We all feel it: The sun's begun its withholding ways.
The tree line is drawn sharp and spiked against the gray, indifferent sky. And when the rude wind pushes us inside, we shut the door and turn our backs on our neighbors without a thought.
Social psychologists tell us that our social skills still haven't recovered from the enforced isolation of the pandemic. We are losing our ability to draw emotional sustenance from the simple act of connecting.
Lately, though, I've been warmed by an easy flowering of friendliness. Small talk with strangers. And I can't get enough.
I probably shouldn't be so surprised by the afterglow of these fleeting exchanges. Rubbing elbows with strangers is commonplace for extroverts and the socially attuned. But not for me, a card-carrying introvert.
Something about that brief connection — a split-second eye lock, a lifting of the face, a softening of features — signals acceptance, an elemental kinship. The exchange that sometimes follows leaves me feeling more human.
This phenomenon has had an outsized effect on me in the few years since I've retired. Now that I've reached that "invisible" age, maybe I'm less self-absorbed and able to see others more clearly. Or maybe I just have more time to notice life's passing.
In my working days as a writing coach, I distinctly remember a sharp (in every sense of the word) young intern — all business, highly productive — insisting that she didn't believe in small talk and refused to take part in it. Her attitude struck me as arrogant and austere, although part of me agreed with her.
I'm hard-wired to avoid superficial connections. They require an expenditure of psychic energy, which feels somehow wasteful with such a fleeting acquaintance. I strive for connections that are deep and meaningful.
But now I see that the young intern's sentiment was likely fear talking — body armor for her emerging-adult insecurities.
Yes, small talk can be awkward. An exchange without an agenda or material gain.
Perhaps, in her short, untroubled life, she'd never needed that quotidian comfort.
But small talk is no small thing. These casual encounters are what social scientists call "weak ties," which paradoxically can serve as a vital lifeline. In fact, according to a 2010 review of 148 studies, social isolation is even more dangerous to our health than the risks posed by obesity, inactivity, excessive drinking, air pollution and smoking.
The good news: Even casual social interactions can restore our sense of well-being and belonging, especially as people grow older. And opportunities abound in the checkout line, at the dog park, in the coffee shop or at the gas station.
When we're out doing battle in the world, it feels especially good to commiserate. It's also nice to acknowledge the good stuff.
Here are a few of my most recent rewarding encounters.
- On a school-day morning in Rome, I watched a little girl and her backpack dash across a courtyard as her grandmother (most likely) leaned out of her apartment window and repeatedly implored her young charge to bid her goodbye (ciao!) — unsuccessfully. Defeated, she threw her arms up, glanced at me, shook her head and shared a laugh. In that moment, we grandmas spoke the same language.
- At an Amazon returns kiosk, I griped along with the man in a long line behind me when the perfectly impervious woman returning dozens of household items (without so much as a "Sorry, guys") finally completed her transactions and trotted out the door.
- While stopped at a red light, I gently wiped the face of my disabled brother and noticed the woman in the car next to me watching. She flashed me the kindest, most compassionate smile.
- At another red light, a driver to my left shared his utter incredulity — pointing to his head — as the driver to his left crossed over in front of him, then me, then another lane of stopped traffic before making a right turn.
- During a wintry walk in the woods, I came upon a young and very upset Amazon driver who had blindly followed his navigation instructions right off the road and into a snowbank. We managed to get his car out.
Such seemingly mundane moments remind us that we are not alone in this weird old world. Or, to bend a Kafka quote my way, connecting with a stranger can be an ax for the frozen sea inside us.
And it might just start with small talk.
Deborah Malmo is a writer in Plymouth.