Skip the Small Talk

6 minute read

It was December of 2016, and I had about a month before I set out on the Jagriti Yatra, a 15-day national train journey that takes its participants 8000 kilometers across the length and breadth of India. Jagriti Yatra literally means a journey of awakening. Every year 550 young “yatris” (travelers) get the opportunity to go on board the train and witness the true scale, and diversity of India. There currently is no better way to experience India than to travel on its trains. I love trains, and this journey was something that I was keenly looking forward to.

Now given that there would be more than 500 other people on the train, I wanted to have meaningful conversations with the people I interacted with and make the most out of the journey. At the time I considered myself an introvert, and didn’t know how I would be able to achieve that. Thankfully, as a side effect of being part of the organizing committee of TEDxBITSGoa I’d watched 100s of TED talks and there was one just right for the occasion. It was this one: How To Skip the Small Talk and Connect With Anyone by Kalina Silverman.

In her talk Kalina describes how instead of making small talk and asking about the weather like normal human beings, she hit unsuspecting people with absolute brain-busters like “What do you want to do before you die?” and “What if you found out that you were going to die tomorrow?” right after. In the talk she shows some of the interactions she had with people. Some people took the questions well and spoke honestly about how they felt, and what they would in fact do if they were to die the next day. That is exactly what I wanted to do. It was perfect, and I fell in love with the idea of skipping the small talk. I wanted to make big talk happen on the train. The video led me to the project website that Kalina had built. The only problem there was that the questions were behind a paywall. Now as much as I respect the idea, something about putting together deep questions on cards and selling them didn’t sit well with me. I also felt that some of the questions wouldn’t work for the Indian context, so I decided to make my own questions.

I made a Google form to crowdsource some deep questions, and sent it out to the yatris. I got plenty of good questions from there, and I spent about 1-2 hours going through a few Google searches like “Ice-breaker questions”, and “Questions to ask to make genuine conversations”. I might have gone down the rabbit-hole and spent an extra hour reading about conversations that foster trust. After pulling myself out, I spent a few more hours designing and putting them through a script and Photoshop, at the end of which I had a PDF file that I could print for a few rupees.

So, after curating the questions, designing the deck, and arming myself with its physical manifestation I set out on my journey with excitement. In fact, I didn’t even wait to get on board the train to whip out the deck. I started shooting ringers like: “What is your earliest childhood memory?” at the registration area. It didn’t take long for people to warm to the idea of opening up and talking about their earliest childhood memories. Skipping the small talk was an instant hit on the yatra. Needless to say, it became my identity on the train and I wore it with pride. After a few days of using the cards, I split the deck and shared the cards with a few people on the train. It caught on very well, and it became a great tool for introverts to initiate conversations.

All my self-important writing aside, the questions served their purpose of bringing about meaningful conversations. From people telling me about the hardest things they’ve done to cracking the silliest jokes, that simple deck of cards gave me a good glimpse into people’s lives. Apart from these conversations, there were plenty of other amazing things that the yatra gave me, from moving me to tears upon hearing the story of how Goonj, a non-profit based out Delhi that is working on transforming rural India, started, to filling my heart with lovely music at the Kalkeri Sangeet Vidyala, a school based in Kalkeri that teaches music. The Jagriti Yatra lived up to its name.

After the yatra, a couple of years ago I had some free time so I decided to build this simple code-pen so that I didn’t need to carry the deck of cards around with me.

See the Pen Skip the Small Talk - No Modal by Tejas Shah (@tejasanilshah) on CodePen.

I used both the real cards and the code-pen above. Most notably, I used the digital version a few months ago when I was with a group of 30-40 students, and wanted them to break the ice and make friends. So, as someone who went through a lot of these questions, and got other people to make big talk I can offer some observations that I’ve made over time.

Real Trumps Digital

Having the physical cards with you makes it easier to ask the questions. I’d like to believe that we give more importance to “real” things over digital stuff. So, I’d recommend printing out the questions on paper rather than just using the digital one. If you are interested in making a deck of your own the file is available here (11.4MB PDF file). No paywall. If it helps you can buy me a coffee when you meet me.

One Half of Conversation is Listening

I want to stress on this one because we often get carried away in a conversation and we simply have to to express the thoughts that we have. That can sometimes derail someone’s train of thought and the conversation goes nowhere. It is extremely important to just listen.

Remember Dunbar’s Number

There is a theory that suggests that humans can’t maintain more than 150 close relationships at the same time because it is cognitively impossible. This was first proposed by a British anthropologist, Robin Dunbar. Hence the name, Dunbar’s Number. On the train I got to experience my cognitive limits. I would use the questions with every new person I interacted with and try to get to know them better. After a point a lot of the mental images I had of the people started to blend into one another, and I had trouble keeping up with the number of people around me. This was another reason that I gave away the cards to the people on the train, it simply got harder and harder to keep connecting with more people. Use the cards sparingly or with people that you already know and want to build deeper bonds with.

In conclusion, I had a good time trying out this concept of making big talk. I still carry around this deck of cards that I so lovingly crafted and the code-pen is still alive. After trying to connect with a lot of people, I have come to accept my mortal limitations and now I don’t go out of my way to start deep conversations. I guess talking about the weather isn’t too bad at times.