An Ode to Middle Talk
Updated: Oct 24, 2022
In about 600 words, I want to convince you that you have a superpower.
In her recent NYT Newsletter, Tish Harrison Warren interviews author and psychiatrist Curt Thompson about isolation’s insidious role in burnout. In naming some factors to explain this link, Thompson states:
“We are committed to… moving further and further away from each other. For example, I am less deeply known by my neighbors. My children are not spontaneously known by other children in the neighborhood. They don’t go to the playground and play pickup games… we have practiced liturgies of isolationism.”
To change to a more positive key: being known in a hyperlocal context like a neighborhood is highly correlated to joy and resilience.
As Christians, we get to be people on the lookout for a different kind of liturgy. School gatherings, neighborhood block parties, or on the bleachers at a sports event are all opportunities to eat, meet, and talk-not-tweet.
And here’s all it takes: showing up, bringing something to eat, and doing some Middle Talk.
Middle Talk is not too small (the weather’s just… not that interesting), and not too deep (maybe save it for therapy?), it’s just right.
It’s very simple. (1) Be Interested and (2) Be Interesting.
Here’s something I know about each of your neighbors: they all want someone to pay attention to them. Even the ones who don’t like long conversations. You can meet that longing by becoming a master question-asker.
Start simple, “what do you do?”, “how long have you lived here?”, “Where were you before this?”.
But don’t settle for the simple; ask follow-up questions, “what do you wish people knew about that job?”, “what’s your favorite part of your house?”, “what do you miss about where you were before?”.
Learn to love details. Plan a few go-to questions that you can ask to anyone at the party. Here’s one of my favorites: “if you had to write a ‘For Dummies’ book, what would you write it on?
Everyone is interesting and everyone is an expert on something. By caring enough to find it, we give our neighbors space to believe that about themselves.
When you’re being interested, it’s akin to enjoying and celebrating the food your neighbors have brought to the potluck. I feel extreme joy when people enjoy food I’ve made for them.
But what conversational food item are you bringing to the feast? Because just like they are interesting, you, too, are interesting.
Here’s my advice: come with a bit. A bit is a fun, short anecdote, question, hot take, or observation that you offer for the sake of getting conversation flowing. Great bits start with the phrases, “I gotta tell you this story…”, “have you ever noticed?”, “you know what I learned recently?”, “Let me ask you this question…”
So mine your life – what’s happened to you? What have you been pondering or processing or noticing? Then after you share, simply say, “what do you think?...”
Middle Talk is one way to live out the high call of Philippians 2: “in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Middle Talk can be your tool to enter the swirling vortex of loneliness, despair, depression, and burnout that is our modern lives and become a vessel of connection, joy, and peace.
Middle Talk can be your superpower.