Small Talk Afterthoughts

from Erin

Years ago I read an article describing why introverts tend to prefer small groups of people over large. While some research asserts that introverts prefer fewer people because they are shy or reserved, this research suggested that—at least for some—introverts prefer fewer people because their interpersonal sensors are over-active. The more people in the room, the more social vibes to process, which means the introvert is headed to sensory overload.

My personal experiences affirm this theory. I love meeting new people and doing new things. But my interpersonal sensors pick up all the social vibes all the time, and this wears me out. That’s why I’d rather have longer, deeper conversation with a few people than shorter, lighter conversation with more people. Preferences aside, small talk is not only necessary, but it also serves a greater purpose.

Last week I attended a large community event with my husband. He introduced me to colleague after colleague (as well as significant others) as we worked our way through the crowd and to our table. Social protocol for such events calls for the exchange of social pleasantries—a few moments of greeting and sharing general life details, usually related to safe topics of work, family, community interests, and the weather. It didn’t take long before that familiar discontent began to grow in me: small talk feels flimsy to me when there are too many names, too many faces, too many emotional vibes, too many nonverbal cues, too many details to process. I was in sensory overload.

Despite the way my brain hurt, however, frustration was not eating at me as it has in the past. (The “Small Talk” episode and the ensuing discussions with listeners have stuck with me, doing a good work.) In those 40 minutes, I learned I wasn’t the only one in the room who:

  • feared mispronouncing names
  • felt too young and/or too female for the crowd
  • worried about the assigned seating
  • had a major sweet tooth
  • struggled with imposter syndrome

What was the value of 40 minutes of socializing last week? All that small talk reminded me that I’m not alone.

And that’s a lovely reason to communicate with others, isn’t it?

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