As an introvert, it always fascinates me how I can get into a really deep conversation with someone for a while and feel energized and motivated by it, and can keep talking all night. Then there are other times where talking to someone just sucks the life out of me and takes my energy away.
In this episode, I discuss small talk versus big talk and how to go beyond small talk to have deeper, more meaningful conversations and teach our students to do the same. I also share some strategies you can use in your classroom to help develop these skills in your students.
5:10 – Defining small vs. big talk and small talk’s vital purpose
14:25 – Revelations from a small talk/big talk research study
16:50 – Benefits to having deeper conversations, especially for art students
19:23 – Ways to encourage and teach your students to have substantive discussions
27:40 – Vulnerability in deep conversations and creating a safe space for students
- 82 Questions About Art
- “Study: Small Talk Not as Bad as Previously Thought”
- Breaking the Habit of Small Talk | Omid Scheybani
- How to Skip the Small Talk and Connect With Anyone | Kalina Silverman
- “Why New Yorkers–and Everyone Else–Should Pursue Small Talk More”
- Discussion Connections: Teaching Kids How to Have Real Discussions
- Be a Podcast Guest: Submit a Voice Memo of Your Art Story (Scroll to the bottom of the page to submit your story.)
Hello, and welcome to the Art Class Curator podcast. I am Cindy Ingram, your host and the founder of Art Class Curator and the Curated Connections Library. We’re here to talk about teaching art with purpose and inspiration from the daily delight of creativity to the messy mishaps that come with being a teacher. Whether you’re driving home from school or cleaning up your classroom for the 15th time today, take a second, take a deep breath, relax those shoulders and let’s get started.
Hello, everybody. This is Cindy Ingram from Art Class Curator, and I am happy to be back with you for another episode of the Art Class Curator podcast. Today, what we’re going to talk about is small talk versus big talk, and how to go beyond small talk to have deeper, more meaningful conversations, and how to teach our students to have deeper and more meaningful conversations too. So, we’re going to kind of talk about the topic for a while, and then near the end of the episode, we will talk about some strategies that you can use in your classroom to help develop these skills in your students. I mentioned that in my conversation with Madalyn a few episodes back, and one of the things I love about my friendship with Madalyn is that we do get into really deep, big conversations on the regular and it is so… It adds such a depth and happiness to my life that I can’t really explain, so she’s amazing.
And it always fascinates me as an introvert, how I can get into a really deep conversation with someone for a really long time, and feel energized by it and motivated by it, and could keep talking all night. And then there are times where talking to someone just sucks the life out of me and takes all of my energy away. One example was my daughter, she plays softball and we recently had a tournament and she had seven games in one weekend because they did well. And I was fine during it. I was just sitting there, hanging out, watching the game, chatting with the other parents. And it was like, I was totally fine. I was like, “I could just do this all day.”
And then the minute that I got home on the second day, I completely crashed, like my whole body shut down. I ended up on the couch, covered with my weighted blanket, with an iced coffee. And I was broken, I could not function. The rest of the day, I couldn’t do any feeding of children, we ordered delivery and it completely killed me. And I thought, maybe it was just because I had to wake up early, but at the end, I realized it was just… Because I had to small-talk with people, nonstop for all of those hours, both days in a row because we were just sitting at the game. No one’s going to have any really big, deep conversations while watching a softball game, so it was just a lot of chit-chat all day long. And it was exhausting.
And I always complain that I live in Texas and in Texas, small talk is more prevalent among strangers than in other places. So, when you’re at the grocery store or the drive-through window or, anybody is going to engage you in small talk while you’re waiting for your food, while you’re checking out, they’re commenting on what you’re buying. It’s just a kind of a constant thing in life in Texas. And so when I travel to Baltimore, especially like New York or Boston, that doesn’t happen. People don’t just talk to you at any time, and so it’s just fascinating to me that cultural difference. So, my original thought for this episode was that it would be about how to go beyond small talk and how to get to a big talk. But as I started to do a little bit of research on what research has been done about small talk versus big talk, and if even big talk is a thing, I learned that there actually is a lot of value to small talk, and there are some science to back that up.
So, for the purpose of this episode, I’m going to use the definition from a research study from the University of Arizona, which was run by Matthias Mehl and Anne Milek. I don’t know how to say those names, but they defined small talk as a conversation where two conversation partners walk away still knowing equally as much or little about each other and nothing else. And then in a big talk or in a substantive conversation, they said, “There is real meaningful information exchanged, and it can be about any topic. It just needs to be more than a trivial level of depth.” So, that’s a quote, I’m going to put that in the show notes, the link to that article, so you can read more about their research. I’ll talk a little bit more about their research later on in the episode.
