Person 1: “Hey, how was your day?” Person 2: “Not bad, but I had a test in [insert class name here].” 1: “How did that go?” 2: “It was okay. How are you doing?” 1: “Good. I’m tired, though.” 2: “Yeah, I get that.” 1: “Oh, did you hear that [insert person’s name here] hooked up with [insert person’s name here] at [insert name of party here]?” 2: “Wow, I wouldn’t have expected that.” 1: “I know, right?” 2: [insert further small talk here], etc. etc. etc.
What you just read is a version of the “typical” mealtime conversation to which I have been exposed over the course of my time at Grinnell. I myself have had this conversation, or a variation of it, countless times a day: breakfast, lunch and dinner, over and over again. I assume that many other people have similar conversations at a similar frequency, but I also assume that there are a number of people whose conversations often enter a more meaningful realm. This realm is reached by going beyond the personal: it includes the discussion of important events, ideas, concepts, etc., and produces thoughtful, intellectual, and/or controversial conversation. For purposes of discussion, I will pretentiously label this realm of conversation “big talk,” in contrast with the colloquially accepted term “small talk.”
At this time, please note that I am not devaluing small talk, nor am I saying that no one should engage in it. It’s important to know and care about the somewhat mundane details of a person’s life; the daily grind is, after all, what makes up our days. Additionally, if you’re only acquainted with someone at a basic level, this type of conversation is to be expected. Most people feel comfortable talking about the small things before the big things, which is reasonable. But the bottom line is this: relationships can be begun and maintained through small talk, but they cannot be small talk exclusive. When conversations never exceed the scope of the template I laid out in the first paragraph, there is a problem. Having essentially the same conversation with someone day after day does not do much in the way of helping you get to know the person better, nor does it encourage intellectually stimulating thought.
I’m not trying to say that intellectual conversations rarely happen. Grinnellians frequently have great discussions about current events, campus issues, and big ideas. What I am trying to say is that these discussions seem to me to be suspiciously absent from mealtimes. I find this strange, because meals are an ideal time to have good discussions: a group of friends is present in a contained location for a respectable length of time. Why not use that opportunity to have great discussions that will help people learn more about each other while learning more about different views and ideas at the same time? Why can’t we step beyond the comfort zone of the petty and the personal? Grinnellians are, on the whole, intelligent and informed. We should capitalize on this and engage in big talk while we’re chowing down on gooey butter cake and baked ziti. Many of us eat two or three meals a day in the d-hall, giving us approximately two or three free hours during which we have the ready chance to have amazing discussions with people we care about. We have the chance, so why not take it?
Eleanor Roosevelt said, “Great minds talk about ideas. Average minds talk about events. Small minds talk about people.” Grinnell is not full of small or average minds, but if you walked up to most tables in the dining hall, you wouldn’t be able to tell. We have the ability to be great, so let’s make the most of it. The cast of Les Misérables once sung, “Who will join in our crusade, who will be strong and stand with me?” My answer is: you, I hope. So your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to initiate big talk at your d-hall table this week. Ask a question. Present a thought. Start a debate. Just make an effort and see where it leads. I’ll be doing this alongside you (figuratively, but maybe literally), hoping to expand both my mind and my relationships.