You come too.

I’ve been in a strange place this week.  Productivity is seriously waning.  However, I have noticed another thing that suffers when my life loses forward momentum like this.  Small talk.

I don’t think the term “small talk” is ever, ever used as anything other than a pejorative.  Small talk is something to detest, something to tolerate at best.  Always something that can potentially be screwed up, resulting in awkward conversations or exchanges.

“Enjoy your meal, sir.”

“Thanks, you too.”

But try to think differently about small talk for a moment.  Small talk is ideally the beginning of a longer, more meaningful conversation.  Think about the people you have meaningful conversations with for a moment.  How many?  Five?  Then you’re lucky.  But the truth is that almost everyone can potentially be that person to us.  Not that we would want everyone to fill that role, but we all usually can think of one or two people we would like to recruit.  The point is, though, that the mindset we approach these conversations with will usually determine their success or failure.  If you actively want to befriend someone—then guess what?—your conversations won’t be brief or awkward for very long before they grow much more meaningful.

Then.  An epiphany.  A conversation I had recently with a fellow teaching assistant.  He asked me for advice on teaching.  Teaching works the same way as small talk.

Think for a moment about someone in your past that taught you something and taught you well.  Let’s use the example of learning to ride a bike.  We all know what a triumphant moment that can be.  Chances are that you didn’t hate that person!  That’s because they felt the same way about you!  They cared that you learned something because they cared about you.  A teacher subconsciously does the same thing at the front of a classroom.  In ways we can’t ever possibly fully appreciate, we human beings send constant nonverbal messages to each other that say either YES I LIKE YOU AND I WANT MORE or NOT INTERESTED.  Our audience will usually oblige us in mirroring those signals that we send them.

If you think about it, the classroom is far from an ideal setting to learn anything.  One person speaking at the front of a crowd of 20 or 30 other individuals… disengagement is easy.  But if it’s just you in the audience, or you and just one or two others, then you can’t tune out instruction.  Social norms prevent it.  Our system of education typically prohibits that level of intimacy in instruction though; large classes can’t be avoided.  But if you like the person, if you know that the person likes you and cares about whether or not you learn something, then you are far, far more likely to give a damn.  You might even want to try and make awkward small talk after class.

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