How To Skip the Small Talk and Connect With Anyone | Kalina Silverman | TEDxWestminsterCollege

How To Skip the Small Talk and Connect With Anyone | Kalina Silverman | TEDxWestminsterCollege

October 2, 2019 100 By Stanley Isaacs


Translator: Queenie Lee
Reviewer: Peter van de Ven To skip the small talk, I’m going to start off
by asking you guys three questions. So the first question is: are any of you going through
any sort of personal struggle right now? Yeah, okay. The second question is: do you feel that you have
someone in your life with whom to share that struggle? Yes, all right. The third question is: do any of you guys watch Mad Men? So I know I’m way behind on my seasons – I just started getting into Netflix – and the other night while watching
season number two, episode 12 of Mad Men, I heard Anna Draper say this
to a very lost Donald Draper. She said, “The only thing
keeping you from being happy is the belief that you are alone.” This quote really resonated with me because that’s exactly how I felt when I left sunny Southern California,
three years ago, to start my freshman year of college
at Northwestern University. So this is a picture of me, my freshman year of college,
first week at school. That’s me in the top left corner. And another question for you guys. Have you ever been out at a party,
or event, or out with your friends, and someone says, “Let’s take a picture,” even though you weren’t totally
in the mood to take a picture, you weren’t feeling that great
but still smiled in the picture, and it ended up on Facebook
and everyone saw it, and you’re like,
“That was me at that event.” So that’s kind of what
happened at this picture. Also this picture, when I was out
at a party that same week. So these pictures,
they made it to Facebook, I was smiling in them,
all my friends saw them. “Looks like you’re having
a great time in college.” That’s not really
how I felt on the inside. This is a picture of my diary, that I started writing in
that same first week of college. I actually have it right here with me, and I am going to read you
my very first diary entry. September 27, 2012. I wish I could start out my first entry with an ecstatic quote about life
or how I love college so much, but since this is a personal journal, I can be honest and say I’ve never remembered feeling
more lost in my entire life. I only three quarters know that
everything will work out and I’ll be OK. I miss home and being surrounded
by people who know me so well and love me for all that I am. And so that whole first year of college,
I was plagued by this one question: who am I? I really had felt
that I had lost my identity in leaving my home in California,
leaving my friends behind to start college for the first time. And it was until the end
of my freshman year when things were a lot better, that I had to learn what Donald Draper did
in season two, episode 12 of Mad Men, that the only thing that had been
keeping me from being happy was the belief that I was alone, and feeling that way
in my first week of college. I actually put out
this query over Facebook, one the last few weeks of freshman year. I said, “Hi, everyone.
I’m doing my final journalism project on people struggling
to adjust to college the first year. If anyone is willing
to talk to me about it, please let me know and message me.” And I was shocked
when within just a couple of hours, I got messages
from people all over campus. A lot of them expressing their pain,
their first year of college, and I thought, “Wow, if only I was able
to talk to these people that first week of school
when I was also feeling lost and alone.” Actually one of those people, she was someone I had met
at one of those parties in the beginning and we had just met
and been surface level friends, and that last week of school
I interviewed her, and we ended up sitting
in the student lounge together and sharing each other’s experiences and talking about how lonely
we had felt that entire year, and we were both, like, “Wow, if only we had said this
to each other when we first met, we wouldn’t have felt so lonely.” So she ended up becoming
one of my best friends in college. So that was the end of freshman year. Then sophomore year
things got so much better. I ended up joining a sorority;
I got super involved with that. I was really involved
with my journalism projects. I co-founded a club called MIXED, which is the Mixed Race Student Coalition, and the whole idea was
it didn’t matter where you came from, or what was your background,
we all could share our mixed experiences. I would be going out to all these parties,
I had a lot of friends at that point, but there would still be nights where I’d come home
from an evening out with my friends, and I’d still feel terribly empty inside
and I couldn’t understand it; I had just been with all these people. I still felt pretty lonely. You know, one of those nights, I was Skyping with one
of my friends from far away, and we were having this very deep
philosophical conversation about life, and I said, “Wow, I wish
all conversations could be like this. This is awesome.” And he was, like, “Yes, screw small talk.” And I was, like, “Yeah, screw small talk.
