Why I Default to Small Talk…and Shouldn’t

Everyone in the car was a Christian, or at least doing a really good job at faking it. They were the married couple who worked for one of our author’s ministry. I worked for a Christian publishing company.

For the first part of hour-long drive to the airport, they put themselves up to the daunting task of trying to sell me on country music.

I will admit to enjoying some Chris Stapleton songs, but that’s it.

I will admit to enjoying Chris Stapleton, but that’s it. Even that was hard to admit.

“It’s really cool how music connects so powerfully with almost everything,” I said, trying to segue into something that didn’t involve more lyrics about trucks and whiskey. “I mean, I love stories, and even I admit that music has something to it that words by themselves don’t.”

She nodded, saying, “That reminds me of….”

And she stopped, the thought just kind of fading into nothing.

“It reminds you of what?” I prompted, because the conversations that almost die are usually the most interesting.

“It’s nothing, really. Just something my pastor said once in church.” When I waited instead of letting her off the hook, she mentioned that her pastor talked about how part of being made in God’s image is the ability to create—not in the same way that God does, out of nothing, but taking something and making it beautiful. And how, because music has such a deep, emotional resonance with us, he liked to think that the words of creation were actually music, that God sang the world into existence.

We talked about that, and about why music has the power it does, the entire rest of the way back to the hotel. And it was something, really, not a dismissive nothing or a trailed off, half-finished thought. “Wow,” she said, when we hauled the luggage out the back, “I’m really glad we talked about this.”

And it made me realize: we have a habit of making faith-related conversations highly personal.

Those are things we talk about in small group, or to our immediate family members or best friends, and only sometimes, only when we’re feeling particularly brave or needy or thoughtful.

This does not actually make sense. Let me explain why.

I tend to have four general categories to organize my life. The following analysis is a highly thorough and technical sociological organization, so prepare to be impressed.

People: Strangers, celebrities, historical figures, friends of friends, anyone who I interact with in some way.

People I Like: Which is about 90% of people I consider friends or acquaintances. Seriously. (What can I say? It’s hard to really get on my nerves.)

Awesome People I Like: Good friends, extended family members, people I admire, and four fictional characters. (Who says all role models need to actually exist?)

My Awesome People I Like: My parents, sister, mentors, and really good friends.

I could have made this significantly more complicated.

I could have made this significantly more complicated.

As I thought about it, there are certain conversational topics that I tend to use for each group.

People: Small talk, especially the weather. Possibly the book I’m reading if you’re stuck on a plane next to me for two hours.

People I Like: Interests and hobbies. What I’m doing/did this weekend. Likes and dislikes and the whys behind them. Random amusing anecdotes from my childhood, because who would not be interested in that time I blew up my youth group’s blender?

Awesome People I Like: Ideas, opinions, and beliefs, even controversial ones. Ridiculous hypothetical situations. A somewhat honest answer to how I’m doing if I’m not fine. What I’m learning.

My Awesome People I Like: What I’m afraid of and hope for and struggle with…sometimes—I tend to not like to talk about these things much. Mostly honest answers to any question asked (because I’m human and not always good at being fully honest).

This is probably not an exact replica of everyone’s social organization, but I think we all have levels of what we’re comfortable with in conversations. That’s good. Deciding not to share your entire life story and self-esteem struggles with the other person at the bus stop is not a bad thing. It’s called general awareness of social boundaries.

Here’s the thing, though: I think many Christians tend to bury their faith too deep within their circles. At least, I do, and I think this is one of the reasons:

I tend to see my faith as something I believe instead of something I love.

Christianity can become a series of often-controversial ideas (which it is) or a highly-personal part of my life that encompasses all of my hopes and fears and deepest darkest secrets (which it also is)…but it’s not just either of those things. It is also the reason I love trees or resonate with slavery-era spirituals or volunteer at a youth group or write blog posts or think that filmmaker Joss Whedon’s humanism is off-base but incredibly interesting to see in his movies.

I can talk about those things. Those topics are not awkward or too-much-too-soon. You can find them in categories neatly labeled in my “People” and “People I Like” levels, not reserved for my inner circle.

I won’t talk to someone I don’t know well about heaven in general…but I will say what I think about near-death experiences or stories like Heaven is For Real. I’m probably not going to go off on a speech about the sinfulness of humanity in general and you in particular, but bring up the Hunger Games or Hitler and I’m all there.

One of my favorite questions to ask just about anyone is “Why?” Why do you think that book is a classic, why does the Facebook page Humans of New York only ever have extremely positive comments, why is junior high so terrible? I can think right now of several ways that being a Christian influences how I think about all of those things.

My faith is not a conversational category I bring out when things get serious with a few people I really trust. My faith is a lens that I see the world, a series of events that have changed my life, a person I love, a series of really interesting ethical questions, and more.

Now that’s something to talk about.

One comment

  1. It’s so true. And actually, the older I get, the less I’m content talking about the top-of-the-list stuff like weather or the latest Marvel movie. (Seriously, I’ve about had my lifetime’s fill of talking about Marvel movies…) I want to go deeper, and look with wider eyes. I don’t even care if other viewpoints are different, so long as they’re deep and interesting! Alas, I often feel out of place bringing them up, so conversation returns to why Iron Man and Captain America aren’t a good fit to work together…

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