The Importance of Small Talk
Students line the walls, leaving the middle of the hallway empty as if for a parade. To get to my office, I walk through the center. I smile and wave at a student that I remember from a past semester. She doesn’t see me. As I approach, I can see her earbuds. I’m close enough to see that she is watching Glee. I spot Hermilo, a current student, and his face looks stressed. He is standing further down the hall and is pounding his thumbs into his phone methodically. I smile and wave. He doesn’t see me. It would take an aggressive interruption, like shouting or invading the eye line between his face and his phone, to yield pleasantries. Not wanting to bother him, I give up. I look around and realize no one is talking. Bodies hover over devices. Heads are down and the physical environment is barely acknowledged with furtive glances, as if everyone is complying with a ban on eye contact. I have just walked through a crowd of more than one hundred people, many of whom I know, unable to establish eye contact. This walk is how I begin each day at my college, where I teach communication.
I began teaching in the early 2000s. Back then, on the first day of each class, I walked into students shuffling through backpacks, reading, or doodling in notebooks. Strangers in a new situation, the room was understandably quiet. A couple of icebreakers were enough, though, to get everybody going thanks to a built-in squad of extroverts who learned names, teased the teasable, and cajoled the introverts. The ultimate team leaders, they kept classes warm. Students became comfortable with each other, willing to risk, to learn, to grow. Perhaps they even wanted to impress each other. This backdrop made transformative learning possible.
Things have changed.
The awkwardness that lasted one class period fifteen years ago now spans the entire semester. When I begin Public Speaking classes now, I am not interrupting conversations; I am interrupting Game of Thrones. I immediately notice a profound lack of eye contact. I am standing before the class, clearly the professor, but students look down or sideways. They peek at their phones, like lovers stealing a kiss, but they do not gaze forward, toward the reason they are in the room. And extroverts are, seemingly, extinct.
As my lecture begins, they sink inside themselves like elderly zoo animals. Eyes are down, but faces are visible. I look at them. This is how bored my face would look if I were in solitary confinement. Jokes that have worked for years are met with silence. As if without input or stimulation, students appear switched off. I desperately try to interrupt their deactivation with enthusiasm for the subject matter, by speaking passionately, using dramatic pauses, screening video clips, and telling stories. Sometimes they perk up, but not for long.
For years, I’ve successfully taught students with interactive lecture. A few minutes of lecture, a few minutes of discussion, back and forth, like a game of tennis. This method animated my classroom year after year. In 2018, it’s useless. I pose a question. No one talks. I repeat it. No one reacts. I say it slowly. No one looks up. I say it in simpler terms. Nothing. “I won’t call on you just for looking at me; you don’t have to be afraid of making eye contact,” I joke. No one laughs. Open-ended questions receive yes or no answers. The teacher’s standard, “can you expand on that?” is greeted with micro-expressions of horror. I feel like a cop questioning guilty witnesses. Not wanting to torture them, I back off and feel myself transforming into the uber-boring professor they already seem to think I am. But I don’t give up.
Maybe they need to break the ice in a less intimidating way? I place students in small circles with three or four people. I pose another question. To my confusion, this format appears to be equally unbearable. They sit, heads down, in silence. I watch the detached pods. Is everyone depressed? I walk from group to group to coach the conversation. Choppy, lifeless discussions chug along, after strenuous provocation.
When students give speeches, my private hell becomes theirs because they themselves are now tasked with enlivening this impenetrable audience. As each student stands at the podium, I am the only person in the room who is maintaining eye contact, nodding my head and making corresponding facial expressions. Not surprisingly, their fledgling self-esteem falters. I can’t warm up this room, why would a novice speaker be expected to? It feels wrong to subject them to this.
After class, students funnel out with phones suddenly attached to their left hands. Back in business, thumbs furiously type and eyes scour bits of content. No one says goodbye. No one lingers to chat up the professor. I spend office hours alone, mulling over my failure. I’ve seen my share of inspirational teaching films, and I knew which character I was: the teacher who couldn’t figure it out. Because the stakes are so high in education, that teacher is portrayed as a villain, part of the problem. “Anyone, anyone?”
What was going on?
Technology is not new to higher education. When students suddenly “needed” laptops in class, most professors simply ignored it. If they wanted to instant message and online shop their way to failure, it was a lesson learned. As distractions escalated and engagement plummeted, a second approach gained traction: “if you can’t beat them, join them.” This option integrates the internet, smartphones, social media, and screen-time-in-general into the classroom purportedly as an asset. I’ve dabbled with this approach over the years, as have most educators. Sometimes it feels like it’s working and other times a game of Kahoot! becomes a class-long distraction. I have even taught online public speaking.
