• Mary Anderson

The Loneliness of Small Talk

A valuable exchange between two travelers on a highway in the Great Basin: The motorist stopped to help a solitary woman on crutches, heard Mary's story, introduced her to his young son, and gave her his work gloves to protect her blistered hands.

By Mary Anderson

The most common question I get out here is “Seen any bears?” Then comes “What do you eat?” I understand these questions, but others have left me flummoxed. The top of the crazy-question list is “Have you seen anything interesting?” Huh? How can you hike 3,100 miles and NOT see anything interesting? At the time of this question we were standing on an open ridge at about 9,000 feet in elevation. The sky was crystal clear, and there were beautiful mountains in the distance. Wildflowers were blooming, and butterflies were flitting everywhere. How could that not be interesting? I learned that what the questioner really was asking was the bear one, because it was only when I mentioned bear, far down on my list, that she perked up and became interested.

Another doozie question is “Is it worth hiking into there?” I’ve gotten this one a few times. Once I was hiking away from a lake and people with unsuitable footwear were wondering if they should go all the way to the lake. How could I say if it would be worth it for them? Was it worth it for me to walk around a spectacular, large lake? Absolutely! I told them they could swim or fish. I described the lake and let them make their own decision. They decided it was not worth it—which, given their footwear might have been a wise choice, even though they had come a few miles and only had about a half-mile left.

I meet so few people out here and have so little time to talk with them that I want to make every minute count.

All of this has made me ponder communication. I spend a lot of days out here not saying a word to another human being. I have spent as many as eight days in a row not talking to anyone. When I do meet someone I am ready for honest communication. When they ask me how I am doing, I tell the truth. I might say “Cold and wet but hanging in there.” Or I might reply, “I’m enjoying the views, but my hip is making the hiking difficult.”

I like to see the positive in life, but I am not a Pollyanna. I only recognize the positive because I have also experienced the hard stuff. I think it all needs to be spoken of. Some people clearly don’t want to hear an honest answer when they walk by and ask “How are you doing?” In fact, some don’t even wait for an answer. But when I avoid the pat “I’m fine, thank you” replies, people are apt to respond in a more full way, opening the door to deeper communication. I’ve had a number of people say they don’t usually tell people the stuff they tell me. I think it’s because I speak my truth without sugar-coating it.

Small talk can be a safe opener, but personally I hate it and am not good at it. It leaves me feeling lonely and exhausted. I meet so few people out here and have so little time to talk with them that I want to make every minute count. And really, I’ve been that way since I decided that the only thing that made life worth living for me was real, honest connection. I realized at the time if what I wanted was genuine connection I had to be willing to offer the same. For me, it has made a world of difference.

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