Why do we even make small talk?” I thought, what if, when talking
to our friends, co-workers, or even complete strangers, we could always just skip the small talk, and instead talk about the things
that really mattered in life or things that you both
actually really cared about and wanted to talk about? So I was, like, wait,
screw small talk, skip the small talk. We should make “Big Talk,” and I thought the name was kind of cute, and I didn’t really know
what to do with it at the time, but I kind of just
stuck it in my back pocket and just thought about it for a bit. And so that was the end
of my sophomore year of college. And then the following summer, I was getting very involved
in my journalism program, and I had the opportunity
to do some documentary projects abroad, and I spent three weeks in Ecuador filming a documentary
about education reform. Those three weeks were
the best three weeks of my life. We were travelling
throughout the entire country, interviewing strangers,
everyone we encountered, about education in the country, and it didn’t matter if we were
gliding down the Amazon River, or climbing the Andes Mountains, or salsa dancing through
the colonial streets of Cuenca, everywhere we went, we were being open
to new people, new experiences and every day was a new adventure. And the picture on the top right was actually taken when one day we had run
into these professors at this university, and they invited us into their villa
overlooking the Andes Mountains. We ended up drinking wine with them
all evening and salsa dancing. And I was, like, “Wow, why didn’t this ever happen
with my college professors back home?” There’s something different in the way
I’m approaching life when I’m travelling, the way I’m more open to people, and it invites these
kind of magical experiences, and towards the end of my trip, I actually started getting
really scared to go back home, to my everyday life. I didn’t want to lose this magic –
this magic of being abroad, and I thought, you know, how can I make everyday life
feel this meaningful and look this beautiful? I had one more opportunity
to travel that summer. I went to Germany to do
a documentary about the Holocaust, and on one of my last days in Germany,
I visited the Berlin Wall and I came upon this question
written on the Berlin Wall. It said, “What do you want to do
before you die?” And this question really hit me because I just finished
the sophomore year, going through my mid-college life crisis, questioning: What’s my purpose?
Why am I studying journalism? What do I really want to do with my life? Everyone else is asking you
that question too, constantly, when you come home for summer break. So I thought about it: what do I really want to do? I knew in part it was about building
empathy between strangers, as I’d kind of done through MIXED and through my travelling
documentary projects, and I also knew I’d always
wanted to start a YouTube channel. So that summer I came home, I had five weeks before starting
my junior year of college. And I kind of took this question, “What do you want to do before you die?” and I took that name that inspired me
months earlier, Big Talk, and I took the magic I had felt from travelling and approaching strangers
and hearing their life stories and I made this video. I’m going to play the first half of it
for you, for the sake of time. (Video) Kalina Silverman:
Hi, I’m Kalina, and this is the beginning
of an experiment called “Big Talk.” I wanted to be able to go out,
meet new people, and instead of just make small talk, actually have deeper meaningful
conversations with them. [So I started off
by approaching strangers] Kalina. [inaudible] [Then to skip the small talk,
I asked them … ] [What do you want to do before you die?] What I want to do before I die? Oh, man, Jeez. That’s a good question. Or what do I want to do when I grow up? That’s a hard one. That’s a tough one. Is it just one thing? (Laughter) I want to learn how to scuba dive. Travel the Appalachian Trail. Go to the police and make a confession? I’d like to be a herpetologist; somebody who studies
reptiles and amphibians. See my kids graduated from college. Make every moment count. Live without any alcohol and drugs; probably be close to that guy
and just be happy, day by day. Being able to reconcile with my father
and say I love you too. I want to have a wife and kids. I wrote, like, an essay on it
when I was in fifth grade. I remember all my friends made fun of me because everyone was,
like, I want to be … I want to be a sports star, or movie star. I just want to have a wife and kids. [What if you found out
you were going to die tomorrow?] Just happy happy because I really live –
before I did very bad, I was homeless for 13 years. Maybe call all of my friends. I’d probably text all my friends. I would take a road trip
to go see someone, today. I can’t say. I would tell them that I love them. KS: Do they know you love them?
– I think so. – What would I want to do today?
