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COMMENTARY: Normalize substantive conversations

It was a graduation party, one that was beautifully decorated with lights, a fire surrounded by chairs for the guests to sit on and food, that made me realize how disconnected our generation really is from each other. There were games, music, sparklers and smores. It looked and felt perfect when I walked in. 

As I sat down around the fire, I sensed a strange feeling of awkwardness and discomfort among the guests, most of whom were in their late teenage years. I realized then that, although we are great at small talk, it is the absence of substantive conversation that has become one of the biggest obstacles in the younger generation for socializing and connecting with one another. 

Somewhere in the midst of the technological revolution, the social media age and the imprint of the mentally damaging aspects of the world around us, our generation has standardized the perception that insightful discussions are not "fun" and cannot, therefore, be part of social gatherings. Making critical thinking a part of our everyday lives does not only make a person more aware of the world around them, it also brings one closer to other individuals and helps us understand the complex beings each of us are. 

It opens our eyes to countless misconceptions we might have previously held. It teaches us conversational, public speaking and social skills. It allows us to display our knowledge of various issues while simultaneously motivating us to educate ourselves more about topics we might not have been informed on. If our generation can start working toward standardizing intellectual, deep conversations in social gatherings instead of resisting them, we can become a well-connected, highly skilled, more confident, successful and genuinely happier youth.

Over the next few days following the graduation party, I employed the instant access we have to the internet to read articles that discussed tips for substantive conversation starters. One of the first ones I came across was a Business Insider article titled, “14 ways to skip the shallow small talk and have deep conversations.” It included tips such as “avoid discussing the weather” only for professional networking events. Another article was titled, “12 Little Things That Show People You’re Intelligent, Without You Having to Say It.” 

These results were far from what I was searching for. I wanted information about making critical thinking a part of an informal setting — a setting where no one feels the pressure to prove anything to a potential boss, a setting where friends can help enlighten each other and enjoy the discussion — how can we make that a norm? 

Although there is not much research available to prove the psychological impact of everyday discussions involving critical thinking, a psychologist at the University of Arizona, Dr. Matthias Mehl, performed a small research experiment on this topic in 2010. He found that nearly 50 percent of the happiest person’s conversations were substantive whereas only 22 percent of the unhappiest person’s conversations were substantive. 

Mehl concluded by saying that, “By engaging in meaningful conversations, we manage to impose meaning on an otherwise pretty chaotic world and interpersonally, as you find this meaning, you bond with your interactive partner, and we know that interpersonal connection and integration is a core fundamental foundation of happiness.”

Small talk does not allow us to think or to open our minds. It makes individuals feel unsatisfied with their social interactions. It reduces our ability to interact genuinely and comfortably with people. 

The world around us, particularly for teenagers in high school and college, is all about competition. One must get into a good university, one must network, get involved in internships, get a good job and get good grades. But, it is equally important to take time to work on ourselves. We are a generation that cannot begin a conversation with one another if we are strangers sitting next to each other on the train. 

We are a generation that looks at insightful discussions as something that is banned from a social gatherings. We need to learn to enjoy creativity, thinking, debates and even arguments. To be happier, to be more successful, to be more genuine and true to ourselves and those around us, we need to help each other grow. The only way that can be done is if we make our informal social gatherings a space to learn from each other.

Fatima Naqvi is a School of Arts and Sciences senior majoring in economics and political science.


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