So, small talk serves an important purpose. It is a feature of hospitality. It is something we do to test the waters, with the person or a relationship to see where your commonalities are to establish that sort of safety that you need to feel before you go any deeper in a conversation. You can’t go straight to sharing your hopes and dreams and fears if you don’t feel safe with the person. So, it’s a way to get to that safety. I watched a Ted Talk from Omid Scheybani and it is called Breaking the Habit of Smalltalk. And in his Ted Talk, he called small talk, predictable superficiality. And he says that, “We revert to the lowest common denominator and small talk prevails.” And he’s talking about in this Ted Talk, how to go beyond small talk, how to get deeper faster, and not to get stuck in small talk.
And I think we get stuck in small talk because of fear of vulnerability, fear of really making ourselves known and seen, even though one of the greatest human needs and desires is to feel like you belong and to feel like you’re seen and known and understood, and that your intentions aren’t misunderstood. But that fear of being misunderstood is what does keep us on the surface level sometimes. People are afraid of being rejected. People are afraid that they’ll scare people away if they come on too strong. I know that’s a thing that’s particularly common among women. We don’t want to come off too strong, too aggressive, we’re taught to stay in our lane, not be too much. And that keeps us from going deeper. Another thing that happens is that we don’t want to inconvenience people. If we initiate conversation, there’s a lot of risk involved in that, because what if the person you’re talking to doesn’t want to talk back? You don’t want to trap someone in a conversation that they don’t want to be a part of.
And that sent me on a rabbit hole on the internet, which was really fascinating that there was a research study done, and I’ll link to it in the show notes. This study was from a psychologist at the University of Chicago, Nicholas Epley, and his student Juliana Schroeder. And what they did is they had people who were about to be on a public transportation ride in Chicago, and some of the group were instructed to initiate conversation with someone sitting next to them. One group was told not to initiate any conversations. And then the third group was just told to do what they would normally do. And then after the ride, they then filled out a survey where they share their feelings or enjoyment of the ride, their productivity, how happy they felt during the ride, how productive they felt during the ride. So, of those people who did talk on the ride, those people had the most positive train ride. And the people who were in solitude had reported the most negative train ride. And of those who talked, the longer they talked, the longer the conversation was, the better the ride.
And they also did a second part to this study. And this one was what was super fascinating to me is they went into the study with this theory that conversations with strangers aren’t really that bad, but we predict them to be bad. In the second part to the study, they asked train and bus riders to imagine having a conversation with a stranger and then to rate the conversation. So, they asked the participants to rate the difficulty of starting the conversation on a scale from zero to six, with six being hard. And the participants or the average rating for the difficulty of starting a conversation was four out of six. And they guessed that fewer than half of the people that they approached would want to talk back.
So, that really shows us that it’s not the actual small talk that’s hard, it’s the initiating the small talk. And that’s where all those fears come in, the fears of being rejected, the fears of not being enough, the fears of not belonging, the fears of being vulnerable, all of those things. Starting a conversation is an inherently vulnerable act, even if it is something small talky, the weather or whatever. And I had this exact same experience just this weekend. My neighborhood has food trucks that comes in every now and then that set up to the HOA. And I went to go get some donuts at this food truck, and I was waiting for my donuts and there was another woman there waiting for her donuts, and she struck up a conversation and we had a lovely little small talk. Talked about her kids and what they eat and what they don’t eat, that sort of parenting small talk.
So, that woman left and then another woman came up and I was already kind of in the small talk mode. And it actually did improve my mood. I enjoyed the experience, which going in, I would have said I wouldn’t have. But there was that other woman there, and I didn’t approach her for a small talk. And I’d been thinking about this small talk, big talk thing for the last week or two, and I was like, “That was just an exact moment where I could have initiated,” but I was scared. I let my introversion or my shyness. It wasn’t introversion, it was shyness take over. And I was like, “I didn’t want to bother her,” which I have just learned with this research study that that’s not actually true. So, people rated it being hard to start a conversation, and they didn’t think people would want to talk back. But all of the evidence from their first experiment said that no one had reported in the original conversations, that the person that they initiated a small talk with, didn’t talk back to them. Everybody talked back.
And so, this article where this research was reported, it’s called Why New Yorkers and Everyone Else Should Pursue Small Talk More. It says that, “The risk of saying hi is zero.” That there’s really nothing that’s going to go wrong there. And so, that’s really fascinating. This article states that, “Everyone is willing to talk, but everyone thinks that everyone else is unwilling, and so they’re scared to do it.” This feels to me like one of those mindset shifts in how I interact with the world. There’s been several times where I’ve heard something from someone that made me look at people differently. And one of those was Brené Brown’s view that approaching everyone as if they’re doing the best they can.
