Jaclyn Vander Waal—Story Coach
The op-ed is dead.
I mean, think about it. Isn’t the point of publishing an op-ed to exchange ideas with those who don’t always see eye-to-eye with you? We don’t do that anymore.
My peers labeled me as the shy kid in school, but that wasn’t quite the truth. In reality, I adored having conversations with people. Long conversions with random people are one of my favorite hobbies. And yet, when it came to middle and high school, words rarely left my mouth in social situations.
It took me the longest time to realize why that was, but now I’m starting to understand. Today, society revolves around simple conversations—small talk. Now, I’m not saying that small talk is bad. It can be good, when the time is right. The problem is small talk is the only kind of talk we know how to have anymore. Because if it isn’t small talk, it’s angry talk.
If this seems to you like an overstatement, go ahead and log on to your Facebook. Find a post that involves more than a simple life update, something that you might consider to be more than just small talk.
Now, look at the comments. Look at the kind of things that people have to say back to any post that is more than small talk. It doesn’t matter what it is. It could be a post about the latest political update, a link to an article about abortion, a shared video about the new music the church down the road is excited to worship with—anything that should begin a longer, more in-depth conversation. But there is no conversation. There are only angry comments.
So much is going on in the world right now, and most of it is dividing us, tearing us apart from each other. Voting Democrat makes you a baby killer. Voting Republican makes you a racist. And that isn’t the only thing that people are caught up on. We choose who can be in our lives based on if people get a vaccination or not, or if people believe in Critical Race Theory or not. Does that guy down the street know that artificial intelligence isn’t moral? Does that cousin you only see at Thanksgiving dinner once a year know that climate change is reality?
Knowing this, it almost makes sense that we have reverted to small talk. Anything more than small talk ends with anger and resentment anyway, right?
It doesn’t have to.
Just because the people around you do not know how to open a civil conversation without arguing and name-calling does not mean that you should follow along. One person in a single conversation is all it takes to make that change. The next time someone makes a comment in the breakroom that you don’t quite agree with, try asking them to explain themselves further. Or, the next time your crazy uncle says something so politically incorrect that it takes everything in your power not to let your jaw hit the floor, listen to his reasons instead of walking away in disbelief.
I am aware that newspapers are still publishing stories that fall under the op-eds category; I’m even writing one now. My point isn’t that people no longer have opinions to share with the world. My point is that people no longer desire to have an open mind and have civil discussions with those who disagree with them. We are constantly on the defensive and only want to engage in conversations where people repeat back to us our same views. And if no one agrees with our same views, we revert to small talk.
But this is misguided.
We close the door to the world when we do not attempt to understand the people around us. Those people we disagree with have a reason that they believe the way they do. Their experiences, their past knowledge, their life story guides them to see the world in a different way. And there’s value in learning those reasons.
As the shy kid in high school, hearing my voice on discussion days always came as a shock to the people around me, but those class periods were the ones I looked forward to the most. I loved those discussions because I was so fascinated by hearing my peers challenge one another. It forced me to think about my own opinion and decide if I really had the right viewpoint. Playing the devil’s advocate or listening to someone else play this role strengthened every opinion in the room. Some became firmer in their decision. Some changed completely. Some shifted only a little. But at least we had a better understanding of where we stood in the world.
Op-eds don’t have to divide us. They can challenge us and make us uncomfortable in the best way possible—but only if we choose to read and write stories that engage with the people on the other side.