KS: Yeah. Tomorrow? I’m going to die tomorrow? Be with my family. If I knew I was going to die,
I’d get on the airplane to visit my son. You know, it’s literally, I’d say the most significant
relationship that I have – being 18 and having a baby. If I were dying, I’d love
to have Charlie on my bed. Ray was dying, he had this little fluffy dog
coddled right next to him and would not – oh, that’s
fascinating, it’s a dog bark. I can’t die. My mom said that the day before she died, that if she were to die tomorrow, she would have lived
the fullest life ever, and then she died
unexpectedly the next day. So this is kind of a … personal … question. So, family has always been
of the most importance to me. [Skipping the small talk
means getting the chance to learn so much more
about someone’s life story] (On Stage) KS:
That’s half the video. And in the rest of video,
just through these two questions, I was able to learn so much more
about those strangers’ life stories. In making that video,
I had kind of re-found the magic that I was scared
of losing from travelling, and from my experiences
interviewing people and just going out of my way
to talk to people. So I posted that video to my Facebook, and I was shocked when a girl
who is an alum of my university who works with the Huffington Post said: “I saw your video,
and I want to write an article about it.” I got so excited and that’s what she did. And after that, it sort of went viral,
and it got featured on other sites, like USA Today, and Elite Daily,
and a few other different blogs. And because the video went viral, I started getting people
from all across the world reaching out to me
about this video I made. It didn’t matter who they were
or where they came from. I had a rabbi and a Christian Sunday school
teacher both saying, you know, I want to use this kind
of Big Talk strategy with my students. I had a soldier in Israel
and a soldier in South Korea both reach out to me
over Facebook message and say, “We don’t have enough
Big Talk in the Army, and I wish I could make Big Talk
with my fellow soldiers.” Had one woman reach out to me
in a Facebook message, and I actually started crying
in the student lounge when I was reading this, and she said,
“Kalina, I think you saved my life. Watching this video made me realize that I need to quit smoking
before it’s too late.” And I had a lot of college students, too, who said that the story
of my loneliness in freshman year really resonated with them also, and students from the East Coast,
the Midwest, the West Coast, a lot of international students too,
Singapore, South Africa. And I was shocked
that people all over the world were saying the same things, and one message
could hit them all of the same. I even had entrepreneurs in San Francisco
who were really intrigued by the idea, the name Big Talk is kind of a two worded,
like, start-up name, maybe. And then I had international models
from Germany, Thailand saying, you know, in the modelling industry
there’s a lot of shallowness and we need more Big Talk there. And this all just came
from a YouTube video, and a lot of people
expressed a similar sentiment, and some people even said, “I want to join your movement
and make Big Talk.” And I was like:” Wow, I never thought
of this as a movement.” And after that, I got so inspired
to turn it into a movement. I kind of came up
with these new research questions: How do I scale Big Talk
beyond just my own YouTube videos? How can we enable strangers to engage
in deeper conversations right away? How do we make it not weird
to just skip the small talk and jump into Big Talk? And then, how do we
take these universal life questions – “What do you want to do
before you die?” which you could ask
any human being right? – and how do we use them as a tool for building empathy
across boundaries of space and our external perceived differences? So I became really enthralled
by these questions. I started giving talks in the workshops, make Big Talk workshops, and I created this deck of tiny cards – 90 mini Big Talk question cards. Every question had to be universal –
you could ask anybody – meaningful – thought provoking,
skips the small talk – and open ended, that it would elicit a story, that you could sit down with another human
and hear their life story. There were questions like: What do you spend too much time doing? What is a new habit you want to form? What is your biggest fear? I became more and more, to be honest, obsessed with the idea
of growing Big Talk, and I wanted to – like, I started reading
entrepreneurship blogs, how do you build, like, a big movement and enterprise around it. I was, like, I am going
to take this idea to Silicon Valley, and that’s what I did. I went to San Francisco, and I led a Big Talk seminar
at the Thiel Summit. I started hosting dinners with strangers,
like Big Talk southerners with strangers, and I would have people write
their own Big Talk style questions, too, to ask each other. Then I started spending
a lot of time on my computer, figuring out how can I grow Big Talk. I put up this website
where I was putting up all the events and the cards and everything, and then something weird
started to happen. In trying to grow this movement,
it was all about – it originally was created
out of my own loneliness in freshman year and desire to meaningfully
connect with people, I suddenly found myself feeling very alone
and disconnected to the world. I forgot to mention that I also
decided to take a leave of absence from university last year, halfway through my junior year
of college to work on Big Talk. So, a wise professor once told me, before you go out
and try to feed the world, you need to learn how to feed yourself. So that’s what I did. I started asking myself, how can I scale
these meaningful connections, using new technologies, without losing my own
humanity in the process? And I was asking myself
these Big Talk questions, like: Who am I? And: What’s most important in life? Like, why am I so passionate
about Big Talk? I started making Big Talk with myself. I took the deck
of 90 mini Big Talk questions and started using them as journal entries and used Big Talk
to reconnect with myself. And so, now that I feel more comfortable with kind of re-understanding
why I started in the first place, my original vision holds strong, and I’m ready to kind of
embark on it again and understand that it takes time
to figure out the big stuff, we’re not going
to figure it out right away. The ultimate vision is to use
Big Talk to build a global empathy through the power of connection
over sharing stories, about our universal human experiences, but also, just as important,
to use Big Talk as a tool for understanding
and connecting with yourself. In light of the theme
of today’s TEDx: “Thou Mayest,” I want to leave you
with one more Big Talk question to ask yourself: How can I take what I learned today
to make my life different tomorrow? Thank you. (Applause)