The Wisdom of Small Talk

Plato shared that the eyes are the windows of the soul.

“Small talk”, which we sometimes perceive as awkward chatter about the weather, sports and otherwise — can create new openings for us to get to know one another and certainly make life less transactional.

Several exemplary articles deal with this opportunity. The purpose of this article is to share a recent experience of small talk and how this unfolded for me.

I recently went to a foodcourt home to numerous Asian-inspired restaurants, I was surprised when I saw a specially cordoned-off line for a ramen shop that I like. Folks continued to filter into the restaurant and soon I was close to the front. “Table for two!” shouted the waitress, giving off ebullience and efficiency. The gentleman in front of me proceeded.

Again, the waitress shouted: “Table for two!” and waved me over.

“Do you mind sitting with another customer?” as she indicated to the patron in front of me. I said sure and he said sure, and so we were dining companions for the evening.

We intensely studied the menu and perfunctorily did a phone check. I waited for a glance upward and asked:

– “You look like you’ve been here before. What’s good here? What do you usually order?”

– “I usually order the House Ramen, but today I am trying the Yasai Ramen, which is stir fried vegetables with shaved pork.”

– “Ramen both can be incredibly rich and flavorful. I love the delicious pieces of roast pork.”

– “Yes, the pork has to have just the right amount of fat on it and be cooked just right.”

This was our entry into a five-minute exchange on the best ramen places in Boston, a mutual appreciation for ramen in New York City, and finally experiences at often suspiciously-viewed All-U-Can-Eat sushi spots.

What evolved next was unexpected. I asked where my dinner companion grew up and he shared that he was born and raised in Burma (also known as Myanmar). I spoke about my familial roots  from Bangladesh, Jamaica and China, which brought up a familiarity from both of us, since Bangladesh and Burma are neighbors.

Our conversation spanned from the enormous refugee crisis transpiring in Myanmar and Bangladesh to the systemic and tactical prejudice that my dining companion experienced growing up, with his ancestral roots coming from China. I did my best to imagine how he felt when a prestigious academic opportunity was pulled from him just because of his ethnic background. I can’t fathom what hundreds of thousands of Rohingya Muslims must feel as they flee persecution and violence, but I do my best to feel what I can.

My dining companion told me about the report that Kofi Annan prepared in collaboration with the State Counsellor of Myanmar Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, to provide recommendations regarding the safety and well-being of communities in Rakhine State of Myanmar.  He shared that these recommendations could work if they are followed, but action is not following words. This has been the stage of one of the largest refugee crises in recent history, involving 600,000 Rohingya Muslims fleeing to Bangladesh. There has been relatively little coverage of this in the news.

We then moved on to discuss experiences and aspirations in the workplace. When I described the technology I have been commercializing for medicine, which deals with biomechanics (i.e., measuring the stiffness and “mechanical” properties of tissues in the body using light), he shared of his experience at a large biotech company in Boston. He believes there could be opportunities to apply non-contact tissue biomechanics to tumor profiling and identification, an area that I have held in high interest as a means to enhance our knowledge of tumors in unprecedented ways. Moreover, he affirmed that a large technology company in South Korea – where our company has strong connections – is growing its oncology “biosimilars” business by leaps and bounds.

I would not have guessed that our shared table and a discussion that began over ramen would cover the power and value of identity, the worthiness of all life, and new business perspectives.

By opening up our conversation with a few potentially awkward words, we had the opportunity to know of one another, to see ways in which we are related and connected by mutual interest and values that we hold meaningful, and not the least, to have a more enjoyable dinner than eating by ourselves.

I reflected on this during a recent subway ride on the “D” Green Line in Boston. I counted 15 out of 20 people (75 percent!) within my immediate surroundings using their phones. It concerns me that we have such a proclivity (and addiction) to technology that helps us to hide and busy ourselves from the interconnected and inextricable relationship we have with one another. Technology, unless we use it to our benefit, can be a massive, massive crutch – and saboteur.

The wisdom of small talk is real and “when we give without regard to getting”, others tend to share as well. Granted, we had a little help here to encourage our small talk, yet the exercise gave a perfect laboratory for the lesson.

So, be brave. Be bold. And definitely risk being a little awkward. We never know of what kinds of life-affirming surprises are present around the corner.

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