I was sitting in an airport lounge four hours into my 10-hour layover in Mexico City. I came because I heard there’s unlimited free caffeine and comfy chairs. I wasn’t about to spend 10 hours resting my butt on the metal airport gate chairs.
A man politely asked if the seat next to me was taken. “Nope, it’s all yours,” I replied. My new lounge neighbor sat down and ordered a Tecate, presumably relieving some stress after maneuvering through a less-than-thrilling experience with airport security.
The stranger’s name was Tadeo. We got to talking about where we were heading off to. I, to Ecuador to see my parents. He, to Monterrey, Mexico, his hometown.
We chatted about the work we both did. I really do think that chats like this are a beautiful window into worlds I otherwise wouldn’t have insight into.
I mean, on my flight just before, I had met a kid that dropped out of MIT to work at a startup that made robots for the food industry. He literally left MIT to flip burgers — just in a different sense.
Tadeo told me about the work he did in the produce industry; he explained how papaya and avocados were actually much more volatile than the stock market.
Not only do you take into account supply and demand, you have to consider rains, droughts, natural disasters, and tight United States regulations. I now know more about the Mexican produce industry than I ever thought I would. I think that’s pretty neat.
But when I told him I wrote about things like relationships, self-help, and mental health, he posed a question to me, prefacing it with, “I know this can be controversial,” perhaps indicative of the stigma of mental illness in Mexico.
Tadeo began to tell me about his experience with mental health issues after he had a brain tumor removed two years ago. He pushed his bangs to the side to reveal a massive scar across the side of his forehead extending to the back of his head, around 7 inches long.
One day he was eating lunch, and he suddenly had a seizure out of nowhere.
Fast forward and the 10 cm tumor was removed from his brain, but the aftereffects included losing all motor skills on the left side of his body. The doctor told him it would take 12 months to regain control of his leg and arm; it took Tadeo one month of complete commitment to be able to walk again.
What took longer, though, was the effect the surgery had on the chemicals produced in Tadeo’s brain. He was left with a short temper that would lead to angry outbursts.
Medication made Tadeo a zombie-like version of himself, and he knew that there had to be another way. He turned to working on his emotions, anger-management meditation, and learning to be okay with the anger/sadness when it arose, rather than letting it consume him.
This work alone changed his life forever.
We chatted a little more until he left to catch his flight , which I later found out was to go get his yearly post-tumor check-up.
I felt awe at how open this complete stranger had been with me.
I’ve met many people in transit. On the bus, during a subway ride, on the airplane — most of the time a simple, “How are you?” or “Where are you from?” is exchanged.
But it’s one thing to open up and share a deeply personal struggle you went through with a complete stranger. Most people just aren’t comfortable sharing that information or listening to it as well.
So I started thinking about the complex lives that everyone I passed in the airport lived. Ones that I had no idea about but were most likely filled with harrowing stories and critical parables.
Why is it then, when given the magical opportunity to connect with another human being, that we resort to small talk?
Does small talk really help us get to know the person?
Does it allow us to connect on a deeper level?
Why do I even care how you are if all you’re going to reply with is “fine”?
So I’ve decided: I hate small talk.
The tangled, messy lives of people are what I’m interested in. What struggles did you go through? What hard times made you a better person today?
I will agree that small talk is sometimes necessary to start a conversation, but it should never be the goal. If it is , why not just keep your mouth shut and enjoy the silence?
No — my aim from now on is to really understand a person. Their passions. Their interests. Their struggles. What makes them an interesting human.
But how do you do this?
Find a reason to start a conversation
Maybe you are both heading on a flight abroad. Or perhaps you notice a book they’re reading.
There are interesting reasons all around, if you simply observe, to start a meaningful exchange with someone.
Let me note: accidentally making eye contact or feeling obligated are not good reasons.
It’s all about the follow-up questions
If you ask a person where they’re flying to, follow up with a simple, “Why?”
Some people naturally will answer with short replies or surface-level answers. With experience as an interviewer, the follow-up questions are what reveal the real magic.
So simply follow-up with a question related to what they just said but that digs a little deeper. That’s bound to reveal something a bit more interesting.
Another side note: jobs are a great aspect of someone’s life to do this with. I once met an Ecuadorian flower farmer. After he told me what he did, I asked, “Why did you get into the flower business?” The rest was history.
Ask for elaboration
If you don’t understand something they stated, ask for them to explain it more.
Don’t understand what they said they do for a living? Ask them to elaborate.
Don’t understand their view on a particular subject? Ask them to elaborate.
Confused about a part of their story? Ask them to elaborate.
The details often hold the juiciest insight into a person’s being.
Listen. Listen. Listen.
You can’t ask a person to elaborate or formulate follow-up questions if you’re not listening.
Listen closely. In general, this is a great skill to have. But to avoid small talk or a conversation dying out, listening skills are pertinent.
And to think I entered that lounge in Mexico City to kill some time and get free coffee. I truly believe every interaction we have with another person happens for a reason. We’re given a beautiful opportunity to connect with a human, and it’s how we decide to handle it that matters.
Are you going to stick with small talk or choose to dive deeper?