Choosing between ignoring or embracing technology can feel like a false dichotomy, though, as neither road consciously addresses the underlying issue. Nicholas Carr, whose 2010 nonfiction work about the internet’s impacts on our brains, The Shallows, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize, has weighed in on this issue. He writes, “the assumption that the more media, the more messaging, the more social networking you can bring in will lead to better educational outcomes is not only dubious but in many cases is probably just wrong. It has to be a very balanced approach. Educators need to familiarize themselves with the research and see that in fact one of the most debilitating things you can do to students is distract them.” The dawning realization that screen time is causing harm has disrupted the ignore vs. embrace debate and sent us educators searching for higher ground.
Dr. Jean Twenge, the influential psychologist behind iGen, writes, “Around 2010, teens started to spend their time much differently from the generations that preceded them. Then, around 2012, sudden shifts in their psychological well-being began to appear. Together, these changes pointed to a generational cutoff around 1995, which meant that the kids of this new, post-millennial generation were already in college.” Yes, yes they were. They were sitting in my classroom, and I knew I was witnessing the “sudden shifts in their psychological well-being.” Indeed, college students were more shy and anxious than ever. I finally had an explanation for what I was witnessing first hand! She continues, “These teens and young adults all have one thing in common: Their childhood or adolescence coincided with the rise of the smartphone.” Carr has also noted that the smaller and more portable a technology gets, the more prolific its impacts. The clock tower was less influential than the wristwatch. This explains why of the desktop, the laptop, and the handheld computer, the latter has provoked the most drastic and far-reaching effects. The internet has been a long time coming, but our world did suddenly change with the smartphone.
Indeed, many studies demonstrate unintended consequences from our current tech boom for children, adolescents, and adults. This must cause us to rethink our attitudes toward classroom technology, because if devices are causing harm, then we need to protect our students from them. Dr. Sherry Turkle, Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and author of Reclaiming Conversation, has called for “sacred spaces” where technology is not present, but human beings are. The dinner table. The car. The therapist’s office. The classroom. These breaks help us remember what we know about how to be with each other and lessen the devices’ hold on our psyche. We don’t have to throw the phones away, but we do have to figure out how to not be damaged by them. Carr reiterates this sentiment by arguing that we must have the courage not to “delegate to computers” what we know a human must do.
I knew my students deserved to have someone fight for them. It wasn’t just my reputation or class dynamic at stake: it was their ability to get and maintain high-quality jobs. Social skills still matter; in fact, according to the Harvard Business Review, “nearly all job growth since 1980 has been in occupations that are relatively social skill-intensive.”
I had ignored their tech distractions, I had tried to woo them by embedding tech in the classroom, and now, finally, it was time to throw tech out the window. So, one day, I stood before them and wrote “Airplane Mode” on the board. I rhapsodized about “sacred spaces” and human connection, defending and explaining my stance to ban smartphones. Students mostly obliged but it didn’t work; the room still felt dead. With phones, the silences had an excuse, but without phones, they were just ignoring each other.
I needed a fourth path. I couldn’t just disable the phones, I realized. The real approach to technology in the classroom was to teach them how to navigate life without the devices. As hard as it was for me to believe, it appeared that my public speaking students didn’t know how to talk to each other. Devices had stunted their development. They’d never been a ten-year-old nervously ordering pizza on the phone, trying on adulthood, or a fourteen-year-old at the adult table small-talking with their great uncle at Thanksgiving. “You can’t learn nonverbal emotional cues from a screen in the way you can learn it from face-to-face communication,” writes Yalda Uhls, a senior researcher with UCLA’s Children’s Digital Media Center.
Cognitive tools weaken what they compensate for, as Nicholas Carr notes in The Glass Cage. We have all experienced this: when we use GPS our sense of direction atrophies; with phone numbers saved on devices, we don’t memorize the contact info of our friends and family. I personally have no idea what my own husband’s phone number is. So what happens when we use software to mediate our connections with other people? This explained my students’ lack of nonverbal mirroring. They had been outsourcing facial expression to emojis or, if they did smile, on Snapchat for instance, it only needed to last as long as the record button is pressed.
Alongside the smartphone ban, I began teaching beginning communication skills. It was hard to know where to start, but they seemed to be missing the first step: small talk. I had always found small talk dull, but I had to admit that it is how relationships begin. I told them that easing into acquaintanceship with safe topics, like weather, was a low-risk way to test the water with someone. Turkle talks about how it takes seven minutes for a conversation to become interesting. If you don’t let those seven minutes happen, you’ll never know what you missed.
I taught them about Turkle’s seven minutes and each day I wrote a small talk topic on the board and modeled the conversation with a couple people in the front row. And to the extroverts, wherever they were, I added, “If someone is shy, be nice to them. Help them out.” Was I patronizing them or helping them? I didn’t know anymore. But I knew I couldn’t teach (not well, at least) in a classroom devoid of intimacy. Getting them to talk about the weather felt important. I had become so accustomed to pedagogical failure, I didn't think it would work, but I wasn’t going to slide into villain status without kicking and screaming.
