Spending four months in a brand-new environment with absolutely no familiar faces in England, you would think I would have been on information overload. And I was. Between British Studies, travel, and new friends, there was just more information than my brain could possibly process at once. Even little things like trying to remember which schools students were from became a pretty intense game of “Memory.”
But a little way into the semester I began to discover something rather strange. The more I exchanged information with faculty, staff, other students, and members of the community, I realized I was actually learning way more about myself than I was about anything else. I felt for months like I was condensing my entire identity into a less-than-ten-second blurb I could relay to anyone asking about me, and I realize now that it refined itself a lot over that time. When I only had a short amount of time to make a first impression on people, or to jog someone’s memory about our relationship, I quickly learned what really defined me, giving me a better idea of my own fundamental traits, beliefs, and defining features.
I think this happens all the time, but just realized it more when it came en masse. If you’ve graduated high school, you probably know what it’s like to have everyone you know stop and ask what your plans are for the future. When you get to college, people will want to know your major as a way to define you. After that, working people are asked what they “do” for a living.
Personally, all this categorizing by occupation drives me crazy, and I think I’m more than just what I do during work hours. But answering the same questions over and over, I’ve gotten pretty good at slipping in other little things about myself that set me apart. People don’t know to ask if you’re a scuba diving enthusiast or collect a specimens of a strange species of Indonesian beetle, so they fall back on the simple small-talk questions. But throwing a wrench into the conversation to really tell them about you takes the interaction from polite conversation to actual discovery. For them and for you.
So rather than sighing every time someone asks me my major, I’ve taken mental notes of the things I’d prefer to tell them – I’m a classical ballet dancer, I want to visit Machu Picchu, I lived in England for four months, my brother is a pilot and takes me flying sometimes – and dip into that reserve. Small talk no more – this might turn into a real conversation.