Joe Kind: A Guy

by Joe Kind | 1/21/16 8:52pm

One of the biggest problems I have with my day-to-day life here at Dartmouth is how hard it is to find time for fun reading. You know, fiction and non-fiction books and articles that I can read purely for my enjoyment without the pressure of an essay and a grade. Not to say I do not enjoy my readings for class; I do not consider this problem of mine to be one that is exacerbated by Dartmouth, per se. The issue is more about the insane amounts of time I spend in front of electronic screens. I doubt I am completely alone in this sentiment ­— even in these beautiful woods. But I do wonder if I could do a better job.

One of the things I do read consistently, beyond the headlines on my Facebook newsfeed or my New York Times daily news emails, is a weekly Times column called “Modern Love.” The column publishes a submission once a week on Thursdays if read online, or on Sundays if in print. This past week’s column by Tim Boomer, titled “The End of Small Talk,” proposes what I, as a young and burgeoning college student consider a revolutionary idea — eliminating all kinds of disingenuous conversations from traditional social banters. In the column, Boomer considers “small talk” to encompass “all those things that we think we have to talk about with someone new but that tell us little about who the person really is.” He cites weather and commuting times as prime examples, but takes the notion of small talk to a greater level of all-encompassing social interactions. Questions about our favorite travel destinations or our work can be reworked to pry at more meaningful personal insights, he argues.

Dartmouth students reading this know with near absolute certainty that small talk holds a tight grip over the social underpinnings of this campus. When I meet new people on campus, I find myself asking them about their hometowns, their majors and their class years. Even with familiar faces, I could earn a good off-campus meal’s worth of money if I earned a dollar for every time someone asked me how my term was going. Maybe it is unfair to ask for a dollar with each iteration of the question. Fine, I guess the point that I am trying to make is that even at Dartmouth we could probably be a bit more creative.

There is a valid claim in the counter-argument that small talk is a comfortable and perfectly viable means of social interaction, not just on this campus but anywhere in real life. School and work take up much of the day and much of the night, too. Why is it a bad thing to relish in small talk when we give ourselves a break from the daily grind?

Boomer is not a freelance writer based in New York City, with a forthcoming novel like most other featured columnists in the Modern Love series. On the contrary, Boomer is an actuary based in Boston. He is writing purely from what his own experiences, paycheck notwithstanding. As an actuary, for those of us not inclined to know, Boomer analyzes the financial consequences of risks in connection to the uncertainties of future events. Yes, I used Wikipedia to help me with the language for that sophisticated definition there. That same pragmatic, analytical line of thinking can be read in his column — a delightful break from the nonlinear storytelling often seen on the Modern Love pages. In treating small talk like its own form of currency, Boomer is maximizing his potential for meaningful relationships. Not to accuse Boomer of pegging the value of his small talk to the value of the dollar, per se. Although maybe there’s a correlation there, too — I’ll have to do some research into the question and write a follow-up column later.

Asking deeper questions in a basic social setting (and getting away with it) takes a variety of personal skills – initiative, charisma, and certainly a willingness to take risks. Such questions have to be asked in a special way that feels unintimidating and genuine, without any kind of probing force. Only then do the questions pay off in the form of deeper conversations, and maybe substantial long-term relationships. How much worth exactly to place on this kind of social expenditure is complicated for someone like me, I think. Maybe not for others. For me at least, I do not think I possess the kind of confidence that would allow me to master these kinds of interactions any time soon. But maybe that is the point of the entire exercise — not so much to meet new people as to challenge myself to reflect on the things from which I derive the most value in myself and in others.

Before heading into the real world, I hope that I will develop a deeper dedication to recreational reading. Maybe one day I will have the time to talk about actual books in my social interactions – “social” primarily referring to this column, these days. But I will nonetheless continue to read Modern Love and other New York Times articles in earnest.