Ending the Small-Talk Game - OZY | A Modern Media Company

Ending the Small-Talk Game

Ending the Small-Talk Game

By Tracy Moran

Kalina Silverman
SourceAlex Garcia for OZY


Because there were only 10 OZY Genius Awards recipients, and this is what one of them has been up to since winning.

By Tracy Moran

We’re awarding 10 brilliant undergraduate students up to $10,000 to make their passion project a reality. Find out more here, and stay tuned for the OZY Awards Ceremony, sponsored by JPMorgan Chase & Co. 

Kalina Silverman, Santa Monica, California, past OGA winner

During my first quarter at Northwestern University, as a California native, I was feeling the Chicago chill more than most. But I had been accepted into a prestigious journalism program, and I was keen to embrace the wider world, one less familiar, where it isn’t 70 degrees and sunny all the time. Yet I found that it wasn’t the cold that led to my greatest struggle away from home. It was the shallower nature of the interactions I was having at parties and university functions. 

Although I looked happy in social-media posts from my freshman year — four years back — these images reflected a false image of inclusion and joy to loved ones; I was feeling more confused and alone than ever. I was really struggling to form the sort of meaningful connections I had with friends back home with my new peers, especially in the college-party environment. One night, while talking to a friend back home, I reflected on my feelings about the lack of depth in everyday conversations in school, and he agreed by saying, “I hate small talk.” This planted a seed in my head: Big Talk. 

Villagers in rural India have written to me. Lonely students have asked me for tips. Tough military men and women have reached out to share their experiences of loneliness while in uniform.

As a broadcast journalism student I set off for Germany during my sophomore summer to work on a documentary about the Holocaust, and later to Ecuador for a video on education reform. I danced salsa against a backdrop of the Andes and experienced magical chance encounters with other travelers and locals; returning home, I was desperate to retain that spark in my everyday life. And this prompted me to make my first Big Talk video, a compilation of interviews with passersby in which I asked meaningful life questions that skipped the small talk, like “What do you want to do before you die?” Some laughed, some cried — but everyone provided compelling answers, offering the authentic interaction I craved. The first video, which started on YouTube and Facebook and later got picked up by a media outlet, went viral, reaching over 100,000 people.


I was wondering how to take Big Talk to the next level when I learned about OZY’s Genius Awards— an annual award granting up to $10,000 to 10 college students to back their dreams. It came around at the most serendipitous of times because I was about to crack, thinking that I needed to grow this idea — I just couldn’t let it go. The funds enabled me to throw myself into Big Talk, launching a website, making multiple videos and integrating across social-media platforms like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, all while building an email newsletter list in the thousands. I’ve held corporate and school-based lectures, invented conversation-prompting flashcards for widespread use, delivered a TEDx talk that reached 1.8 million viewers — and even fielded inquiries from Silicon Valley-ites seeking to remake corporate culture. I just recently helped launch a Big Talk educational program for prisoners and am working on co-arranging a Big Talk storytelling summer program for students from China and the U.S.

Kalina Silverman

Kalina Silverman

Source Alex Garcia for OZY

Strangers from around the globe message me every day asking how they can bring Big Talk to their own lives. Villagers in rural India have written to me. Lonely students have asked me for tips about how to connect with their peers. Tough military men and women have reached out to share their experiences of loneliness while in uniform. To create Big Talk in our own lives, I have three rules. Questions should be universal, open-ended and meaningful. Try: What makes you feel most alive? What is your next great adventure? What’s something you want to be doing more of, and less of, and how can you make that happen? My own answer to my first question? Before I die I want to raise a family and build a movement that inspires people to connect in more meaningful ways with others, with the world around them and themselves. 

I’m still looking for regular paid work just six months after graduation. To support myself, I’ve worked all kinds of odd jobs and modeled. My mom’s from Shanghai, dad’s from Ohio, and both are doctors of nuclear medicine. In fact, most of my family either serve in the medical profession or academia, which means I’m in uncharted territory for career guidance. But they are so supportive. I’m awaiting word on a Fulbright Communications Research Scholarship to study how to bridge East-West communications using Big Talk with a focus on Singapore, and I’m applying to graduate programs to study art therapy, anthropology and psychology. Mentors like Northwestern’s Dr. Peter Civetta, director of undergraduate research, have encouraged me to believe in myself, pursue higher education and embrace my desire to impact the world in positive ways.

This year, I’m working on an app to provide tips for more interpersonal social interactions and for asking meaningful questions (notencouraging more screen time). I’m also creating a more universal guide for how to make Big Talk at home, work and school. I’m also planning to get back behind and in front of the camera. One day I hope to become a foreign diplomat or public relations liaison between different countries. But for now I’m happy pursuing other hobbies too, spending time songwriting, hiking, studying foreign languages and spending time with my family — all while having a lot of Big Talk along the way.

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