“In what ways are you different from the person you were five years ago? And how are you the same?”
This is Ashley E. Kirsner’s favorite question from “Skip the Small Talk,” an event designed to spark more profound conversations between strangers. Kirsner, who founded the weekly event program, explains that “one of the things I really strive for with the questions is getting people talking about internal states, as opposed to just facts about themselves.”
On Wednesday, October 6th, newcomers and returners to the event gathered at the brightly-lit Trident Booksellers & Cafe on Newbury Street in Boston, buzzing with anticipation as they prepared to pour their hearts out to strangers. In the corner, the bartender mixed “Truth Serum” — a sake cocktail (or mocktail) created specially for Skip the Small Talk.
At the ring of the bell, Kirsner gives her official welcome, inviting everyone to be more vulnerable than they normally would. She speaks to the importance of having compassion for ourselves and others. She mentions how, in her five years of hosting these events, there has not been one reported regret of sharing too much. And then, seated at tables separated by cardboard dividers, strangers from all walks of life — librarians, postal workers, engineers, researchers, students — began taking turns answering questions posed by Kirsner and her team, and the chatter in the room swells to a din.
It was frustration that inspired Kirsner to start Skip the Small Talk in 2016 — frustration at the abundance of small talk at social gatherings. “Because everybody is talking about small talk stuff, everybody thinks that everybody else wants to be talking about small talk stuff,” she says. “Then we just end up in this perpetual hell of eternal small talk at parties.”
As a volunteer for a suicide hotline, Kirsner realized that people wanted deep conversations but didn’t know how to start them. She remembers asking callers, “Do you have anyone in your life that you’ve told about what you’re going through?” The vast majority would respond, “No.” But when asked if they would be willing to listen to a loved one talk about a similar struggle, callers replied affirmatively. It wasn’t that people didn’t have enough friends; they were just uneasy being vulnerable when the stakes were high.
Skip the Small Talk seeks to create a low-stakes environment where people can both be and learn to be vulnerable. Kirsner compares vulnerability to strength training, calling it a muscle. “The skills you're building here become really relevant to the rest of your life,” she says. “Vulnerability is really the only way you can get to feeling connected with someone over time.”
Every 10 minutes, attendees shuffle themselves, choosing new conversation partners and questions. Kirsner emphasizes that her prompts are optional, and it seems that no matter the question, if people really have something to share, they would always find a way to share it. She observes that with the expectation of small talk lifted, a desire to share more intimate details immediately becomes apparent. At the event, one woman burst into tears at the first question: “How are you really doing?”
“People are just so ready to open up if you give them the slightest indication that you’re a safe person to open up to,” Kirsner says. Currently, she has set her sights beyond Boston, hoping to expand Skip the Small Talk to cities such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Portland, Ore..
“My dream would be that you can basically move to any new city and say, ‘Oh, I’m not worried, I’m going to ‘Skip the Small Talk’ there first thing so that I can start to build a social group.’”
For Kirsner, participating in her own events has in turn made her more comfortable being vulnerable.
“I feel like I understand humans so much better,” she says. “It’s an anchor that keeps me believing that people are good.”
— Staff writer Dannie C. Bell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.