people. I don’t miss awkward social interactions but I do miss the people those interactions were with.
It isn’t just those close relationships that matter, the casual small-talk friendships matter too. As William Rawlins, a communications professor at Ohio University who studies friendship, told The Atlantic, all of these relationships matter because they fulfill our fundamental desire to be known and seen, “to have our own humanity reflected back at us.”
I’m not suggesting that we set up more Zoom calls or that we start texting our hairdresser or that we comment on more Facebook posts (heaven forbid, no). I don’t even know that I have much advice, other than to say that I miss my small talk friends. I miss Sunday morning coffee hour. I miss chatting with parents at school drop off. I miss running into an old friend in the grocery store.
Our closest friends might be the ones getting us through the pandemic, but once this is all over, I have a feeling it’ll be the small talk friends that we have a whole new appreciation for.