“Nice to meet you. What do you do?”

It’s an innocuous phrase, often wheeled out by someone we’ve just met to avoid the horror of impending awkward silence. But, for Carolina Gawroński, founder of the No Small Talk dinner experiences, it’s become a call to arms – one that is leading her to start a mini revolution against banal discourse in Hong Kong.

“I’m bored of saying ‘What do I do’?” and, like, where I’m from,” says Hong Kong-based Gawroński. “Ok, I’m half Polish, half Italian. Then it’s: ‘So do you feel more Polish than Italian?’ I don’t give a damn! Who cares? It doesn’t matter!”

carolina Gawroński
Carolina Gawroński. Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Gawroński’s father is a politician and public figure in Italy. Growing up within patrician circles, she became used to attending ritzy events and making polite chit-chat with the elite. But, feeling constrained by social conformity, she began to question the calibre of exchanges we choose to have with strangers in social settings.

“Growing up I was surrounded by, on the one side, [my father’s] interesting friends. But on the other side, there was this whole element of being social and being at bullshit social events. Since a young age, I’ve always questioned it: ‘Why do people talk like this? What’s the point?’”.

After a series of low-key trial events last year, No Small Talk officially launched in Hong Kong last month, alongside sister events in other cities around the world, including London and Melbourne. It declares itself “a platform whose mission is to foster humanity and human connection through experiences”. The aim is grand, but the concept is simple: after guests arrive at the mystery location, they take part in a mystery icebreaker, before settling down at small tables for dinner. Gawroński arranges the seating plan based on a short questionnaire that each guest completes in advance – though she refuses to reveal her methods. “I can’t give you all my secrets, but the seating is never accidental,” she says, knowingly. “The personalities at the table make sense.”

After that, there are only two rules: no phones, and absolutely no small talk. Small talk is defined by Gawroński as chat revolving around the questions “what do you do?”, “where are you from?” and (for emigrants) “how long have you been in Hong Kong?”

No small talk

Despite the earnest ambitions behind No Small Talk, could this not all end up as some gruelling form of social purgatory, we proffer? Inane small talk is, after all, a social lubricant that helps us glide between interactions with minimal chafing.

“I don’t think [No Small Talk] is for everybody, I really don’t,” says Gawroński. “Some people are comfortable having normal conversations. And that’s fine. But this is basically about providing a platform. A place where people can come, can connect, can be themselves, can lower their guard, can talk about interesting things that they normally don’t talk about.”

To that end, Gawroński has devised a deck of cards that sit on each table featuring question prompts designed to stir guests’ imaginations. On the evening that HKFP attended, our first prompt asked, “What is your present state of mind?” Some 45 minutes later, and our table – five people who had never met before – were still earnestly discussing this topic, with personal anecdotes and candid confessions spilling like it’s a meeting of decades-old friends. Any hesitation or guard that would usually be present at such a gathering seemed to have been removed by the evening’s bold premise, and the results were profound.

No small talk

Some two hours later, long after the plates are cleared, we were still going, over cups of green tea. We heard about someone’s recent first experience of taking acid, pondered the most memorable gifts we’d ever received, learned that one guest’s family had a signature whistle that had been passed down for generations, and ruminated on what we’d do if time stopped for everyone else in the world but us for a day (answer: rob things, naked). And we still had no idea what anyone did for a living.

“What I personally really got from No Small Talk is there were certain things, like really mental, stupid things that I was really embarrassed about,” says Gawroński. “And then, when I started saying it out loud to a bunch of strangers, I was like, ‘This is really liberating, and I feel much more comfortable about myself and those insecurities.’”

So how does someone with such strong opinions on not making small talk deal with everyday interactions with strangers? Naturally, we assume, the premise of asking a cashier about their emotional state, or what the most expensive thing they’ve ever stolen is, doesn’t always work?

“I love talking to strangers,” says Gawroński. “I just think there are ways to do small talk. The best way to talk to strangers is to get them to tell stories. Talk to your taxi driver and ask, ‘What’s the craziest thing that has happened in this cab?’ You’re guaranteed that you will, A) get a fantastic story, and B) you will learn so much about who he is as a person.”

No small talk

Indeed, several peer-reviewed studies have conclusively found a link between personal happiness and a higher proportion of meaningful conversations, versus superficial ones. The dull fact remains, however, that the intuitive aspect of this knowledge comes at direct odds with the cautious approach most of us instinctively employ when greeting a new face.

“Nobody teaches you at school how to communicate. Right?” says Gawroński. “It’s weird. It’s such an important thing. All of this – No Small Talk – is just, really, about being aware of that. It’s a wonderful way, I think, to feel human, and comfortable, and ultimately everyone leaves with a big smile on their face, so we must be doing something right. I’m not sure what, but there’s something.”

Find out more about No Small Talk, and learn when the next event will be held, at nosmalltalk.world.

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Hong Kong Free Press is a new, non-profit, English-language news source seeking to unite critical voices on local and national affairs. Free of charge and completely independent, HKFP arrives amid rising concerns over declining press freedom in Hong Kong and during an important time in the city’s constitutional development.