And I have found if I do that in my normal life, that the way I interact with the world is more positive that I am less triggered by people, I am less likely to get emotionally upset at something because I’m walking through the world with that view. And I feel like this is one of those too. Another quote from that article says, “Everyone is willing to talk, but thinks everyone else is unwilling.” That means there could be a train full of people who want to strike up a conversation, but it remains silent nonetheless. And imagine going through your world, understanding that about people. But honestly, that’s really scary too, because I’m one of the people who kind of dreads this, so I find myself a little bit stuck in a circle here, but anyway, let’s talk about what this means for your teaching.
So, we know the importance of small talk and that it is a way to warm up to something deeper, but I think it is really important to show our students how to go deeper, how to have really deep and meaningful conversations, and practice that in our classrooms. So, the other research study that I read about for this episode was from the University of Arizona, and I mentioned that earlier with my definition of small talk and big talk, but it was Matthias Mehl and Anne Milek. And they did a study that analyzed both small talk and what we’re calling big talk, and in that study, they said that, “Participants who engaged in greater number of substantive conversations were happier.” And that was regardless of whether they had introverted or extroverted personalities. They also uncovered in their research that small talk had neither a positive nor a negative impact on someone’s life, that it was sort of more neutral, but on their overall wellbeing.
And what they did in their study is they basically put recording devices on the people. And the recording devices, I think, randomly went off during the day and recorded snippets of conversations that the person was having. And then those conversations were analyzed to see how substantive they were. And they found that the more interaction that people had regardless of their personality, and the more time spent with people interacting with meaningful substantive conversation, they had a happier life and a more meaningful life, and they were more satisfied. And this is fascinating to me, especially in light of the pandemic, and how solitary a lot of people had to become. I’m curious to go find some research about that and what sort of impact the lack of social interaction had on people. So, the study said that more meaningful conversations led to increased levels of happiness.
So, one question still remained at the end of the research is that, “Does having more substantive conversations make people happier? Or do happier people have more substantive conversations?” So, that was a quote from Matthias Mehl about that research, and so that’s something that they’ll continue to work on. So, there’s a lot of good reasons to have deeper conversations. One of them just being to deepen your relationship with the person that you’re talking to, but there are greater reasons, and a lot of them go hand in hand with our work at Art Class Curator in having conversations and discussions around works of art. These sorts of discussions, whether they’re around a work of art or not are going to foster cross-cultural understanding. They’re going to allow you to see things from new perspectives, perspectives you hadn’t considered, you hadn’t thought about. They’re going to teach you empathy and respect and compassion.
You’re going to learn more about the fact that you are not alone in this world. You’re going to learn how to see yourself in other people, but also to see other people as unique individuals with their own struggles. They’re going to just create bridges with the people in our lives and create bridges personally and culturally. Having conversations with people who are like you and who are not like you can lead to really amazing places. So, we do all of that through looking at works of art too. When we’re looking at a work of art, we can talk about biases and we can talk about emotions and feelings. We can talk about history and culture. We can talk about our personal experiences in the world, all through interacting with that work of art. And just having these sorts of conversations around works of art with your students are going to teach them to have deeper conversations in their lives.
They’re going to realize the components of a deeper conversation, they’re going to experience it, and hopefully, that will lead to more conversations like this in their regular life outside of your classroom. Conversations around works of art are going to spark curiosity, and we know that more knowledge leads to more curiosity and more curiosity leads to more knowledge, and having more knowledge and more engagement in the world and more opinions are going to lead to naturally to more deep conversations in the regular lives too, because the more you know, the more curious you are, the more you want to talk about things, the more you want to pick things apart, and it’s best to do that with another person.
So, how do we get our students to have these sorts of conversations and learn how to do them better? I think the first thing we need to do is to model good conversation. We need to make it a part of our classroom, and then we need to be good at it ourselves. So, we need to think about what are some good types of questions to ask? How do we respond to students when they bring up something? What kind of things do we say and do that then the students can learn from? And so that means asking open-ended questions, it means showing emotional responses when they talk back, so being delighted or excited about what they say, or that sort of thing. When someone responds positively to something that you’ve said, it is a reward for the person doing the speaking. And so by showing your excitement and energy around what your student has to say, that will lead them to more confidence, and in their own conversational abilities in their own thoughts, and that will lead to better conversations later on.
