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  • Sarah Nannery

Casual Communication for Emotional Connection

I very recently learned (and this is surprising, considering I am over 30) that people establish real, tangible emotional connection with one another through casual conversation.

I used to think, and still do to a large degree, that I couldn't connect with anyone on an emotional level unless we could get past the "small talk" and get into the meat of a conversation - How does the human history of dueling relate to the modern sport of fencing? What is the meaning of life? Is there such a thing as a divine presence, and if so, what is it? You know, these kinds of not-so-casual, intellectually stimulating conversation topics.

For me to really get a sense of someone emotionally, we have to go there. We can't just chat about the weather - please - or the fun thing one or the other of us did the other day.

News flash! That is not true for everyone!

Most brains can start to get a sense of someone else just from the flow of seemingly superficial conversational topics. Most brains can automatically read things like body language, tone of voice, and level of engagement via eye contact. They can intuit deeper levels of implied interest on certain topical tangents, and interpret the overall mood and demeanor of a person just from "small talk." All of these cues can begin to build the foundation of what may or may not become an emotional connection, and serve to pave the way for further engagement.

Take this several steps further - you've met someone, you've established initial emotional connection (probably first with casual talk and then graduating on to not-so-casual talk), and you are now engaged in some kind of ongoing relationship with this person. You have become familiar. You know them, they know you. Does casual communication still play a role? If you had asked me this a few months ago, I would have guessed no. Having learned that casual talk can help most people establish emotional common ground, I would have thought that once that common ground is found, the superficial conversation can be dispensed with. Well, here comes another news flash - No matter how long you have known someone, casual communication continually greases the skids for ongoing emotional connection. It's like getting the oil changed or the wiper fluid refreshed in your car - you have to do it every now and then to keep things running smoothly.

I have been married to my husband for 6 years, and we have been together for 8 or 9 years. I have JUST NOW learned that there is a worthwhile purpose behind his casually commenting on how nice the breeze feels, or how long X construction project seems to be taking, as we walk together down the sidewalk. I used to let comments like that from him pass in silence. Why respond? Yes, the breeze is nice. Does he need me to re-affirm? Is he asking for information about the breeze? What information could I possibly give him?

In fact, his brain is prompting him to engage in positive, casual communication with me because he loves me, and he wants to stimulate the serotonin that will flow through his brain once I start engaging back. And he wants me to feel that, too. I have been denying him this simple pleasure for years, because I did not know that it existed. My brain does not reward me the same way, so I never learned to engage casually.

Now that I am aware, I can respond more frequently the way he expects, though this is conscious effort for me rather than automatically-ingrained behavior, so I am far from perfect, or even good at it yet. A typical walk down the block together today might go something like this:

Larry: "What a beautiful day - A little chilly but I'm glad I didn't wear a jacket. So nice."

Me: *recognizing an opportunity for a casual response, consciously shutting down instincts to say something about solving the possible lack-of-jacket problem that he has already said is not a problem* "Yes, it's beautiful."

Both of us walking in silence for a while, probably aided by my lack of any proactive reciprocal casual comment in return.

Larry: "Sun's a little bright. Probably should've worn one of my baseball caps instead of the fedora."

Me: *slightly distracted by my shoes rubbing in new places, now that it's spring and I'm wearing them for the first time in 6 months, and moderately distracted by the two distinct birds chirping in two distinct frequencies at two different volumes and wondering what they might be saying and whether the two different species of bird can understand each other, and trying to decide whether I should take off my own jacket because it does feel a little hot but the wind on my arms might be more distracting, derailing current train of thought to realize that Larry said something and then to re-play what he said to myself in my head, and recognize that it's another opportunity for a casual response, but losing the battle against my instinct to use communication for a productive purpose, forgetting momentarily the newly-learned productive purpose of producing serotonin in my partner's brain* "Uhh, do you want to - should we - go back?"

Larry: *sighing* "No, we shouldn't go back. I'll be fine. Just making conversation."

Me: *embarrassed, and sad that he is sad – or at least, that I think he might be sad because he is sighing and his shoulders slumped a little, but I can’t tell for sure what that means* "Right, sorry."

More silence.

Me: *trying to compensate for lost ground, but feeling like an awkward teenager who is still practicing how to talk to boys, which I never did as a teenager anyway* "I'm still thinking about that episode of Dr. Who last night..."

Larry: *recognizing my proactive attempt to repair and wanting to encourage* "Oh? What part?"

Me: *launching into a particularly riveting concept from the episode, which gives me plenty of fodder for talking on a semi-casual, semi-deep level where I am more comfortable and still reciprocating in building emotional connection with the man I love*

As you can see, it's a work in progress. I am getting better at it with practice. I now have the logical tools and knowledge that I did not before, and I can use them to build strategies for responses which compensate - if not fully, at least partially - for my brain's lack of auto-process that would prompt me to respond naturally.

Hopefully, I will have occasion on this blog to share future growth - maybe even an entirely unblemished two-way casual conversation with my husband, lasting longer than two or three sentences... Wish me luck! :)

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