Picture this: You’re walking to the lift. You look up and make eye contact with one of your schoolmates—the two of you aren’t close, you don’t really talk, but you worked on that one project together a couple of semesters back. She’s waiting for the lift too, it seems. You smile at each other, albeit awkwardly. Glancing at the electronic bar sitting at the top of the lift doors, you realise that the damned lift is still stuck at the floor below.
Crap. You clear your throat and plaster a bright smile on your face.
“How’s school?” the both of you blurt out at the same time.
Small talk. It’s something most of us religiously avoid. It’s often meaningless, superficial, and – good God – it can be so incredibly awkward sometimes. So what happens if we go straight to big talk, conversations that allow for a much deeper connection between two individuals?
This is what Kalina Silverman is trying to figure out.
UNITE was given the wonderful opportunity to attend Kalina’s presentation of her Fullbright Research Grant, “How to Bridge East West Communications Using Big Talk”, in Making Big Talk, a research talk hosted by the Communications and New Media (CNM) Department here in NUS.
Kalina is the founder of Big Talk, an experimental project premised on her initial desire to “be able to go out of [her] way to meet new people and skip the small talk, to have deeper conversations, and make more meaningful connections with them instead.”
It began with a viral Youtube video, in which she approached strangers and asked them “What do you want to do before you die?”, effectively foregoing any small talk and going straight to big talk. It has reached approximately 147450 views to date—but this is just a small fraction of the 3 million views that her TEDx Talk on the concept garnered!
Indeed, there is little doubt that the concept of big talk has struck a chord in viewers all across the globe. Kalina highlights, in fact, how Rabbis have messaged her, requesting permission to use big talk during their religious classes.
However, it was the feedback from Singaporeans that spurred her move here, and the beginning of her research project. She was especially fascinated with the trends and themes that emerged from the responses, all of which revealed the potential of big talk to bridge cultural and racial gaps. “NUSWhispers [too],” she pointed out with a smile, inciting chuckles from the audience. “That’s something.”
Either way, they compelled her to conduct a research grant “to learn on the ground”, to see the trends and why they exist for herself. She hopes to “build a system to address [the] different needs [of] different people”, even highlighting the added possibility of big talk conversation methods as a means of improving communication between migrant workers in Singapore and their employers.
Nevertheless, Kalina conceded that there may be downsides to Big Talk. For instance, although the ‘big’ questions are thought to be universal, there is a need to acknowledge that people are inherently different.
Some participants also noted that the large emotional investment that Big Talk presupposes is not necessarily a good thing; it will only result in an uncomfortable situation if the two people in question realise they “do not click” later on. Another issue is the kind of information that one is willing to reveal, in spite of the depth of emotional connection that Big Talk aims to achieve. In other words, small talk is still necessary as a preclusion to Big Talk, lest the latter collapses into mere “emotional tourism”, as one participant put it.
Credit: Jim Prisching
However, as Kalina stresses, Big Talk is not aimed at eliminating small talk altogether. “[Big talk] is more of an opt-in,” she clarified, noting that there is still a place for small talk. She highlighted how the two may be negotiated in the case of an Uber driver who has a jar of ‘big’ questions written on slips of paper. Here, passengers have the option of engaging in Big Talk by drawing a question from the jar; alternatively, they may just go with small talk, or none at all.
These then raise another key question: Who is the project specifically targeted at? “It started off as stranger-to-stranger, and then between family members,” Kalina revealed. “I wanted to expand, but I have to scale it down. This has been a source of struggle for the past weeks,” she added with a laugh.