And also, I think showing the importance of thinking, the importance of sharing ideas and coming up with new ideas rather than knowing information or knowing facts. And we talk about that a lot with works of art, that it’s the process of interpretation and ideas and thinking over the information given in the artwork or the information that we know about the artwork, it’s more about thinking than about knowing. And I think that that is something that’s celebrated in conversations because you’re working out a problem together. You’re really digging deep into a topic and seeing it from lots of different ways, and you share what you know, but then you also share what you think about it and your ideas around it, and new thoughts and ideas. So, a student will get better at this through more experience, by offering more conversations, more discussions in your classroom, they’re naturally going to get better at it, but you also can actually teach students how to have a conversation and be really explicit with it.
And one of the things you can do is ask the students, “What does a good conversation look like? What does a good conversation sound like?” And make a list together of what that is, and then you can talk about things like the importance of giving and taking turns, the importance of, again, asking open-ended questions. Another one is listening skills. I think one of the biggest problems that people have in conversations is that they listen in order to determine what they’re going to say next, rather than actually listening to the person speaking. And when this was first pointed out to me, it totally blew my mind because I think growing up, I always thought that I wasn’t good at conversations. And I think it was because I wasn’t good at small talk, so I assumed I wasn’t good at conversations. And so, I also would have a problem with not knowing when to insert my thoughts.
So, if you’re talking to someone who talks a lot, who’s one of those people who just talks and talks and talks and talks, and then you’re with a couple of people like that, it’s really hard for your more shy people to find a way into the conversation before you’ve thought of what you want to say. And then the conversation moves on away from it, and then you’re like, “Oh, what am I going to do?” And so I always felt like I had to be ready with something to say so that I could throw it in there whenever there was a moment. So, I had to be prepared at any second to provide my part of a conversation. And when this was pointed out to me that people tend to spend all the time listening instead of actual listening, you’re planning what you’re going to say. I really resonated with that, and I caught myself doing that.
And so, that’s like a lifelong lesson, I think, but that’s really something important to bring up with students as well, that are you actually really listening or are you just planning what you’re going to say? I think that’s really important to talk about. And then I think another thing that we can do in this discussion on teaching students how to have a conversation, we talk about the different things that you can do to respond.
So, you listen to one person say something, and then how do you continue the conversation, how does it not just end there? It’s been fun to watch this develop in my daughter, she’s in the sixth grade, a different daughter than the softball example earlier, but I’ve noticed this as she has grown, she’s in sixth grade now, that for a long period of time, I would listen to her and her friends talk and it would be… They weren’t really ever having a conversation, it was always just, they’re all kind of saying different things, but not necessarily related things, or like one’s talking about something totally different than the other. And then I’ve noticed just recently that those are starting to gel into conversation, so it makes me want to research how people develop conversational skills and at what grade, or what ages they do this? Because I have really noticed her upping her game in conversations, and that is more interesting to have a conversation with her now than it used to be because she sort of understands conversations better.
And she actually is really interesting because she loves to follow the path of conversation, so we’ll be in the middle of a conversation until she’ll stop and she’s like, “How did we get here?” And then she’ll retrace her steps. She thinks it’s really fascinating to follow the flow of a conversation. So, to help students really understand how they can respond in different ways, you can really talk through and practice what that looks like.
So, you might put up a work of art and have one student say something about it, anything that they notice or an interpretation that they have or whatever. And then you to talk to the group about, “Okay. Well, that’s the start of the conversation, then what do we do next?” And so, this next student can then restate what the first student said to show that they were listening, and then you talk about their different options they can agree, and then agree and then add to it, so they provide another example or say something that it reminds them of, or point out something similar in the artwork that related to what the first person said so they can agree in add to.
You can also ask for clarification so if you didn’t understand, you can ask for more information or you can ask a question related to it. And then you also can disagree, and how to do that? So you restate, you understand their opinion, you restate it, and then you contradict it, or you provide an alternate example that doesn’t fit what the first person says and sort of teaching them how to respectfully disagree and respectfully agree are really important skills that they can learn. And I found on Teachers Pay Teachers a great resource, it’s not mine, but it is called Discussion Connections: Teaching Kids How to Have Real Discussions. And in it are some conversation cards and what they are, are basically sentence-starters, or it says discussion connection starter. So, it says something like “What you said about blank made me think of blank.” Or, “Going back to blank’s idea that blank, I think blank.” So, it gives them ways to have this conversation and ways to think about transitions from what one person says to another, ways to build on a conversation, and gives them the tools and the resources to do that.