But it did work. They began talking.
Hearing their banter for the first time made me emotional. I had solved the toughest riddle of my career. My device-free, pro-small talk regime was yielding results. Oh, to see the extroverts emerge! Oh, to hear students muttering in the halls! Oh, to walk into a classroom filled with chatter! Oh, to quiet students down after group discussions! Relief poured over me. Eureka! Finally, the students were coming to life.
An extrovert by nature, Derek’s physical presence matched his personality. He was a big, loud, and smiley guy. Emboldened by the policy, he ruled our classroom benevolently and got everyone talking. It was beautiful to watch an extrovert work his magic. I had missed the extroverts so much. He singled out Hermilo in particular for some kind teasing, and soon Hermilo was showing up early just to talk and cracking shy smiles more and more.
“I want to speak out because I know most undocumented people are too afraid to speak,” he said softly, during my office hours, a few weeks into the no-phone-policy. Flung into activism by a newly elected president who vilified undocumented immigrants, Hermilo felt morally obligated to set his shyness aside. The next assignment was to tell a true story from your life, and he wanted to “come out to the class as a DACA recipient.” He had already posted about this once online, he told me, but felt he needed to do this in real life.
“My best friend was a chicken,” he began, joking about a pet chicken he had in junior high school. He was all smiles, and we were disarmed from the beginning. A simple permission slip for school, asking for his social security number, was what prompted his mother to finally tell him that he was undocumented. He was fifteen. “All those years when people were saying bad things about illegals, they were talking about me,” he told us. He admitted to waking up with his heart racing out of a dead sleep with intrusive thoughts blasting in his mind: YOU ARE ILLEGAL.
But one night, messing around on YouTube, he stumbled on a video of President Obama talking about the DREAM Act. “Let’s take up the cause of the DREAMERS: the young people who were brought to this country as children. We need to offer them a chance to come out of the shadows to work and study legally,” Obama pleaded. Hermilo’s hope was restored. And, fully empowered at this point, he ended his story by saying that he didn’t want to be a dreamer, he wanted to be a do-er. Derek started clapping first, beaming with pride.
“The privilege of the future is disconnection,” writes doctoral candidate Alex Beattie in his illuminating article Escape: The Next Digital Divide. The “haves” will do digital detoxes and learn mindfulness in an effort to be online without being addicted. “Silicon Valley executives are (ironically) already sending their kids to tech-free schools,” he notes. And, I would conjecture, those same kids probably won’t take online public speaking in college either. And the have-nots? Due to a general lack of awareness, and jobs which, more and more, require 24-hour accessibility, they are at risk of being totally enmeshed with their devices. “As it currently stands,” Beattie laments, “not enough people are fighting for the right to disconnect.”
Educational institutions continue to finance the ed tech industry while bragging to parents and prospective students about their use of cutting-edge technology. What we haven’t collectively realized yet, is that a truly modern approach would protect youth from exploitative technologies, teach them to use technology and not be used by it, and prioritize human communication in real life with real people, thereby alleviating this generation’s mental health epidemic.
Back in my office when Hermilo was first gearing up to share his story, I told him, “You have to know that the majority of Americans are totally on your side. Don’t listen to all those headlines.” But it was hard to believe me because his attempt at authenticity on social media had produced anxiety. He worried about who had seen it, who was ignoring it, what people really thought, and whether or not he should have done it at all. Hermilo’s anxieties echoed the point in Jaron Lanier’s book, Ten Arguments For Deleting Your Social Media Accounts Right Now, that one of the problems with social media is that at the end of the day it lacks context, rendering the communication meaningless. Hermilo had tried to be authentic online but not knowing where it had landed was haunting him.
Each of my classes got to choose their favorite storyteller who would get to perform in a special evening event open to the community, and Hermilo’s class picked him. Experienced performers can tell you, the energy of a larger crowd tends to improve your delivery. As I suspected would happen, Hermilo nailed his performance. He was hilarious, passionate, and authentic. When he finished, half the room was teary eyed. The applause was heartfelt and louder than it had been for prior stories. He didn’t have to second-guess what had happened in this room. He was accepted and loved.
At the end of the night, as everyone was leaving the room, Hermilo walked up to me and said, “thank you for everything,” half shrugging to indicate that it was hard to put into words what had happened. He stood tall. Our eyes took each other in. It’s hard to dissect face to face encounters scientifically, and conversely, to know what we lose when we don’t see each other. But as Hermilo searched my face, I know that he could feel my love for him. Like a Care Bear, I was sending it to him from my whole physical self. And I know that it healed him, a little. I also know that long before Hermilo came to my office and long before he told the class his story, Derek had put his phone down, turned to him, and asked, “Is it going to rain today?”
header image: the parents union / flickr