by Philip Turner.
The Samaritans, the listening service set up by a London vicar in 1953, launched in 2017 the campaign ‘Small Talk Changes Lives’.[i] It is based on the premise that, when we initiate a conversation we create the potential for transforming a life. Yet what I find especially striking is the idea that the conversation that transforms a life doesn’t need to feel extraordinary, at least not to the the person initiating the conversation. The Samaritans suggest the relative banal question, ‘Hi, where can I get a coffee?’, might be all it takes to interrupt suicidal thoughts, and be the intervention that helps set someone on the road to recovery.
Too often we overlook and undervalue the common, the ordinary and the banal. It seems too obvious, unoriginal and not nearly complex enough. Yet I have come to see the value of what I might have once considered to be insignificant and unproductive. Today, in my role as a chaplain in an acute healthcare setting, I see so-called ‘small talk’ as a key pastoral care practice. Where ‘small talk’ starts is inspired by visual cues offered by the patient. So, I ask people about the books they like to read, the puzzles they find easiest, what’s noteworthy in their newspaper and what mini-series they find most absorbing. There is nothing enlightened about the questions I ask. It is all rather ordinary, except that the ordinary is often a window into something extraordinary. Like a sacrament, skilful ‘small talk’ provides the opportunity to reveal the sacred, because a kindly put carefully-phrased everyday question often enables extraordinary conversations.
There are many angles on the Lenten story of the woman at the well.[ii] Scholars wonder about whether there is an ancient betrothal motif present[iii] and the gnostic Heracleon sees five husbands plus the current partner as equalling six, the number of imperfection[iv]. There is potency in these and other angles, yet let us not overlook the obvious and common place. The story of the woman at the well is also an everyday story of someone who has been let down by relationships that too often go wrong. It is an ordinary story of how someone felt ostracised, ashamed or alone in the heat of it all. It might even be a story of a woman gazing into a well searching for relief, wondering whether to draw water out, or throw herself in. We will never know, for one singular reason: Jesus interrupted her thoughts with a banal question. It wasn’t, ‘where can I get a coffee’, but it feels similar. The question ‘give me a drink’ was the ‘small talk’ that created the opportunity where Jesus revealed his genuine agape love. His intention was not to ‘save’ her, though the story points to that outcome. Love, as I am coming to understand it, does not seek to achieve anything. Divine love does not have an answer to the question ‘why’, but reflects what James Finley articulates as the ‘anarchy of infinite love’,[v] which is the love that has no purpose other than to be given away.
There are few times in ministry, let alone in life, where it can feel safe enough to talk about about how we feel let down – by others as well as ourselves. There are few times where we might risk mentioning the regrets and the shame we feel. ‘Small talk’ is not that conversation, but it might be, like the moment at the well, or today at a water-cooler, an opportunity for you and I to demonstrate Christ’s genuine agenda-less care. ‘Small talk’ might be the moment when someone has the chance to discover that the person listening is really listening, not because they need to be ‘fixed’, but because they are loved. Good chaplaincy, as an expression of divine love, is meant to be experienced rather than described. It is in the experience of someone without an aim to ‘do’ anything, but of someone who has something to be given away. It is the gift of being present to the mystery of each human being that God has created. It usually starts with ‘small talk’, not because of an anxious need to eliminate awkward silences, but as a gesture of genuine interest. The outcome may, or may not, correlate to our effort, but we will be sharing in Christ’s life-saving ministry.
[ii] John 4.1-42.
[iii] See, for example, Andrew T Lincoln, The Gospel According to St John, London: Continuum, p.170.
[iv] See C K Barrett, The Gospel According to S John 2nd Edition, London: SPCK, p.235.
10 thoughts on “Small Talk and the Anarchy of Infinite Love”
Thank you. Very much agree
One of my favourite, recently discovered, judgments is ‘That child needs a good listening to!’
A Samaritan client many years ago after a long session thanked me for listening. ‘You have done me a lot of good’ she said ‘and I feel much better now.’
I had done nothing, except listen…..
You don’t need to be a Samaritan – it can happen at a bus stop or a party or anywhere.
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Thank you very much, Philip Turner, for your contribution on ‘small talk’ today, with which I totally agree. As someone remarked to me only yesterday ‘there’s no charge for real love’.
Thought of another instance were small talk can transform lives. To talk to someone recently bereaved by saying “Hi, where can I get a coffee?”’ might be inappropriate, but to be with that person and say “Here I am” and just be there – at their side, is just a simple fact, yet can make a tremendous difference. Yes, “Like a sacrament, skilful ‘small talk’ provides the opportunity to reveal the sacred”, but can I suggest that ‘small talk’ often actually IS the sacred. It is not that initiating a relationship gives an opportunity to tell someone about the love of God, but that this simple act of love reveals God – the God that comes to mind in the context of our ethical concern for each other.
Thank you, everyone, for taking time to respond. I really appreciate it. I can see that I wasn’t that clear when I said ‘skilful ‘small talk’ provides the opportunity to reveal the sacred’. What I had in mind was the possibility of ‘small talk’ revealing the sacred within the person with whom we have drawn alongside, which I think might be a more powerful way of thinking about it.
Philip, thank you for this excellent article. I am 100% in agreement with what you have shared. Thank you for being so succinct and relevant. Much thought to ponder.
As with the others who have responded I am in agreement with the sentiment of this article, particularly as clarified . However, on a practical level I really struggle with it. I do not find ‘small talk’ at all easy.
May be the article is not for the likes of me (absolutely fair enough). May be it does have something specific to say to us -What?
Then again, it is not about me and if I were able to forget I do not have the ‘skill of small talk’ and actually just get on with talking and LISTENING then perhaps the mutual benefits and the sacred would flow.
Thank you, Tim, for your honesty. If it helps, I think many of us find ‘small-talk’ tricky, which is why The Samaritans felt the need to launch a campaign. Yet, you clearly have the desire and that is the most fundamental requirement, and the humility to learn.
I feel that there are theological implications about the nature of God in this question of “small talk”. Could it be that in relating to the other person we actually find a sense of meaning and presence that is somehow divine? I find that the hymn “Be still for the presence of the Lord is moving in this place” does not work for me. For me a sense of God’s “presence” arises, often dramatically, in one-to-one conversations, that may have been initiated by “small talk”. So I struggle with the idea that God is “out there”, a being distinct from humanity and that prayer is addressed to that being and in any sense inward and individualistic. I ONLY find God in relationships, particularly relationships in which we respond to the needs of the other.
Philip, I’m sure that anyone who has been a chaplain would fully agree with you.