Sonder, according to the Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows, is “the realization that each random passerby is living a life as vivid and complex as your own.” The extent of this realization had only truly impacted me when I take off in an airplane at night, watching the brightly lit windows of each home blur into glowing yellow dots. As those dots get swallowed by an inky black night, I am reminded that behind each of those dots are the stories of hundreds of people. But I have never experienced sonder elsewhere — until I found myself trying to make small talk behind a cash register.
I stand in front of a masked stranger, a masked stranger myself, as I ring up their purchase.
“How is your day going?” I ask, but only if they have a lot of groceries. I need to ask my masked stranger if they would like a bag for 10 cents, and I don’t want to interrupt them.
I know I don’t need to worry. “I’m alright,” they’ll say, and maybe they will ask me about my day. “I’m good. Did you want a bag for 10 cents?” I’ll ask, and then the heavy silence following their answer will be interrupted by the rustle of a paper bag as I open it, then the chime of the register as it signals the processed transaction. “Have a good one!” I’ll say to their retreating back, my words lost to the sound of the doors sliding open and the wind blowing in the parking lot.
Small talk has never been my forté. I see my manager ask all the right questions — “I’ve never tried that ice cream flavor; is it good?” “Isn’t the air quality just terrible today?” — to all the right customers. I marvel at his ability to extract the story of a gruesome road trip to North Carolina or a close escape from a house fire out of a complete stranger. And yet, each time a customer places their basket on the counter, I can’t seem to get past, “How are you doing today?”
I often cannot help but feel like getting past that first question is futile — what do I gain from standing behind that counter, scrambling to read a random stranger and find a topic they might deem worthy of a five minute conversation? Sometimes, I don’t even try — after all, once my two minutes of being their cashier are over, I will never see them again. The silence is so much easier.
Occasionally, however, my masked stranger will do all my talking for me. I remember a mom explaining her plans to turn her home into a haunted house for her baby boy to make up for a year without trick-or-treating, her excitement so palpable it spilled out of her words and covered the plastic pumpkins in an extra coat of glitter. Another time, three braces-faced middle schoolers, two boys and a girl, recounted their day for me — from early morning vanilla frappuccinos to a late afternoon snack of Chester’s Fries — telling me it was their first time out without their parents. And another time, a young man asked me if I knew Anoushka Shankar, a famous sitar player, after reading my name tag — I did, in fact, know of her: she is the daughter of my father’s favorite sitar player and my namesake. It is these refreshing conversations, amid the hundreds of dry ones, that remind me of the value in getting past that first question. Small talk is the one chapter in the stories of those masked strangers that I can discover.
Sometimes, I can picture myself hurtling down the runway of my life, gathering speed as I go, trying so hard to lift off the ground. As my engines get more powerful, the sound around me is amplified until it is a deafening roar that drowns out everything around me. I am blissfully alone, ready at any moment to soar into the clouds, to explore new frontiers in a world where the sky's the limit. It is only when I look out the window that I realize that in my haste to start flying, I had forgotten to watch the city turn into a constellation of tiny golden lights, of stories that glow like stars until they get swallowed by an inky black night.
In only 16 years of life, I have already known people and lost them — best friends have become strangers, distant relatives have been forgotten, classmates have been erased from memory. I have seen so many people from the window of my existence, so many stories that I didn’t get the chance to know or stories I knew once, but have long since dissolved into nothingness. I suppose I try hard to read these random strangers to remind myself that I refuse to get so caught up in my own life and ambitions, that I see those around me as secondary characters, unwilling to extract their stories and realize that their lives are as vivid and complex as my own.
I chase that feeling of taking off on a plane and watching that constellation of yellow lights because it reminds me of my insignificance. It shows me that nothing really matters so that anything can matter. I can choose to put meaning in my relationships, in my grades, in my future and in small talk — and in a stranger’s choice to tell me about their day or their hopes, dreams and passions. I love that every person has a story because I love that feeling of insignificance, the understanding that there are so many people in this world that I will never know, never meet, never even see. Those conversations are my glowing yellow dots, the same ones I see as the plane takes off. Those conversations help me experience sonder.
So there I stand, a masked stranger, speaking to another masked stranger. Two masked strangers in the middle of a pandemic, making conversation with a person whose name they do not know, whose face they will not recognize if they were to ever meet again, a flash in each other’s lives that will be forgotten in minutes. I search for that five minute conversation following that first question because in spite of how fleeting small talk is, those stories are meaningful because they are a part of ourselves we choose to share with a stranger, a connection we choose to make with someone we know nothing about. They are conversations that I can choose to attach meaning to the lull of a seven hour shift, in the otherwise impersonal interaction behind a mask.
When I finally take that moment to look out the window, when those yellow dots turn into squares and then people — when the masked stranger becomes the mom who wanted to buy Halloween decorations for her baby boy or the the man who took the time to read my name tag and see my name exactly as only my parents do, that is when I am reminded of the power of small talk. I am reminded that small talk has the power to become more than a silence filler, the power to create a fleeting moment in time when strangers can exchange their stories. It has the power to create the kind of connection between someone random that I should cherish because those are the connections that deepen my understanding of my place of this world, that show me how in spite of my insignificance, I have the power to impact other people.
As a human race, we are so involved in ourselves, in our own struggles and ambitions and so compelled to think of ourselves as the center of the universe, that we often forget the significance of sonder. Understanding your place in the world is valuable because it is important to think of how our actions impact others, how each person's life is a myriad of interactions and unforeseen consequences that we will never truly understand because of our utter insignificance.
Small talk is the one tool we equip to transform the insignificance of being one yellow dot in a world with billions into an interconnected world, into a glowing light in the night that is more than a random stranger you will never see again.
Small talk makes us into stories.