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Superficial Small Talk Is Step One To Creating Intimacy

01/25/2016 04:09 EST | Updated 01/25/2017 05:12 EST
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Couple enjoy glasses of wine at outdoor bar

I just read "The End of Small Talk" by Tim Boomer, published in the New York Times on Jan. 14, 2016. In it, Mr. Boomer advocates against small talk and promotes getting right to "big talk" with people we're just meeting, or with colleagues and acquaintances. While I can see where Mr. Boomer was going in his article, I caught myself saying "Oh, no!" to myself as I was reading it.

As someone who writes about how to create satisfying and lasting connections, I'm all for moving beyond the constant mindless chatter and getting to a more meaningful level of discourse, but I've also discovered that there's a lot to be said about patience, timing and context.

Timing is so important in building relationships. When we say something very revealing about ourselves, it can't be unsaid, and if we go too deep too quickly, it can cause so much discomfort that a potentially great relationship could be nipped in the bud.

Context is also an important factor in establishing bonds. I've heard too many stories of people who over-shared at their office holiday party, and then couldn't look their co-workers in the eye the next day.

Patience is a virtue when it comes to creating connections. I've known of more than one person who drunkenly revealed too much to someone they met at a party, and then when the other person called the next day wanting to make a date, they were so mortified that they didn't want anything more to do with this person.

As a psychiatrist, I see people every day who are eager to make connections. We talk a lot about how to create meaningful relationships, both platonic and intimate, and I always counsel them to take their time in getting to know the other person.

In fact, in my new book for women,Back on the Market, The Grown-up Woman's Guide to Great First Dates... and Beyond, I recommend keeping things light on the first date, and using it as the jump-off point for increasingly intimate second, third and fourth dates.

It's been my experience, on a personal and professional level, that for real connections to happen, we need to move slowly in our process of opening up. I understand Mr. Boomer's frustration with the unending stream of platitudes he was encountering, but I don't think that going to the other extreme is the answer.

I think that it makes a lot of sense to keep things light at the beginning. It's not that I advocate endless yakking about irrelevant details; it's that there's a very important role for small talk at the start of each new relationship.

Peeling the onion: the layers of the personality

In Gestalt theory, the personality is seen as having layers, going from the most boringly superficial to the most honest and profound, and for intimacy to be possible, we have to move through these layers gradually, rather than trying to force intimacy through instant revelation.

In his piece, Mr. Boomer spoke about two women who shared freely with strangers about deeply personal issues. I don't see it as a coincidence that in both cases, these were one-off meetings after which he'd never be seeing the women again.

Mr. Boomer recommends doing away with small talk and getting right to the deepest of revelations, but it's easy to pour out your gut when you know that you don't have to face the other person the next day. Strangers who meet while traveling do it all the time, knowing that they're sharing a brief moment of self-revelation before they go their separate ways forever.

You can enjoy the thrill of revealing yourself to someone you'll never see again because the stakes are so low. You don't feel vulnerable because you'll never have to worry about how they might judge you with regard to what you've told them.

For people who want to build a relationship, the idea of opening up so quickly might be exhilarating at first, but it would invariably leave us feeling far too exposed. It's too much, too soon.

In a sense, instant self-revelation can almost be seen as anti-intimacy: you can feel free to open up that much because you know that you'll be walking away at the end of the conversation, gathering up all the layers of your personality that were instantly shed and securely wrapping them around yourself, once again.

According to the Gestalt theory of "peeling the onion," we need small talk when we meet someone new, as it gives us the opportunity to break the ice in a way that feels comfortable. We can keep things light until we're ready to go to the next level of connection.

As we get to know each-other, we can slowly move through the various layers of the personality. After the first, superficial (Cliche) layer, there's the layer of the Role that we identify with (for example, "mother," "lawyer" or "entrepreneur"). At this stage, we're talking about ourselves a bit more but not exposing so much that we become uncomfortable.

If our identity is too attached to this role, we can get stuck at this level and will end up with a fairly shallow relationship. If we choose to go deeper, we'll hit the next (Phobic) layer, in which we have to face our fears of exposing our true feelings and possibly being rejected. This is the layer where we'll do things to cover up our feelings, like smiling when we're not happy.

If we choose to keep going deeper, we get to the next layer (the Impasse), where we wrestle with the decision whether to share our true feelings with the other person. This is a powerful layer, because first we must confront our own vulnerability and discover who we really are before we decide to reveal our true self to another person.

If we move through this scary layer, we get to the final (Core) layer, where we reveal our authentic self to the other person. By going slowly and deliberately through these layers, we get to create real and lasting intimacy, as opposed to the pseudo-intimacy of instantly over-exposing ourselves to a stranger.

While I appreciate Mr. Boomer's aversion toward endless platitudes and his yearning for more meaningful connections, I really don't think that it's possible to create instant intimacy. Human beings are far too vulnerable and far too guarded to be completely and utterly authentic, even with a stranger, and that's a good thing.

Ripping open your chest every time you met a new person would be exhausting and overwhelming. And if you shared this deeply with everyone, intimacy would become meaningless.

I think we all need to take our time in creating a connection with another person. To start with the chit-chat, the getting-to-know-you conversations and the "What do you do?" talks before easing into the deeper layers where we confront our own fears of vulnerability, and then decide if we want to open up and show the other person who we really are.

I like the Gestalt model, because it presupposes that first, we must be honest with ourselves if we want to be intimate with someone else. In this way of thinking, intimacy -- knowing and accepting each-other -- begins with knowing and accepting ourselves.

I also like the idea that it's not by default when a deep connection is created, but rather it's a conscious choice to invite the other person into our inner world; to welcome them with open arms because we're ready, and we feel safe.

I'm all for being real, but until there's comfort and trust (which take time to build), I don't think we need to force ourselves to reveal our deepest thoughts and feelings with just anybody.

When we meet a new person, we can speak with relative honesty; we can share some opinions about certain things, but if we want to move forward and create genuine, meaningful connections, I think we really need to do as the Gestalt folks recommend, and take our time.

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