Upon entering the drug store and turning the corner, I found myself staring at the shutters, stretched across the pharmacy countertop. I walked back to my car with a frustrated, dejected feeling, blaming myself for not checking the open hours before leaving the house. It was an optimistic, last-minute trip right before work, when time was most precious. 

illustration of shuttered pharmacy counter with sorry we're closed sign posted

It was foolish to be spontaneous. Traveling anywhere in Los Angeles without a plan – even on routine trips – is a gamble. Scanning online reviews from three different sites and stalking Street View for two hours before leaving the house makes simple sense.

It wasn’t always this way. There was a time when I didn’t own a smart phone or know what the place looked like until I arrived. I received awful directions from several strangers: the gas station attendant, the customer at the gas pump next to me, the drug store employee. Eventually, I arrived to where I wanted to go, late and flustered. Why would I want to go back to that?

In getting lost, though, I was forced to “explore” and make wrong turns. I absorbed the street signs and landmarks around me. I took notice of my surroundings and committed parts my trip to memory. I was continually optimistic about the people I approached for help along the way.

Sometimes, I miss the optimism. 


illustration with dialogue bubbles showing small talk leading to conversation

There is considerable value in small talk. Small talk helps break the tension with strangers in a short amount of time. I can start a conversation with someone I’ve met for the first time and graduate to meaningful dialog in minutes. It requires a certain amount of patience. There’s an ambiguity to it that might turn some people off. It excites me. Small talk may turn sour very quick, the other person responding with single word responses. But a majority of the time, I end up discovering so much more about the person’s interior life than I anticipate. All I have to do is start with a few warm-up questions, after which I’m on a sure path to an in-depth conversation.

The value of small talk is proven again and again during research, where I begin interviewing people with a couple simple questions. The questions might be about where they get their groceries or what their favorite restaurant may be. The answer is often more delightful and detailed than I could have hoped for. Interview subjects also tend to loosen up and become more open in responding to the more objective-oriented questions that follow. For meaningful dialogue to begin, all it takes is to start off with a little small talk.