5/11/2021
Small talk in the 22nd century

Yes, time has bent that much in the past year that I genuinely believe we're actually in the 22nd century. I guess that means I've lived over a hundred years now, which is impossible, because I also genuinely believe I'll die earlier than my peers. But, well, time has bent that much.

Yet, some things remain the same. We may be working at home - yes, I know I have been doing this for years now, but it still feels different this time around, because we've also lost those moments that punctuate the tedium of being in front of your computer for most of the day. No more meetings, and the free coffee that comes with it. (Reminds me of a government bureaucrat offering me Starbucks because it might be my preferred coffee, when I'm really just fine with the coffee-flavored water at the conference room. Still, the idea of tax-funded Starbucks.) No more feeling around the room, finding a way to either be an active contributor or someone who's quietly listening in. No. Everything is a call, and thus the expectations have been recalibrated.

I realize I have more meetings lately. I talk to companies from here and abroad looking to understand whether there's something to be gained from working with us. In the old days these meetings will be awkward. This should be an email, I once told myself, as this lady said she didn't realize the sandwiches she ordered would be for two, and offered me one of the sandwiches. And yes, I ate the sandwich, because it'd be awkward not to.

But now, since everything is a call, these sort-of-out-of-nowhere meetings have become more acceptable. I guess it kinda counts as an email because you're still doing things digitally? Sure, you don't usually gussy up when you reply to one, but these are the times we live in these days. We're in the 22nd century, and you need a good background when you reply to emails that somehow now speak to you.

At least it gives me an opportunity to flex my small talk muscles. Okay, train them. Iris still got it right when she said I'm not good with starting conversations, but I'm good at keeping them going. Also to my advantage, in a perverse way, is that we all have something in common we can talk about.

"How are things in... in Amsterdam, right?" I asked. "Have you gotten vaccinated?"

"Not yet," she answered. "But things are fine, I guess. We still have some cases. And how about you? How are things in Singapore?"

I'm not in Singapore, by the way. No. This is a three-way call. I'm still in Manila.

"It's okay," the one from the little red dot answered. "We also still have a few cases, but now I think they announced there are just five active cases."

As the Singaporean talked about the TTSH cluster and how it could bring the country back to stricter restrictions, both the Dutch (roughly 5,000 daily cases) and I (twice that, because this government, you know) could only ponder, somewhat audibly, at what could have been.

But then, small talk is over, and it's off to the actual meeting proper.

Yes, there are more meetings. It's really the only way we can talk to people these days. Every blank space in your calendar becomes a meeting. It's a wonder how we can get stuff done at this rate. It's also a wonder how companies can claim work-life balance in these times. I remember talking to someone who works at a major fastfood chain, who apologized for not getting back to me one time because Fridays are their designated "switch-off" days. If only, right?

One more meeting. Another three-way call, but two of them are in the same country - city, not so sure - and I'm still in Manila, melting in the heat.

"I'm sorry," one of them said, her line breaking up. "I just got vaccinated."

She was outside. I heard a motorcycle rev up in the background, much like here, really.

"That's good," I answered. "And where are you in India again?"

"Mumbai."

"How are things there? How are you holding up?"

"We're... surviving."

Not the easiest of small talk. I don't think it counts as small talk. I felt the weight of the discussion, especially since I had just watched a news report about how New Delhi is running out of hospital beds and burning grounds for its dead, about how people are scrambling for oxygen, about how they feel abandoned by their government. (So, you know, much like here, then, but with much more international attention.) And yet I found myself unconsciously trying to reassure her that things will be better somehow. I smiled as I talked, much like folks on the radio do almost all of the time. It felt really, really off.

Shalla felt the same way too. She heard the call - it happens these days, too; we hear each other's calls - and chided me for being more upbeat than I should be. Yes, hun, I know. I cringed, too. But what else do you do? Time may have warped so much that we're now in a different century even if we aren't, but our human instincts has not quite changed yet.

And your responses...

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