The Grace of Small Talk

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I hate small talk.

I dread every social encounter of people that I’m only acquaintances at best; because while I can hold my own in a conversation, goodness knows I’ll never be the one to start.

The girls in my small group find this funny and even unbelievable. Once I start talking, I rarely pause to take a break (they once said I had already said everything necessary during the bigger part of the hour, that they only needed to agree with the text we were studying. Obviously that was a leadership lesson for me NOT to do again in the future hehe).

But I have often expressed in the past how I found niceties like “How have you been?” or “What do you do?” from strangers or new acquaintances shallow and insincere. You can’t be (gasp!) genuinely concerned, right? Why should I tell you how have I been? (Obviously I can tell strangers what I do for a living, but it won’t be so long-winded.)

But, recently, I got hit by the realization that I’m shallow, withholding genuine care for people and allowing to be genuinely cared for back. Wading in the kiddie pool of the ocean that is grace.

Sincerely asking, “Where are you going and how have you been?”

There was a huge traffic jam as I was going home tonight, so my sleepiness was thoroughly tested as I tried to wait it out patiently. Others weren’t as okay about it, but others (like me) were dropping in and out of sleep. I was ready to give in and just trust my instincts to wake me up at my stop (whatever, robbers, I’m sleepy), when the old man beside me stirred impatiently as he looked through the entryway. He turned to me and with a worried frown, asked me where the jeepney was headed.

“Cubao po,” I answered with a small smile, hoping he’d somewhat be reassured (he wasn’t). He tsked and tried to go to sleep as well (I was about to do the same), then he sat up again and asked, “Ganito ba lagi katagal?” (“Is it always this slow?”)

I again smiled apologetically, and said, “Hindi po, pero traffic po kasi eh.” (“Not really, but there’s a traffic jam.”)

He grumbled a bit before leaning on the body of the vehicle and tried to sleep it off. I couldn’t, any more.

I wondered why God was stirring me wider awake now, when there’s a traffic jam and I have a less than enthusiastic conversation partner. I don’t even talk to strangers on my commute, and usually find it strange when people (especially ajummas/older women and mothers) make small talk and talk about the weather and grin and smile at me like we were old friends, easing one-liners and non-verbal agreements from my unresponsive face.

So now, I sat figuratively pressing my brows together when I felt the need to ask him where he needed to go. So I did. And he told me.

And my lip totally quivered when I tried posing the next conversation starter, like telling him that the next avenue should lead to the busier part of Cubao. Then suddenly, he decided to just get off (with difficulty) right there with all his stuff.


I may have been dazed for a moment or two, until I told God privately, “I’m going weird.”

I usually don’t care.

Call it conscience, a tug at the heart string (no, not really), or whatever; but what happened there wasn’t Liz-daily. It was Liz-rarely, and very much unlike a Lino Brocka, full of awkwardness and internal panic. That’s me and small talk. That’s me and strangers. No music swells or sepia-tones as I cheerfully help the old man get to wherever he was trying to get to. Or minus the drama, I don’t finish knowing new acquaintances by getting their numbers and offering coffee after (I sincerely, sincerely admire people who can do this, because I feel like it’s a genuine skill). What usually happens is a fair sized smile, then I shuffle to the furthest seat in the room. When provoked (forced), deadpan humor happens and then we settle for silence or quick, can’t-get-out-of-here-sooner goodbyes.

That was characteristic for about 75% of my interaction with other people. But now I suddenly find myself genuinely listening in conversations, asking questions about them and where they worked and how they find the weather faring for them lately? I wonder if it were all the training that I’ve been facilitating.

But as I comment to God how strange I’ve been lately, wondering how I got the tiny openers down, I realize He’s been saying, “Of course. You’ve been spending time with Me.”

Now don’t get me wrong, nowhere in the Bible does it say that Jesus was the winning extrovert, charming people left and right. But He was charming people, all right – leading them right to Him.

And then here’s when I start to.

So he came to a town of Samaria called Sychar, near the field that Jacob had given to his son Joseph. Jacob’s well was there; so Jesus, wearied as he was from his journey, was sitting beside the well. It was about the sixth hour. A woman from Samaria came to draw water. Jesus said to her, “Give me a drink.”  (For his disciples had gone away into the city to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, “How is it that you, a Jew, ask for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (For Jews have no dealings with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
– John 4:5-10

I love the story of the woman at the well; well, because she was characteristic of the people that those times would be treated worse than a stranger. Being treated passively by a town of people who were probably like me, couldn’t simply care; or coldly by people who knew who she is and her colorful life, wouldn’t have been easy. But Jesus sat with her, asked her for some water, let her voice her doubts, and answered them.

No sarcasm, or deadpan humor. No unresponsive face. It was to tell the woman who He is (He did), and she was blessed to the greatest degree. I could bet, she knew after that day that the Savior truly cared for her and loved her, sinful, unaccepted, fringes-of-society her.

See, I realize I fail to care when I fail to love. When there’s a refusal to offer kindness, charity, grace, then I really won’t even try to care. Meeting people, genuinely valuing their existence, letting them value my own – there’s an extension of interest and care that’s filled with love. Not love-love, but the byproducts of His Spirit in us; love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control.

And that’s when I leave the puddles and walk forward, enjoying the sea.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s still hard. (Painfully!) Positively viewing small talk – or rather, genuinely connecting with other human beings – is still as difficult and sometimes painfully calculated on my part, still. If we’re on the same boat, or you’ve been playing in the puddle and have stared a little bit longingly at the ocean of grace, do let me tell you this: It gets better. I promise.

Like He said, “Of course. You’ve been spending time with Me.”

I’d like to conclude this with the fact that the woman at the well did overcome social barriers and whatever grievances have come up with their little town, by telling the people that she has met with the Messiah (v.28-29). And, they believed her, and Jesus met them, and believed Him (v.39-42).

If somehow that clammy conversation we hold leads people to knowing Christ, then it’s worth it.


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