Small Talk Cuts Both Ways — St. Peter's Fireside | Vancouver, B.C. 

by Ben Roy
October 3, 2018
7 min read

“How are you?”
“Good, how are you?”
“Good.”

It’s not revolutionary to argue this exchange is the Vancouver-ese version of hello or hi. “How are you?” is posed as a question, but usually isn’t one. And even though “good” is an answer, it’s not usually an accurate one. A lot of people recognize this but find themselves interacting with others and “how are you?” comes out of their mouths precognitively. The use of “how are you really?” to find meaningful information shows how defunct the original phrase is.

There are people at St. Peter’s – me included – who often find “how are you?” and other small talk a source of tension because on the one hand responding with “good” is expected but inauthentic, while trying to be honest is usually unsolicited and too complicated. Often life circumstances don’t fit into a 30-second sound bite. People have bad weeks, others are dealing with conflict or a recent death in the family, and others have complex mental and/or physical health issues.

I was an inpatient at a pain clinic once and brought 40 pages worth of health history with me. I could never fit that into the attention span someone has when they nominally ask me how I’m doing. And even if someone sat with me for an hour, the containers of meaning behind descriptive words often don’t even do justice to my experience. That’s my tension when I go to a party or linger before a church service. Suffering is hard to explain. I imagine there are others who also feel different shades of dread when what is felt inside is dislocated from what is said outside.

I want to be part of a church that connects well with everyone, regardless of their ups and downs, where people are emotionally cared for and drawn into community. I think that starts at an individual level with me addressing my allergy to the unresolved. It’s ironic, but in spite of my own health issues, I have a low tolerance for illness, weakness and mess in others. It’s hard to know what to say to people.

Susan Sontag says that “[e]veryone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.” Everyone gets ‘sick’ in the sense of enduring some suffering and there is such a distinction between sickness and wellness that it’s like relating to a person from a different country. Imagine an urban Canadian trying to communicate with a rural Romanian. They’re both breathers, eaters and sleepers, but there are disconnects of experience, language, and routine.

After some reflection, I’ve identified five repeating small talk situations where people in the kingdom of the well fail to compassionately handle people in the kingdom of the sick, where they fail to bridge the divide between citizenships. I’ve made all the mistakes I’m about to profile, often being ignorant, inhospitable and impatient. I still get this wrong sometimes. That said, here are some of my observations, some examples from the hall of failure.

First, there are the aphorism people. After I respond to their “how are you?” with “still the same,” these people try to put me in a simplified version of God’s story to eliminate the uncertainty of my suffering. They tell me “all things will work together for good” (Romans 8:28) and platitudes like, “well it’s always darkest before the dawn…” or “everything happens for a reason.” Zach Eswine puts my feelings about these interactions into words when he says, “the friend who quotes versus feels like one who shouts at the migrained.”

Second, there are the comparers who minimize the complexity of my experience by trying to force-feed me their empathy with appeals to their experiences. While I’m sorry that someone had to eat gluten-free for a month, it’s different than me losing 40 pounds and having had to cook everything I’ve eaten for the past two years. Instead of being comforting, inequitable comparisons make me feel unheard because they conflate experiences that are fundamentally different.

Then there are those who have little awareness of how much their blunt assessments have on people. “How are you?” leads to my admission of difficulty with my health and then the response back is: “You’ve been sick a looooong time bro!” or “Ya, you’ve really lost a loooooot of weight!” I don’t understand how someone can think I’m honestly unaware of those facts. I’ve often thought of responding, “and you’ve become a waaaaay bigger jerk!”

The solvers are next. These people genuinely care but quickly flood me with suggestions as though they could make up for my suffering if only they were in the captain’s chair of my life. “Have you tried____?” While I appreciate the enthusiasm and concern, people are usually less informed about my set of issues than I am.

Finally, there are the deniers. I was recently asked, “how are you doing, everything good?” Since I knew the person, I said some version of “not really.” The response back was, “Oh, but you’re fine, right?” Nope. I’m not fine. There seemed to be an inability to accept my reality.

I want to be part of a church that connects well with everyone, regardless of their ups and downs, where people are emotionally cared for and drawn into community.

I think those approaches all struggle with self-focus. When I have acted or spoken insensitively I think it’s because I’m desperate to find any way I can to paper-over complexity and make myself feel comfortable. Knowing this, I’ve tried to work out how I ideally want people to talk to me, so I can reclaim small talk by living that towards others. Words can hurt, but they can also be sweet and healing (Proverbs 16:24). I humbly submit a few ideas.

First, I want to be socially generous. I don’t want to think about what I can get out of an interaction. Instead, I want to think about how my contact with someone makes them think about themselves. Do they feel encouraged and safe when they talk to me or do they feel drained and ignored? I want to speak in such a way that people walk away more energized than when they bumped into me.

Next, I think being spiritually present is important. This involves active listening and follow up questions. Whatever is going on in a person’s life isn’t my fault, but I can fulfill their longing for companionship. There aren’t right answers to suffering, it’s more a mystery to be entered into instead of an equation to be solved. Paul Claudel puts it this way, “Jesus Christ did not come to take suffering away from the world. He did not even come to explain it. He came to fill suffering with his nearness.” I want to do the same.

Being emotionally appropriate is another goal I have. I want to adjust to the emotional contours of someone’s mood and respond accordingly (Romans 12:15). I don’t know how a person walked into the room. Are they irritable? Maybe I can give them space to rant. Are they sad? It might not be the best time for an exhortation.

My final goal is to be normal. People who suffer aren’t one-dimensional. In the time I’ve been sick all people ask me about is my health. While I appreciate the care, I’m not just my suffering. I haven’t lost my interest in politics or the NBA, if anything, I long to talk about those things more than ever. I’ve found chatting with others about what they love is always a safe bet, whether they’re suffering or not.

I continue to succeed and fail at living out these prescriptions. The aim of this post isn’t guilt, it’s to share thoughts on how to incrementally love others better with words and presence. A safe way to start doing this is by getting rid of “how are you?” where possible and asking how someone’s week went instead. A simple positive interaction can change the trajectory of someone’s day.

about the author
Ben is a member of St. Peter’s Fireside and a Vancouverite, born and raised. He has struggled with chronic health issues for the past decade and is studying international relations part-time at UBC. Bookstores are his happy place, followed closely by sushi joints and anything near, in or on the ocean.

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