Why Small Talk Drains You
As a child, you may have had the experience of walking down the street with your folks, and stopping for conversation with friends of neighbors of theirs.
I dreaded those moments, especially since the conversations obviously didn’t relate with me. It was a time of standing still impatiently. However, it also struck me was that, upon ceasing interacting and each going their own ways, the conversation had been unpleasant for the grownup also. Small talk.
Many times, moments after spotting an acquaintance across the street, and anticipating having to strike a casual conversation, the adult would whisper: “oh no… there’s "Linda" across the street, now we’re going to have to talk to … "oh, hey ... so nice to see you, how is everything?" More small talk.
It wasn’t always the case. Sometimes people met up with someone they genuinely enjoyed speaking to. But it was not a one-time experience either. It happened regularly. Adults didn’t seem to really enjoy meeting each other like this. But they acted like they did.
I didn't quite understand this ‘small talk’. In fact, I still don't. For example, I talk with my Dad on the phone and he asks about the weather, and "I saw so and so the other night and they asked about you, etc." Just meaningless chit chat using up precious energy.
This experience may be particular to me and to my social context. The cultural habits where you grew up, and where you live now, may not offer the same kind of situation. However, to me this is a symbolic memory. I noticed early on that people lived disconnected. What they wanted to do was different from what they actually did. It was kinda like a dream-state, asleep, zombie-ish.
People would spent a lot of energy doing things they didn’t really want to, or enjoy, for the sake of keeping up with appearances and pleasing others. because of this, the experience of meeting acquaintances was generally unpleasant. It was awkward and shallow. No context.
Now, I'm not saying there's anything "wrong" with small talk per se. A small degree of “standardized greet-talk” is innocuous and can be useful in human interaction: to greet a stranger, someone you don’t know, or whom you are unsure how to deal with. Kinda feeling the waters you know?
Not everyone has to be willing to engage in meaningful conversation with you – or in any conversation at all. Even if they are, they may not want, or be comfortable in addressing specific topics, or how much emotional space and attention they have to do so. Being able to gauge other’s energies is part of being socially adjusted within a reasonable degree, and small talk can be an useful tool in this regard.
Small talk, in this case, is the act of using sentences that are somewhat standardized (ex: Hi, how are you?) to put forward a kind of energy “test”, where you’re gauging the mood, the humor, and disposition of the person you are interacting with.
Who knows if the person is actually free, open and willing to go have a coffee and catch up in conversation? Being open and spontaneous to what unpredictable circumstances life has to offer is an healthy, good thing.
In this situation, small talk can be a way to stay mindful, “tuned” to how others feel, and with the circumstances around you. It gives you a chance to see if your vibes are in tune, or if you get that "okay-ness" thumbs up from within.
On the other hand, when small talk is used in a sustained and prolonged manner, there is often a disconnection between what the person is saying and his/her inner reality. It may even be used to mask what may really be going on inside them.
The person is often not even aware of this. Instead, they are simply engaging in a kind of interaction that is safe, secure, standard ... what is expected and normal, and can be used to mask the feeling of awkwardness and being uncomfortable with oneself, with silence, and with others. This is when small talk becomes draining, tiring, and you instinctively feel you “don’t care”, or that it’s “a waste of time”. You may even find yourself peeking at your watch a time or two.
Imagine you are going to a job you already left a long time ago. You’re getting up in the morning, facing traffic routines, engaging with the work and with the people, committing wholeheartedly to it, pretending you never left.
You’d be spending all of your energy and time with this job – but without any returns, at all. You aren’t an acknowledged employee any longer. You are no longer connected or invested with anyone working there. You aren’t going to receive any benefits or paycheck for whatever you do.
You’re not only spending your time with things that don’t give you anything back, but you’re occupying it, thus preventing things that could be benefitting you. Spending energy in “long-term” small talk is a little like this.
It doesn’t make sense because the conversation has no real meaning in itself. Paying attention to it can only take away and never give back. However, rules of common-sense and etiquette may overrule this perception, and you may find yourself in the obligation of listening and participating with the way you’re being interacted, because, after all, what is being said may be seen as trendy, fashionable, or simply be what people are used or expected to say to one another. It's like eating empty calories ... food with no nutritional value.
But because this mode of small talk usage is, let’s say, artificial, and comes from this space of inner un-awareness and disconnection – often not acknowledged by the self – by engaging with it in a continuous sense, by default, beyond the first customary greetings, you are condoning it, putting up with it. This is where it will drain a lot of energy from you. Despite going to the job not making sense, you keep going anyway.
At this point, we’re no longer discussing “small talk” as just the words. Instead, we’re addressing a whole mode of living and operating that is disconnected and devoid of meaning, namely from the person initiating this sort of interaction by default. We get caught in a make-believe reality. A play that has no ending and nothing to hold your attention.
A widespread, superficial way of talking is a reflection of superficial interactions, which is a reflection of superficial relationships, which is a reflection of a superficial relationship with the self.
