It’s hardly news that more and more of our social interactions are taking place through apps — think Tinder, WhatsApp, Snapchat and so forth. And chances are you’ve wished, at some point, that we could all just “switch off” and find some way to really connect with the people around us. But say you want to meet new people, get to know your newfound friend’s deep, dark secrets, or just find some way to keep a conversation flowing — all these can be a scary prospect without the distanciation and ease of connection the online world offers.
Which is why I was skeptical when I first stumbled across smôl tôk (pronounced small talk), a simple card game that promises to be much, much more. According to its creator, Nicholas Pang, playing smôl tôk can help us cut through the bullshit and get to the meaningful exchanges, whether it’s with strangers, colleagues or loved ones. That’s a pretty ambitious claim for an old-school question-and-answer card game, so naturally, I was intrigued when offered the chance to join a smôl tôk session.
Playing With Meaning
The tagline of smôl tôk is “playing with meaning”, and the smôl tôk sessions that Nick organises through his startup, starknicked, are as quirky as the name suggests. Each session is a cosy gathering of four to six complete strangers, with an even male-female ratio. Over the course of three hours or so, these strangers enjoy a 3-course dinner, play smôl tôk, and — in my case — end up spilling confidences previously told only to my closest friends.
The gameplay is pretty simple: each smôl tôk card carries a question ranging in difficulty level from one to three stars, and players take turns drawing cards and directing questions at any one other player. This might sound like one of those yawn-inducing trivia games, but it’s the questions — funny, thought-provoking, and at times deeply personal — that truly set the stage for the magic to happen.
Some of the questions that I and my fellow players had to answer included gems like “How ready are you to settle down?” and “What would you do if a platonic friend tells you that they like you?” And if you plan to target others with the three-star, hard-hitting questions, the tables are easily turned — the deck includes cards which anyone can play to force the entire table, even the questioner, to answer.
Good Food, Good Company, Great Conversation
As a true-blue, 100%-plus-chop introvert, I couldn’t help but feel uncomfortable, initially, with the intimacy of the questions. (It didn’t help that, having paid no attention to the age range of 25-35 indicated in the session details, there was a…substantial age gap between me and the other players.)
But to my surprise, my sense of awkwardness melted away quickly. By the half-hour mark, and amidst a beguiling combination of good food, easy warmth and endless fodder for conversation provided by the cards, I realised the strangest thing had happened: I’d begun to enjoy myself. Despite being strangers with nothing in common, I found that sometime between cheesy descriptions of our ideal dates and painfully honest confessions about our weaknesses, we had begun to share things rarely shared with others, and to put into words what we’d seldom expressed or realised about ourselves before.
To be sure, the basic concept of smôl tôk isn’t too unique. Questionnaire apps like First Date Conversation Guide abound, and I myself have experimented with dating apps like LunchClick, which provides singles connecting in-app with questions that purportedly help forge a deeper bond.
But the beauty of smôl tôk might just be the way it blends the best of online and offline dating: you arrive without the least clue of who your dining partners might be, thus echoing the relative anonymity and spontaneity of dating apps. At the same time, you get to enjoy the ambience and the intimacy of the moment which just cannot be replicated online, without ever needing to worry about running out of conversation topics.
The cards ensure that your conversation will go beyond the small talk we all know and loathe (hence the irony of the name smôl tôk), while the group setting frees you from the stress of communicating one-on-one. Long before the night was over, smôl tôk had made a convert of this skeptic.
The Search for Meaning
Smôl tôk is a game of questions and it seems fitting that, according to its creator, it all began with a question. When I asked about the inspiration that sparked smôl tôk, Nick explained:
“I received a present on my birthday last year. The wooden box had a question on the cover which read ‘What would you attempt if you knew you could not fail?’ This was the push I needed to take a leap of faith and begin working on smôl tôk.”
At heart, smôl tôk is about building meaningful relationships of all kinds — not just romantic ones — and this focus on meaning came about, Nick reveals, after reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search For Meaning. Frankl’s autobiography chronicles his experiences in an Auschwitz concentration camp during WWII, and was deeply moving for Nick: “he wrote that life is a quest for meaning”, he says, “and that the greatest task that any person can embark on is to find meaning in life.” This shaped the focus of starknicked, which now creates games that can forge meaningful relationships — relationships being “the common denominator for all human experience”.
Making each smôl tôk session meaningful is, of course, easier said than done. As facilitator for the sessions thus far, Nick considers one of his main challenges to be ensuring a good playing experience for all participants — after all, the magical blend of ingredients that shapes each game can only go so far. “Facilitation’s a difficult art to master,” Nick explains, “and I guess it’ll be a challenge to help others facilitate smôl tôk with the same spirit of openness and authenticity which I want it to embody.”
Nick may be just getting his startup off the ground — his smôl tôk basic deck only became publicly available a few weeks ago — but he has big dreams for his old-school pack of cards. His hope, he reveals, is that starknicked can become a “catalyst for social change” in Singapore’s notoriously reticent, smartphone-obsessed society:
“I imagine walking into a random café, and finding a group of people playing smôl tôk at the next table.
They’re not taking photos of their food or browsing on their phones, but are present to one another — engaged in lively conversation, and sharing their personal lives with each other. They notice my curious looks and invite me to join them.”
While smôl tôk may seem too old-school at first glance, it has more to it than meets the eye. Those who’re fans of dating apps might find that smôl tôk’s focus on quality over quantity is refreshing, while the game’s loosely-structured nature does a good job of easing first-meeting awkwardness and taking the conversation to a deeper level.
To find out more about smôl tôk, go here.