Small talk is perhaps the most important aspect of communication in modern-day society. It allows us to express our individuality in conversations, be this with our friends, or with complete strangers. In the age of zoom meetings, breakout rooms, awkward silences and technical hitches, however, it is sadly the fallen soldier of in-person social interaction for many people. Studies carried out by the BPP University Law School in February revealed that 44% of 18 to 24-year-olds say that, as a result of the pandemic, they now feel more comfortable using digital resources to communicate with strangers, than they do speaking face-to-face. In response to these findings, the University has announced that it will be one of the first academic institutions to offer modules in small talk – helping people to restore their communicative skills as they venture out of lockdown, and back into the real world. Is this a completely ridiculous idea? Or could these masterclasses actually become a post-covid necessity?
Although it comes naturally to some, speaking in unfamiliar settings or with new people has long been a huge source of anxiety for millions of people across the globe. I, for one, know how terrifying it can be to face these situations. From my recent experiences in covid-era teaching and learning, I see how people are put at extreme ease by online meetings. It is this that makes the idea of having to return to socialising with actual people, in a physical room extremely daunting; especially for those who have been somewhat comforted by their online presences. Many of us are guilty of wrapping ourselves in a ‘safety blanket’ by keeping our webcams and microphones turned off unless it’s really necessary to turn them on; relying on the familiar setting of our bedrooms and desks to distract us from our nerves. Whilst this is one of the very few pros of online interaction, we can’t hide forever. Real people do physically exist outside of the small boxes that appear on our screens; shocking, I know.
Of course, it is almost impossible to forget how to communicate like a functioning human being. This does not mean that returning to ‘normal’ form of socialisation will be made any easier, though. From speaking to friends, it was made clear to me that a lack of face-to-face interaction has significantly knocked the confidence of many young people in social situations. Some told me that they even feel awkward when talking to their close friends or family, as if there is nothing to discuss other than Covid. It makes me wonder; have we seen the end of being able to express our quirks and interests? Or will we be sucked into a tragic world where every conversation begins with: “How was lockdown for you?” or “It feels so strange now that we’re actually allowed outside of the house… haha!”. Having lost in-person interviews, placements and internships, we have also been put at a major disadvantage in the world of work experience and professional small talk. The pandemic may have taken our ‘prime’ years away from us, but we can’t let it take our personalities and futures as hostage too. It seems that learning how to communicate ‘normally’ again could just become one of our top priorities for post-lockdown recovery; if we want to make up for our losses, that is.
So, the final question is this: does hope lie beyond the webcam? As with most things, the success of BPP’s lessons in small talk is entirely dependent on how extroverted or introverted a person is. Working in a supermarket over the course of the pandemic has, personally, helped me to hold my nerve in social situations. I do, however, know countless people who have massively struggled with this over the course of the past year. We must remember that everyone has been affected by the pandemic in different ways; whilst some people have become more assured in their communicative abilities, others are reluctant to tear themselves away from the security of their computer screens. Some say, “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” and may be true for some, but I think these lessons could be the confidence boost that a lot of people need as they emerge from the depths of Covid’s cave.
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