“What book or movie had an impact on the way you see the world?”
“What is your mind gravitating toward most these days?”
“How are you really doing?”
In most cases, you’d probably be a little freaked out if a stranger sat down next to you, asked you one of these questions, and stared at you silently for three minutes, waiting for you to answer. But that’s exactly what happens in the Aeronaut Taproom during Skip the Small Talk, a twice-monthly gathering designed to spark authentic conversation between strangers.
Participants are matched up at random. First, one partner speaks uninterrupted for three minutes, and then the second partner can ask as many follow-up questions as they like. Finally, the two partners can converse freely for five minutes. After that, everyone finds a new stranger to meet and the process repeats.
Sounds painfully awkward, right? To help reduce the pressure of these chats—and to ensure that no one defaults to the forbidden small talk—all of the conversations are guided by question cards provided by event organizers. Partners choose two question cards at random, then select one of those two to guide their conversation. These questions—nearly 70 in total—are specifically designed to get the participants talking about their internal states, rather than sharing surface-level facts about themselves.
“One that I really like is, ‘In what ways are you different from the way you were five years ago?’” says Ashley Kirsner, founder and director of Skip the Small Talk. “It gives you information about who the person is, how they see themselves in the present moment, and how they see who they used to be.”
Kirsner has studied human connections for years, including through psychology research at Harvard and BU. Her undergraduate thesis at Cornell focused on the psychological phenomenon that people are less racist when they realize they have things in common with others. Later, she put her psychology training to use at a suicide hotline, an experience that made her wonder if she could turn her fascination with relationship building into a career.
“Whatever people were going through, they felt like they couldn’t talk about it to the people in their lives, and that’s why they were calling,” she says. “So that sort of inspired me to see what would happen if we could lower the social stakes of how hard it is to open up to someone.”
Kirsner hosted the first Skip the Small Talk two years ago as a picnic dinner at John F. Kennedy Park. She expected a few friends to show up out of pity, but nearly 100 people attended the picnic. It lasted long into the night, and as Kirsner finally made her way home at 11 p.m., participants asked her when the next Skip the Small Talk would be.
“It hadn’t really occurred to me to do a next one,” Kirsner says. “But it was clear that people really wanted it.”
Now, there’s room for about 70 at each Skip the Small Talk event at Aeronaut, and the tickets often sell out ahead of time. While there are plenty of new faces at each event—the goal is to meet strangers, after all—Skip the Small Talk has amassed a community of about 30 regular attendees. These “regulars” even have a private Facebook group, a safe space online where they discuss topics they’re feeling vulnerable about. However, Kirsner is quick to point out that the Skip the Small Talk devotees are still eager to make new connections once the question cards come into play.
“It’s easy for communities like that to be kind of in-group-y and exclusive,” Kirsner says, “but it’s been lovely to see that people are quite inclusive and like to add people.”
Even one-timers have a shot of having a life-changing experience at Skip the Small Talk. Kirsner remembers a conversation she recently had with an attendee who connected with a stranger over the card that read “Tell me about your first crush.”
“They’ve been dating for a year now, apparently,” Kirsner says. “They’ve met each others’ parents!”
However, even if you don’t find love or lifetime friendship at Skip the Small Talk, Kirsner believes that attending the event is a valuable way to practice critical skills in a judgement-free environment.
“People have said it’s like a catalyst for them,” she says. “The big thing is really willingness and ability to be vulnerable with people. They end up feeling closer to the people already in their lives.”