You’re shopping at the grocery store near your parents’ house when you see her. You do a double-take. She turns and sees you, her name popping instantly into your mind. It’s So-and-So, from high school. She was your friend — not your close friend who you still keep in touch with years later — she’s that friend that you had a bunch of classes with, but you literally have not seen since graduation. She looks different in person. Maybe she lost weight? You’ve only seen her in Facebook photos all these years. You never expected to encounter a physical version of this person.
Since you have made eye contact, both of you go in for a greeting. The warmth of your “Hey! Long time no see!” prompts her to offer a hug. Now you are hugging this stranger who you sort of forgot existed in real life. She asks how you’ve been, and what you’re up to now. You give her your 10-second canned response, hitting all the main points — where you live now, what you do now, how you’re doing now. You feel cheap every time you give this breakdown, because you long for someone to ask about who you are now: how you’ve grown since high school, how you’ve matured and explored, how you’re considerably different since the last time you saw this person. But it would be weird to get that deep with someone you haven’t talked to in years. She only really needs to know the surface stuff, anyway.
You ask how she’s doing and she gives her list: she graduated college, moved back home, works at a pharmacy, got engaged last month. You nod attentively, adding interjections of “Wow,” and “Oh really?” as if you are hearing all this for the first time. But you are lying through your teeth. This story has already been told on Facebook. You saw her graduation photos. You saw her statuses about her job; you definitely saw all the pictures of her engagement ring. You even know her fiancé’s name, that he’s a financial advisor, that he started dating her six months after she broke up with that guy from high school. You remember when they broke up, because your other friend had informed you about it. When you found out, you investigated on Facebook, despite its total irrelevance to you.
Irrelevance. As you nod politely and feign ignorance, you feel strange about your inside knowledge. When was any of that knowledge relevant? Why do you know so much about this person’s life? You start to feel naked. If you know all about this girl’s Hawaiian vacation from Instagram, what could she know about you? Does she know you just went to a rave last weekend? Does she know who you’re dating? Does she know everything about your new cat because you’ve posted a million photos of it?
Whether she does or doesn’t know, the fact is she could. And unless she says something like, “I saw you got a new cat!” you will never have an indication of how much she knows.
So goes small talk in the 21st century. Our lives are so spelled out on social media that we lose a lot of that mystery between years of meeting each other. I would love to go to my 10-year reunion and find out that my classmate went on to marry a millionaire and have four kids. “What a surprise! Isn’t it amazing how much has happened?” But that surprise is not likely to happen. I will already know about the wedding and the four kids, thanks to my news feed. I will somehow know about every job, every vacation, and every life event my classmates have experienced as long as I follow them on Instagram.
The cool thing is, no matter how much you know about this classmate from Facebook, you still don’t know the answer to the “Who are you now?” question. And that is where our generation is still able to reunite, rediscover, and reconnect with each other, if we choose to make the effort.
You finish your conversation in the grocery store with a “Well, it was great seeing you again.” She replies likewise. Then you add the empty promise that people use to end small talk: “We should get coffee sometime and really catch up.”
But the next week, you do actually call her up, and you do actually get coffee together. Who cares about all the surface stuff? You’re meeting your friend again for the first time.