How Small Talk Helped Me Feel More At Home In Melbourne
I’ve heard from many of my friends and former colleagues in the U.S. that small talk is one of their most dreaded pastimes. Americans, and American millennials in particular, are notorious for our fear of awkward silences, our inability to exit gracefully from a conversation and our irrational anxiety of being uncomfortable in any way. Of course, this is all according to me, but fully supported by many other voices.
We even seemed to have taken the idea of “awkward” to an entirely new, blown out of proportion, paranoiac level. I remember that as an exchange student in Buenos Aires I tried desperately to communicate the concept of “awkward” and make my new Argentine friends try to understand how ridiculous certain situations were. The humor and the self-loathing didn’t translate well. “So you didn’t react well to what the man said,” they explained, “It doesn’t really matter. It’s not the end of the world. Move on.”
Whether you’re a traveler, a local or a recent migrant, chatting informally with someone about their daily life is a gesture of solidarity and mutual respect.
Despite our conditioned phobia of getting ourselves into anything less than pain-free, small talk can be our best friend while traveling. In a recent Pink Pangea article, Marianna Milkis-Edwards gives us this advice: If you want to travel like a travel writer, you have to talk to ordinary people. She refers to them as “your best source of answers and your best guide, all in one.” So, how are you supposed to talk to ordinary people if you tremble in fear with the mere thought of small talk?
I’ve never considered myself a shy person, or even one that cared much about being embarrassed. Even throughout high school, I forced myself to blunder through conversations with adults that at the time seemed annoying. I braved the dreaded morning commute to school with classmates I barely knew despite anxiety about filling the silence with questions and of course, small talk. I had the sense that, even though it felt like a pain at the time, one day my life would be easier if I figured out how to talk to anyone. And I’m glad teenage me pushed myself to be like this.
Small talk, I’ve learned, is the easiest way to feel connected to others in a seemingly impossible place to break into. As I’ve found while on working holiday in Melbourne, Australia, It may be a challenge to establish oneself among locals, but that doesn’t mean they are hard to talk to. From tram drivers to customers at the restaurant I work at to elderly women walking their dogs, I’ve learned about the plight of rural sheep farmers and what breed of dogs are best for sheep farms, picked up Aussie phrases, heard about local attitudes towards political rallies and had a discussion about Australia’s anti-drug campaigns.
Because I moved abroad without a set job, study abroad or teaching program, these mini-lessons are educational and informative, not to mention reassuring. It’s like being able to have my own Humans of New York moments (without the beautiful portraits and the fame) while I’m waiting for the tram or waiting in line behind someone at the grocery store. I get the chance to discover what gets my fellow Melbournians excited. Maybe it’s a weekend bike race, their new puppy’s sleeping habits, the most exciting wedding they’ve ever been to, the fight they witnessed at Federation Square or their favorite zoos. Some of these conversations might feel meaningless, but never underestimate their ability to help you delve deeper into a new place. Someone’s comment in passing might resurface in a newspaper or begin to affect your daily life in some way, coming full circle.
Small talk might not work anywhere and in every situation, but it’s something that if possible, adds dimensions and colorful narratives that inform the way I see Melbourne. From random encounters, I’ve learned tidbits of information about a number of topics, small things that I’m confident down the line will make a big difference.
But most importantly, as cliché and overused as it sounds, I’ve learned to never forget how wonderful humanity can be. Despite all we understand of travel opening our horizons and helping us see the humanity in the other, it’s something very easy to forget. Feeling “alone in a crowd” takes on a different meaning while traveling. It’s the small moments that remind us that everyone craves to feel a part of the group. Whether you’re a traveler, a local or a recent migrant, chatting informally with someone about their daily life is a gesture of solidarity and mutual respect. It’s like saying, “You’re one of us. We understand each other.”