Lawrence and Stephen met for the first time in a craft brewery outside of Boston. About five minutes later, they were already broaching heavy topics. Stephen, who’d recently moved cross-country for a job, was explaining how his hobby of triathlons was a solitary pursuit, ill-suited to making friends in a new city.
Lawrence considered. “I’m caught by this dichotomy you have, where the risk you take is very personal,” he said, seated across from Stephen at a wooden table. “You’re focused on yourself, but you’re also trying to offset it.”
The conversation took place at a gathering called Skip the Small Talk, which sold out of its 70 tickets at $10 apiece. Jumping off cue cards — “What were your middle school and high school experiences like?” — the mostly young roomful of participants formed pairs and small groups to bypass the usual niceties and dive straight into topics both personal and sometimes confessional.
One woman wasn’t sure whether to pursue a job in a faraway city where she had no friends. A roboticist in Cambridge had been feeling guilty about his last job as a military contractor. Everybody seemed to have drama with housemates. The vibe fell somewhere between a support group and an extreme sport.
The vibe fell somewhere between a support group and an extreme sport.
At the center of the event was founder Ashley Kirsner, who wears chunky spectacles and spends a lot of time thinking about how people form social bonds.
“Disconnection among millennials is huge,” she said, an assertion that’s backed up by some evidence. “It’s hard to find groups of friends that don’t revolve around an activity.”
Kirsner has long gravitated toward questions of loneliness and psychology. At Cornell, she wrote her senior thesis on how people form connections. She’s worked as a research assistant in psych labs at Harvard, Boston University, and McLean Hospital. For the past two years, she’s volunteered answering phones at Samaritans Inc., a suicide hotline.
Her work sometimes blurs the line between social research and public art. Skip the Small Talk itself grew out of a series of public experiments Kirsner organized in Boston subway stations. In one, she provided temporary tattoos to pairs of strangers — but each duo had to agree on the same tattoo. In another, she laid out sheets of bubble wrap and encouraged commuters to pop the bubbles by dancing.
“It was cool to see what happens when we pause our norms,” she said. “I was wondering if we could do it on a larger scale.”
Kirsner organized the first Skip the Small Talk event last summer, and she’s held about a dozen events since. She isn’t entirely sure where the series will go next, though the project is now her full-time job. She’s considering the possibilities of expanding to other cities or developing an app around the concept. People keep asking her, she said, to develop a version built explicitly around dating.
Emily Zall, a computer programmer who estimates she’s attended close to 10 meetings since discovering Skip the Small Talk this past summer, said she’s formed a number of new friendships at the events.
One of the most common topics of conversation, in Zall’s experience, is that of insecurities. Many people, she’s found, worry that they’re too emotional — either in the sense that they bottle up their feelings without expressing them or that they inadvertently express too much.
Talking about it, she said, seems to help.
“In so many settings, there’s a very narrow range of things that you’re supposed to say,” Zall said. “That really limits how much you can connect with people. It’s great to be somewhere where you feel like you can be more honest about how you feel.”