Losing the gift of gab

When ‘how are you?’ becomes a loaded question.

Real Life with Nedra Rhone introduces Real Life Relationships, a monthly reader-contributed essay that explores the many ways in which we are connected and the attendant emotions — happiness, sadness, fear and anger — those connections can bring into our lives. Interested in contributing? Email nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.”

“Livin’ the dream.” The words fell out of my mouth like loose coins from a hastily opened wallet. There was no putting them back in. I inwardly cringed. Let out a half-laugh. Who was this person using washed up clichés from the ‘90s? And good God why was her hair such a mess?

I wanted to hide under my desk, but was forced to bear witness to my awkwardness, sitting there in my little Zoom square on the screen. Finally, someone else broke the silence and the meeting went on as I tried to stop replaying the audio that would most certainly remain on infinite loop in my brain.

I wish I could say this was an isolated incident. That I hadn’t been answering the conversation starter “how are you?” with increasingly odd responses lately. There were the head tilts, funny faces and exasperated sighs on countless virtual meetings, the “oh, you know…” over the phone, the complete avoidance via text.

Then there was the in-person exchange on a sidewalk, where I simply said “Ugh,” startling an acquaintance who did not quite know what to do with such a candid reply. She made a face, as if she had taken a sip of warm, days-old, cheap white wine, and scurried off in discomfort.

How does one sum up the crushing weight of existence and meaningless state we are all enduring these days? It’s meh — the auditory embodiment of the shrug emoji. We have collectively lost the skill of making pleasant conversation — but is that such a bad thing?

Polite small talk, as it turns out, no longer seems to be part of my pandemic-altered social skillset. And it appears that I’m not the only one with the inability to hold small talk anymore, as evidenced by the myriad of others’ odd responses I’ve seen from my day-to-day encounters.

Asking someone “how are you” has become quite the loaded question. We used to give it little thought, reflexively respond “Good, and you?” and rarely listened to the answer, skimming over the rest. For many of us, pandemic life replaced those replies with variations of “hanging in there,” “chugging along,” “surviving,” or “doing OK.”

Is it any wonder though, considering that our brains feel like mush lately, that the mental energy to pretend is gone? I swear I used to be smart. Witty banter and clever observations were part of my repertoire. Yet here I am, resurrecting obscure sayings from decades past (which, I might add, I never liked back then either) in an attempt to chitchat.

The silver lining, perhaps, is that when we do muster the energy to reply with something other than a grunt, we’re actually having more meaningful conversations, free from the mindless autoreplies we relied on pre-COVID.

The collective trauma of the past 18 months has left us incapable of fathoming a contrived response that feels inconsequential considering it all. Our new inclination toward more honest sharing makes conversing with coworkers, friends and family much more interesting.

Profound reflections on life and death, social injustice, the state of motherhood, the challenges of a virtual workforce — these topics are all up for grabs in our everyday conversations, no longer relegated to late-night musings with your bestie after a few cocktails.

I guess I had not realized how many once-innocent questions have become so loaded now. How are you? What do you do for fun? How’s work? Any fun plans this summer? The answers have become quite complicated.

The other day, I was catching up with an old friend I haven’t seen in years. I heard she had a baby at the start of 2020 and we had made plans to get together in March of last year, just days before the world went to *$&#. Needless to say, that reunion never happened. Finally, I had the mental bandwidth to reach out to her again recently.

From the get-go, she shared how her first year of motherhood had been, its trials and triumphs, the isolation and loneliness (especially amid a pandemic), and the fear that came with returning to work as a health care worker with a tiny 12-week-old baby at home.

In exchange, I spilled the beans about the wave of job layoffs affecting my inner circle, how hard it was watching coworkers — who had become almost like family over the years — lose their jobs one after another while waiting for the ax to hit me next.

Her honesty, and mine in return, were a welcome reprieve from the standard breed of American optimism that plagues so many conversations. Now that’s not to say it was all doom and gloom. We talked about the joy of her recent move into a new home, and the excitement I was feeling after receiving my second COVID-19 vaccine (insert your favorite “vaxed and waxed” joke here). The chat was equal parts good and bad — just like real life.

Personally, I’ve loved the brain dump that happens when I reconnect with someone now. We dive straight into the real stuff. Job layoffs, caring for elderly parents, the weirdness of reality, fears of reassimilating into society.

We are opening up, in search of connection, sometimes intentionally but often subconsciously. These authentic convos are fulfilling in that we’re sharing our experiences in a way that connects us on a fundamental level. Our humanity is front and center, an anchor in a rough, rapidly changing sea. To feel seen, amidst the chaos of these times, brings much-needed calm to our souls.

I’m here for the meaningful exchange with the people I care about. I don’t miss talking about the weather. Or sports. Or TV shows, or the other niceties. When I ask you how you’re doing, I truly want to know — even if you don’t know how to answer it.

But when it comes to those peripheral acquaintances and strangers, I’m afraid all they’ll get from me now are awkward fillers. So the next time you’re on a Zoom meeting with me, or we pass each other at the grocery store, pay me no mind — I’ll just be practicing some new small talk chatter to see what sticks.

To learn more about contributing to “Real Life Relationships” contact nedra.rhone@ajc.com with the subject line “Real Life Relationships.” You can also find Nedra on Facebook (www.facebook.com/AJCRealLifeColumn).