Welcome, dear readers, to another month taking metta off the meditation cushion and out into the world.
Last month found me mulling unseen and unspoken losses in “Vanishing Metta,” which segues this month into exploring the unseen and unspoken power of small talk.
After the head grower of the market garden that I currently work at moved on last month, I suggested a different member of the wider farm team join me manning the local weekly farmers’ market stall.
Having done it myself for six months now, my reasoning was that each new stall partner would look at the experience with fresh eyes, introduce our customers to the wider team behind the scenes, and that the shared experience might help us all bond while the staffing kaleidoscope turned to find a new pattern.
Week after week, it was fun to introduce my co-workers to our stall’s stalwart regular customers, as well as discover that they may already know each other in another capacity. It was also fascinating to discover new sides to my co-workers: some were really keen to join me, while others postponed their shift for as long as possible; some swaggered confidently through their turn like they were born to it, while others needed an hour or so to find their patter and pace. One even shyly asked if we could “play shop” in the days before their market début to help calm their inner stage fright.
When a well-regarded and serious-minded mentor to the farm joined us staff for lunch a few weeks ago, I explained the new market stall experiment and deadpanned that soon it would be their week to join me behind the table.
The look of instant and abject horror on their face was pure comedy—being asked to speak in public covered in spiders would have probably gone down better!
They blurted out, “But I’m really bad at small talk! Small talk’s your strength.”
While I know them well enough to understand and see the funny side of what they meant, their remark reminded me of a private bugbear of mine—particularly in spiritual settings: that small talk is looked on as being superficial and should either be avoided at all costs or only applied in certain areas of life.
However, I personally regard small talk as a spiritual practice by silently adding metta. Not unlike the actual organic produce we sell at the stall, small talk can provide all sorts of unseen and unspoken benefits.
How did I come to this unusual realization?
Some 20 years ago, a temp agency booked me a placement as the personal assistant to the head of scrutiny at a large London hospital. The department was a type of internal affairs for when medical staff made mistakes.
A few weeks in, the man sitting at the desk next to mine waited until we were alone in the office to remark: “You know how to bring out the best in people, and I seem to bring out the worst. Teach me, please?”
Dear readers, isn’t it so often the case that the strengths that come most naturally to us often remain unseen and unspoken to us as well?
The man asking was a recent immigrant from Nigeria, where he had worked as a surgeon until losing his hearing. No longer allowed to perform surgeries because of his deafness, he retrained for an administrative role scrutinizing other surgeons.
On paper, this seemed a constructive solution and he seemed the perfect candidate to assess both sides of the surgery table when anything went wrong; in practice, can you imagine how quickly finding fault with a job you still wanted to be doing yourself could descend into bitterness?
Sadly, there were already several complaints pending against him.
Thrilled to find him open to suggestions after observing that most people in our shared office avoided interacting with him, I explained that his deafness made him speak louder and over others more than most in conversation. And with English being his second language, his correspondence was sometimes coming across just as forcefully.
We agreed on a few visual signals from me to let him know when what he thought was small talk was getting too big for the office, and I suggested he save any emails as drafts until I could have a quick read to check if the contents were also getting too big to send.
Some of my adjustments made us both laugh in private, while others nipped more serious potential problems in the bud.
A few weeks into our experiment, he thanked me for knowing how to keep work fun. And a couple of months later, his wife invited the whole team over to their house for a barbecue.
It was lovely to see how many of our colleagues attended, and I watched him chitchat like a champ with the same pride I imagine Prof. Higgins felt when Cockney flower seller Eliza finally reached her My Fair Lady tipping-point declaring that the rain in Spain stays mainly in the plain.
When I later carried some dishes to the kitchen, his wife gathered me in her arms and humbly thanked me for helping her husband not lose the job that supported their entire family.
Fast-forward a decade to a time when I had to relearn the power of small talk for myself.
As described in “Metta’s Tree Medicine,” I spent my early 30s on medication that I didn’t need due to a misdiagnosis. The result? Years of Alzheimer’s levels of memory loss, problems with spatial awareness, and often blacking out in public. Eventually a solution emerged, but in hindsight I actually credit my use of small talk as a spiritual practice for getting me through that very dark and lonely life chapter.
How? Even at my lowest, I held myself to three non-negotiable daily rules: eat properly, leave the house, and take a genuine interest in someone else’s life. That third rule did me as much good as decent nutrition and exercise . . . and asking strangers for the time often segued into asking how their day was going. I doubt that many of them knew ours was possibly the only conversation I would have that day, and what a lifeline simply telling me the time with a smile could be.
And I like to think the reverse was sometimes true too.
Back in the now, I’ve been standing behind a table of fresh organic produce every week for the last six months. While the beautiful flowers and vegetables I help grow in the market garden will no doubt nourish the customers who buy them more than their supermarket equivalent, I also add a little of metta’s small talk by maybe asking how their week has been, or what they plan to make with their purchases, or complimenting an item of clothing, or enquiring how their own garden is growing, or remembering something they mentioned on a previous visit.
Not unlike sowing seeds.
The paradox of making small talk a spiritual practice is that while not every interaction has to be deep and meaningful—frankly, that would get very creepy and exhausting pretty quickly!—yet with a little metta they often grow deeper and more meaningful effortlessly.
Just last week, two customers confided that they really struggled with crowds but braved them that day remembering how safe they would feel on arrival at our stall. Two others brought me sample pots of preserves made from our produce to share with the whole team. The early morning rain showers that soaked us gave way to a double rainbow stretching across the sky above. And every member of the farm team who has worked alongside me has since come up with surprising practical suggestions to make the whole process easier for all, and it’s heartwarming to hear the subtle shifts in some of our lunchtime conversations as a result.
And so, dear readers, whatever size your everyday talk feels just now, please do not underestimate the unseen and unheard power of seasoning your small talk with some metta. You never know what could grow from the seeds it sows.
Or, to metta-morphose Louis Armstrong’s version of “What a Wonderful World”:
The colors of the rainbow
So pretty in the sky
Are also on the faces
Of people going by
I see friends shaking hands
Saying, “How do you do?”
Metta’s really saying
“I love you”