Did the pandemic put an end to small talk?

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In the past few months, I’ve noticed that there seems to be a lot less small talk cluttering my conversations. Last week, on a Zoom call with a new colleague, within three minutes we had discussed the beauty of hugging and her recent move to a place where she had more huggable podmates. It felt like a mutually nurturing connection, which is not unheard of in my worklife, but it feels like the new normal. At least in my experience, the pandemic has wiped out the inclination to make inane small talk about the weather or the weekend’s approach. It’s been replaced with a lot of straight to emotional connection and political alignment. Has the pandemic made small talk a thing of the past?

“Over the past six months, we learned to live without the daily luxuries and freedoms we were used to,” says Cheryl Dixon, NYC-based communications strategist and adjunct professor of communications at Columbia University. Part of the way we have all adapted is by becoming more introspective, she tells me. It could be this new self-awareness is manifesting in how we talk to each other.

“COVID-19 has changed the way that we communicate forever,” says Tasha Seiter, a Colorado-based psychotherapist who specializes in helping people with their relationship communication skills. “Just going through this experience, we are more aware of how vulnerable our ‘normal’ is. We can’t go back to taking each other for granted again after such a profound shift in the way we think about things and the way we treat each other.” Seiter predicts that this pandemic will leave many of us more emotionally open and understanding of hardship for years to come.

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The way we think about the future plays a major role in how we communicate today. “You might notice when you go through a transition or reach the end of something — a graduation, a move — you find your thinking changes to re-evaluate your life and what really matters to you,” Seiter says. When big life issues are at the forefront of our minds, that tends to be what our conversations center around. And it seldom happens that we all face something huge like this at the same time. “Today, thoughts about the future are ever-present, for everyone. The onset of Covid-19 was the end of normality; it’s shifting everyone’s perspective about the future and thus getting us to think about what is important in our lives in a huge way,” she adds.

The fact that so many of us are in a state of pandemic-induced revelation at the same time makes it a shared experience. No matter how different the details may be for each of us, the commonalities of this experience makes what may have previously been reserved for more intimate conversations more usual, Seiter explains. In other words, the pandemic is making deep thinking a weather pattern that we can all feel, and therefore acceptable for casual conversation.

Dixon also thinks that virtual communication is playing a role in how conversations are shifting. “By the nature of online chats, we get a glimpse into people’s homes,” she explains. “We see them in casual clothing. We see their children, pets and spouses photobombing conference calls. This facilitates a more intimate relationship and accelerates the ‘getting to know you’ phase.”

Even though we don’t come into physical contact, in a lot of ways, we are getting a more unfiltered — or perhaps unfilterable — glimpse into each other’s lives and it may make us feel more emotionally comfortable and close with each other. This intimacy transforms what used to be polite niceties into exchanges of curiosity and care“We normally ask, ‘how are you,” Dixon says, “but now, we really mean it and are interested in the answer.”