I’ve never been much for small talk. Although I’m an extrovert by nature, a night filled with inquiries about the weather and other trite observations tends to leave me feeling drained. I’ve even been known to avoid these painful interactions by spending an inordinate amount of time by the cocktail shrimp table during countless social functions. Yet coming to Northern Ireland has given me a newfound appreciation for small talk.
Settling into a new country is a humbling experience. It transforms everyday errands carried out at home with ease into mind-boggling, team-building exercises or quixotic misadventures. Take, for instance, grocery shopping. As a student at the University of Ulster in Jordanstown, I am immersed in the natural beauty of the Antrim Coast, from the hypnotic allure of the Belfast Lough to the majestic vantage points proffered by Cave Hill. What isn’t within immediate proximity to me is a major, affordable grocery store. In fact, the closest Tesco is a ten to fifteen minute cab ride away—or the equivalent of a 45 minute walk, weather permitting. So taking taxis to the Tesco is a way of life among UUJ students, and we regularly round up the troops for our weekly foray into town.
As in all other aspects of social life in Northern Ireland, conversation is expected and relished during these short taxi trips. Yet unlike awkward exchanges over cheap wine and finger foods, these conversations have been rich and insightful, imparting some of my fondest memories since arriving on the island. During an early morning cab ride into the city, my driver and I discussed our mutual love for Irish poetry and British literature. Examining the contributions of Louis MacNeice and Samuel Taylor Coleridge on Northern Irish identity then led us to speculate on the influence of County Down, the Brontë sisters’ ancestral home, on their writings (if any at all). By the time I disembarked at Great Victoria Station, we had covered poetry, religion, politics and every other impolite topic you’re warned to steer clear of during small talk. As I shut the door behind me, my driver shouted: “You know, I never saw a point to the fighting. It’s absolute madness. Make sure you tell your friends back home what Belfast is really like.”
These conversations are not unusual. Every time I step into a taxi in Northern Ireland, I have incisive discussions with my drivers, not simply about their experiences living in the shadow of conflict, but also about their values and vision for the country’s future. We draw comparisons between life in California (where I’m from) and the island, during which I typically dispel a number of stereotypes regarding the boundless opportunities for social mobility that many Northern Irish associate with America. The earnestness and openness with which we are able to breach contentious topics—from the trauma of loss wrought by The Troubles to the silencing effect of the present peace—provides a refreshing departure from the mundane. It has revolutionized the way I approach conversations with strangers. Over the past three months, the taxi drivers of Northern Ireland have taught me the transformative power that warmth, grace, curiosity and a tinge of self-effacing humor can have on the tone and trajectory of a single exchange; in short, they’ve taught me the art of small talk.