Small Talk in a Time of Terror


Over the past year, I’ve been taking a train into New York City a couple of times a week–not an unpleasant trip, for the most part, provided there aren’t any equipment problems or extreme weather conditions. In which case, well…keep calm and carry on. You have no choice.

I usually see the same cadre of people, waiting, quiet, thoughtful folks, occasionally chatting with fellow commuters, but invariably ensconced in their smart phones, flipping through pictures or messages, texting, talking, and playing Candy Crush. I check my phone, too, but then I put it away. This is my daily break from hours of close encounters of the electronic kind. Besides, it’s a brief–increasingly rare–opportunity to be present with my surroundings, rather than suspended in virtual time and space.

Of course, the world has changed. Not only do people expect others to be constantly connected to their devices, but it’s difficult to be open and unsuspecting of the humanity around us, especially in a time of terror. The recent horror in Paris is a raw reminder of what has caught us unaware before in Boston, Mumbai, Madrid and Manhattan. Be wary of strangers. If you see something, say something–but not, “Hello, how are you?”

So in this era of cautious self-containment, I was intrigued by my recent interactions with a conductor on the Long Island Rail Road, a guy who is unfailingly friendly–even on the most harried days. Surely, conductors are trained to be unflappable in the brisk (and sometimes brusque) business of running the second busiest commuter line in North America. But he seemed totally natural and outgoing, chatting with everyone as he punched tickets. I decided one day I would ask him how he did it, wondering if he would respond or deflect. So I said, “I’ve noticed that you always manage to be cheerful, no matter how gloomy the weather or how overcrowded the train is. What’s your secret?”

He stopped and smiled. Then he answered.

“First, I get a lot of sleep,” he said. “I have a regular breakfast, usually oatmeal. I avoid watching the news–information that won’t help me or will depress me. I try to control what I can control in my life. You’re not going to change the world, but control what you can. Be nice. It’s free and it helps people, especially when they’re kept in enclosed places. Even when people aren’t at their best, they can be–it just may not the right time for them.” As he started to walk away, he turned back and added: “It’s the way my mother lived. I learned from watching her.”

I did not see that coming.

Perhaps I expected some cordial, perfunctory response. But in upending my not-so-great expectations, he cracked my own self-contained public persona, and since that day, I’ve tried to take a different approach to those around me: “If you think something, say something.” Not something snarky, self-promoting or flirtatious. Just “small talk” that is spontaneous and uncalculating–random acts of communication.

I’m aware, of course, that wariness is warranted. There are risks to talking to strangers, like our parents told us. Some people may be soliciting something–money or business or companionship on their personal journey to salvation. Some people may not respond at all–it may not be the “right time” for them.

That’s okay.

As long as I remain authentic, connecting without looking for specific outcomes. I may remark about weird weather or share a frustration, an observation, a smile–or simply acknowledge someone with a nod or “Hi, how’ya doing?” No, I’m not exchanging life stories (although sometimes I get one). Mainly, I’m searching for a sensibility of openness, an opportunity to venture beyond the electronic dog fence surrounding my brain to run around and bark without being shocked.

I suspect that part of this sentiment is emerging from a deeper emotional well: These days, a good part of my life is about the daily struggle to connect with loved ones who have advanced dementia. It’s impossible now to have a conversation with these once dynamic and wonderful personalities. How much do we take conversation for granted–until we no longer have it? It’s only now that I understand how much we rely on steady streams of small talk each day for comfort, caring, a sense of safety in an uncertain world.

When I hold my mom’s hand; when find a few words that evoke a nod–better yet, a smile!–I am amazed by the radiant power of such connection. I remember the words of my conductor friend: “Be nice. It’s free and it helps people, especially when they’re kept in enclosed places.”

Everyone knows that human beings can be nasty, intolerant, cruel and violent–we watch the news every day. But in a free society, we also treasure our right to be safe from such elements. And while we can be free from each other, we also can be free for each other. We can express that sentiment in our daily small talk that says, “I’m here. You’re here. We’re all here, together, in community.”

–Ron Roel

Forty Forward!