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Small talk standards

| Tuesday, April 17, 2018

“Hi! What’s your name? Where are you from? What’s your major? Which dorm do you live in? Ah me, too! Which section do you live in?” During the first week of my freshman year, I had been repeating this typical Notre Dame introduction. It felt natural to have conversations like this with new people. When people smiled and asked me these questions, I felt so welcomed; I felt people here were so friendly. However, as the time went by, I felt even though I had met so many people here, I barely knew anything beyond these questions about many people. I wished I could have heard more stories about people, and I wished people could have heard more stories from me. At the same time, I knew it was normal. I knew it was impossible to become close friends with everyone I met on this campus. Then I, as well as most of us, quickly learned to be “obedient” to this standard way of talking to people. At that time, I didn’t think about what small talk like this could possibly bring to our community at all.

During my sophomore year, I had the privilege to be one of the “Show Some Skin” actors. This experience had given me new “instructions” of how to read our traditions, including the “small talk.” Two lines in one of my monologues, “Stay In My Lane,” were especially striking to me as well as the audience: “They even have to get a permit for protest. The entire purpose of a protest is civil disobedience. How are you going to ask permission to be disobedient?” These lines might be interpreted in this way: Most people are not aware of the lack of diversity on campus. They consider assimilating to the Notre Dame culture as a rule that they have to follow strictly; they do not even have the courage to protest and change this situation. The writer is calling for actions: to protest, to change and to let YOUR voices be heard. These lines bring this monologue to the highest point, for they appear to overturn people’s deep-rooted values: You do not have to blend in. You should CHANGE the situation.

After the performance, I started to think about “small talk” on campus. People seem to follow the standards of “small talk” strictly on campus. But should we really be “obedient” to them?

Sometimes people even seem to expect similar answers to certain questions. For example, when asking about other people’s weekends, they seem to expect certain answers. What could happen if people follow these standards strictly? People may be expected to behave in the exact same ways, people may be expected to shape their identities in the exact same ways and people may eventually become indifferent about other people’s genuine selves and choose to hide theirs, too.

“Standards” are like the pieces that form the crystal Notre Dame bubble, and it soon swallows up stories and identities beneath people’s appearances. When people learn that others may not care much about their stories and identities, they choose to hide them. How can we build a diverse community when everyone is expected to look and behave in the exact same ways? Diversity does not just mean including people from all kinds of background on campus; it means that everyone has equal opportunities to tell their stories and everyone’s uniqueness is appreciated.

So what can we do? We don’t need to completely change our ways of communicating with one another. We don’t need to tell every single story of us to every single person we meet on campus. In fact, we may just slightly change the way we talk to people. A little bit of tweaking may make a difference. For example, instead of just asking people what their majors are, ask them why they are passionate about their major. Instead of just asking people where they are from, ask them how their hometown is different from Notre Dame, ask them something about their culture. Moving beyond small talk can be easily done, and this will make a difference in our community. Most importantly, we may just be aware that people are not the same; everyone matters, no matter what identities they have. Maybe awareness can make a difference in our community.

Susie Li is a senior. She can be reached at [email protected]

Show Some Skin is a student-run initiative committed to giving voice to unspoken narratives about identity and difference. Using the art of storytelling as a catalyst for positive social change across campus, we seek to make Notre Dame a more open and welcoming place for all. If you are interested in breaking the silence and getting involved with Show Some Skin, email [email protected]

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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