So, I will link to that resource in the show notes, it looks like a really good one. And I just think this is such an important life skill that we work on teaching our students. And another thing that came up when I was researching this, I think it was in that Ted Talk that I mentioned earlier, but the guy leading the Ted Talk said, “Vulnerability is contagious. And that in deep conversations, we do have to share something about ourselves.” And that is hard because vulnerability is hard, especially when you’re younger and you’re in your middle school years, and you’re feeling awkward, and you’re at that stage where you’re worried about how people perceive you and all of that, that it’s still really scary.
And even now today, looking back and things that I might’ve shared on past podcast episodes during conversations, especially in that one with Madalyn that I mentioned, there was some things I said where after I was like, “Oh, I gave a little bit too much of myself there.” And I felt a little vulnerable about it. Of course, I left it in because I do think it’s important, and I do think that showing our vulnerability is one of the most important things that we can do for human connection. And it makes us happier people. It makes us more loving. It makes us more accepting of other people and it makes us more accepting of ourselves when we can be vulnerable. So, I think that is really important.
However, I think that we also need to remember to establish trust in a safe space in our classroom that… And I’ve talked about this in the podcast before, but one of the best ways to have these sort of amazing, powerful art discussions that I talk about all the time is that you have to create a safe space in your classroom for those sorts of discussions. You have to make it to where your students feel comfortable sharing, and they’d feel comfortable sharing their feelings, sharing bits of themselves, and creating a space where that is not only allowed, but also cherished and protected. And so creating that trust and that safe space in your classroom is super important. And I would never require one of my students to share something vulnerable or be vulnerable. I wouldn’t grade them on their ability to be vulnerable, but I think that we can encourage it by being vulnerable ourselves and by giving bits of ourselves to our students as well.
For example, when I would have my students do something personal as part of their work of art, I would always give my own example of what I would do, or I would share bits about my past or my history that would allow them to see that I’m a person too. They’re teachers, they can put over theirs, these are teachers, these are different people, that teachers don’t have feelings too. But when I show them that I have feelings, when I show them my vulnerabilities, that allows for a deeper connection in your relationships with your students, and it allows them to feel safer in your space. So, don’t be afraid, I think, to give of yourself too, which I know you’re doing all day long, so you have to also protect your own feelings too. And that was another episode I did in the past with Monica Wright and Amber Jordan about Highly Sensitive Teachers. So, that’s something you have to look out for yourself, but I think that establishing that safe space is super important.
Also, you can model these discussions in full class discussions before you move into small groups. I think that one great goal would be to be able to go into your classroom, break your kids up into small groups, give them an artwork to discuss, and then they just know how to do it themselves. And like me and Madalyn’s conversation where we just sat, and we just talked about the work of art. And I think with enough experience doing that as a full group, your students will be able to do that in small groups. And that is going to be amazing practice for them moving forward.
And another thing to consider when doing this is to establish some rules for conversations. So, when you are teaching students what is a good conversation? What do conversations look like and feel like and sound like? You can sort of establish some parameters, one of them being to criticize ideas and not people, without name-calling. One of the things that you might want to look out for is when a student prefaces whatever they say with, this might sound dumb, but this is what I think, or apologizing for their thoughts and apologizing for their opinions. So, that’s something you all can talk about before these sorts of discussions.
And this isn’t a one and done you do the, how to have a conversation and then never address it again, this is something you can point out again and again. It could be even a reflection after discussions, like what did you learn about having a conversation from what we just did? That sort of thing to sort of reinforce it as they go through. And this will translate and flow into a lot of areas in your classroom, like critiques and reflections on their artwork and conversations about grading or about planning for their projects, and all of this stuff will be benefited by learning to have deep and meaningful conversations.
All right. All of the references and studies and Ted Talks and stuff that I referenced in this episode will be in the show notes today. And that will be at artclasscurator.com/63. And I hope this sparked some ideas in you on how to bring more conversations into your classroom, whether it is a question of the day that you ask or whether it is a discussion around a work of art. I think this is a really powerful thing that we can bring into our classrooms and make an intentional effort to help our students with this really important life skill. So, thank you so much for listening today to the Art Class Curator podcast, and I will see you again next time. Bye.
If your art appreciation classes were anything like mine, they happened in dark rooms with endless slides and boring lectures, art in the dark, but art appreciation doesn’t have to turn into nap time for your students. Start connecting your students to art with powerful class discussions. It can be intimidating to start talking about art with students, so teachers always want to know what they should say. The real question is what you should ask? You can get 82 questions to ask about almost any work of art for free on the Art Class Curator blog. The free download includes the list of questions plus cards that you can cut out and laminate to use again and again. These versatile questions can be used in everything from bell ringers to group activities, to critiques. Just go to artclasscurator.com/questions to get your free copy today.
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82 Questions About Art
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