Interfaith Initiative: Small talk builds bridge to faith

Faith has much to do with a sense of belonging, about feeling safe and building trust. And if this is the case, then our social rituals have something to do with our faith practice. One of those social rituals is what is called “small talk.”

When a friend new to the United States shared her story of adjusting to life in this country, I learned how wrong my assumptions were about how to help. While I thought it best to talk about the challenges she faced, thereby lending support, my friend shared that conversation about emotions in English creates pressure to describe experience in a language that may fail her. She shared that, for her, the greatest help came from acquaintances who started conversations with what we refer to as small talk.

I reflected on her words as I thought about my work reaching out to people with limited English living in Centre County. I thought about the blank looks I sometimes see on faces of people with limited English as I do my job to talk about violence against women experienced in America and around the world, and local resources prepared to assist. I thought about the sort of “cultural unhearing” that may exist around this subject matter. And I understood this challenge to rethink my approach.

How do people new to a country, and a language, know whether help is available? One way is to learn from English-speaking people they trust. How do non-English speakers develop such relationships with people who speak English and who know about local resources and where to get help? It starts with the simplest of social gestures: small talk. Can we assume we all know how to do this? Maybe not. Here are some tips I’ve learned from friends, and from Sarah Jones, in her article “It’s not Small Talk, It’s Social Ritual.”

Small talk is a ritual through which we connect with each other and share humanity. It’s a way to convey “I see you. I hear you. You are not alone.” With a softened tone, relaxed facial expression and calm eye contact, even comments about the weather show desire to connect with someone. And connecting builds trust.

To be prepared for small talk, relax into a mindset that fosters connection and, before you even leave home, anticipate connection. Recall pleasant social rituals you’ve witnessed around you and look forward to opportunities to share similar exchanges, for example, making eye contact and offering a warm smile. Noticing a quality or clothing is one way to start a conversation that is on neutral ground yet shows a desire to connect. But proceed gently. Asking for too much information may result in awkwardness and distrust rather than connection and trust. Use the environment for cues and use simple words. If it seems like understanding is lacking, try rephrasing rather than repeating words, and be patient. By slowing down and speaking in a relaxed manner, the other person may feel comfortable to do the same with you.

Small talk is a bridge leading to trust, trust that help is here if we need it. Trusting that help is here if we need it is another way of saying “I have faith.”

Debra Greenleaf is an international outreach consultant serving to promote resources at the Centre County Women’s Resource Center and other partners of the Centre County STOP Violence Against Women Project. She is also a participant in Interfaith Initiative Centre County (InterfaithInitiative CC@hotmail.com).