Things in the emotional realm need attention from the self, but aren’t getting it, because the self doesn’t even acknowledge they are there. The disconnection between what is felt and what is said and done is pervasive throughout the person’s life. This is simply living and operating from the unconscious mind, in the old monotonous habits files.
This small talk is a reflection of small living. And it is the contact with, giving attention to this disconnection, that drains the energy from others.
One of the most common symptoms of "spiritual awakening" is reduced energy and lack of patience for small talk. You may not understand why you shouldn’t spend your energy on certain things, but your Spirit does.
Usually, there’s energy for around 1–3 minutes of conversation. But after this time it’s as if patience just runs out. Your mind wants to shut down and not listen to the other person anymore. So why does this happen? It’s because your Spirit within is tolerant to the initial small talk introductions – but not to an enduring conversation that lacks true connection and meaning. It drains energy and offers nothing in return.
So this is not being “rude”, “anti-social”, or anything along those lines. It’s simply that a heightened sensitivity is less willing to spend its energy to things that are superficial and meaningless, and instead is very much interested in not subjecting itself to such things. Much like you wouldn’t want to drive a car constantly losing air from its tires, your Spirit doesn’t want you to walk around with your energy being constantly drained.
It’s not to say that every interaction and conversation must have some “deep meaning”. But it does mean that whatever you say should always align with what you feel. What you say is either resonating with your inner state, or it isn’t – even if you’re discussing fruit at the market, or the next championship series. We must feel free to speak our personal Truths.
Spiritual awakening is about becoming connected with yourself ... your Higher-Self. For this reason it becomes increasingly difficult for someone who is awakening spiritually, to sustain prolonged interaction with someone who remained in a mode of operating which is not as connected within, so to speak.
In this sense, small talk that is a part of a way of living by default, going along the motions, is for the most part meaningless and pointless in an energy sense. Some would argue that small talk is a necessity, but I disagree. It’s not.
Only someone who remains attached to the “default” system of human operation would argue something like this. If you speak and act from your genuine self there’s an extremely minimal need for this sort of engagement with others. You become similar to two dogs playing with a ball. Eventually, you'll get bored.
If you find yourself in the necessity to submit yourself to small talk from others against your better judgement, that simply means you are in a precarious negotiation position, in a situation that is not favorable to you.
Perhaps you have an unfavorable position at work, or within your family. You don’t have enough personal power (without being at a loss) to decide what you want and don’t want to engage with. You haven't had time to think it through or got caught off-guard.
In such a case, your long-term focus should be, not so much improving your small talk skills or tolerance to small talk, but instead in improving your own circumstances, and freedom of choice you have within them.
A large part of spiritual wisdom, so to speak, is not necessarily knowing how to deal with every single situation, but, perhaps as importantly, in knowing how to place yourself in a situation where you are actually desired and valued by others.
This is not about “caring” about what others feel about you. It’s about being mindful of it, and making personal choices accordingly. Knowledge is knowing WHAT to say, Wisdom is knowing WHEN to say it. Sometimes, it's best just to remain quiet.
The way you preserve your sovereignty even in the presence of others is if you choose only those situations where you are truly valued, validated, loved, desired in the situation, acknowledged for who you are. Only then is the situation appropriate for you to enter it, and as long as that verifies.
This is what gives you leverage and leeway when you want to make choices in the manner you act and deal with others. You’re in a strong, or at least fair negotiating position, rather than in a precarious one, where you are immediately operating at a loss.
But even if you don’t consider one specific situation, another issue is how to keep the energy drain in check in general, within your closer acquaintances and day to day life. And in this sense, you need to find a way you feel comfortable with how you deal with small talk, which is something you have to discover for yourself with practice.
- Responding to the first few small talk interactions, out of respect for standard interpersonal convention; but then disengage before you start losing too much energy. Don’t feed it indefinitely.
- Answer with monosyllables. “Yes”, “No”, “Yeah”. Nothing that requires further response like "who, what, where, when, or why."
- Move forward and actively put out a meaningful verbal inquiry of your own, in advance and in replacement of small talk. Someone who is not ready for it will organically back away from further interaction with you.
- Dr. House-style response “I don’t do small talk“, if you can pull it off coming across as well-adjusted and meaningful and rather than awkward and insensitive.
This text is not suggesting you to be anti-social, rude to others, uncaring towards their feelings, or not having any interaction at all. What I mean is that you should first align with what you feel inside, and then act accordingly.
If your spirit, intuition, and energy ask you to refrain from spending energy in things that are meaningless to you, then it’s possible that such a request has a purpose, a reason, that is more valid than whatever external reasons and values you can rationally come up with: “it’s what it’s expected of me, it’s the right thing to say, it’s how I avoid being alone and helpless” etc.
While most people are accustomed to using small talk and repetitive interactions like those, at the same time almost everyone dislikes small talk, and almost everyone would prefer a more natural, connected, and carefree mode of interacting.
So in a sense, all you need to do is to recognize how you feel about small talk, acknowledge it, and then find a way to act upon it that is both respectful of yourself, and constructive to others.
Just a thought ...
Justin Taylor, ORDM., OCP., DM.
My thanks to Heart Ki.