When Farah Bushnaq and Lyne Ismail organised the first End Small Talk event in the summer of 2015, they had no idea what kind of ripple effect it would have. What began as an extension of their mutual desire to stop having surface-level conversations with their peers has transformed into an important cornerstone of the UAE community — one that has resulted in lasting friendships, several epiphanies and one marriage.
“After the first time, there was no way we could not do it again,” says Bushnaq. “We didn’t realize the impact we could have on people. It became a place to build real friendships, find stability in the city as an expat, and not feel lonely anymore.”
Bushnaq and Ismail founded End Small Talk as a free meetup where attendees first get into small groups, then take part in a moderated group discussion on specific topics. Conversation prompts cover general issues or delve into a particular theme, like gender equality, going vegan or mental health. About 35 to 50 people regularly attend the events, which run every few months in Abu Dhabi and Dubai.
A big part of the appeal for End Small Talk regulars is the way the events provides a place for people to express themselves openly. Participants can stay anonymous by creating name tags with descriptors (like their current feelings or personality traits) rather than real names. People regularly surprise themselves with how vulnerable they feel, and how hard some things can be to talk about.
“What I found early on when I first started going to End Small Talk is that there are no judgements,” says David Ferris, who has attended the event regularly. “What there is, however, is a much greater understanding and appreciation for each other.”
Another aspect of what makes End Small Talk unique is its diverse demographic. Ferris points out: “This city is quite a cornucopia of cultures. And this meetup allows us a real, rare insight into listening to people. We don’t need people to appropriate other cultures and be ‘globally hip’. What we need is for people to have a deeper understanding of what motivates people to do what they do and think what they think.”
Hamad Al Shami, who goes by Shami, is the newest member and occasional moderator of the End Small Talk team. For him, the event’s significance is in how people are able to release certain socially-conditioned anxieties.
“In our society, we glorify remaining silent and never expressing ourselves, when that in and of itself can be very destructive,” Shami explains. “We do not see being open and showing your vulnerability as strength. We see it as weakness. When, in my opinion, it’s the complete opposite.”
But at End Small Talk, things are different. “It makes me really proud to know that we are able to give people the safe space necessary for them to express themselves,” Shami says. “It’s really hard for people to open up and be vulnerable. Especially with a topic like mental health, for example.”
Ferris agrees. “Once you hear a person to your right or left share something incredibly personal, it gives you incentive to do the same,” he adds.
The conversations that happen at End Small Talk have not only led to lasting friendships (“There was a group of three girls who always ended up speaking, and eventually they made a Whatsapp group and became very close,” Bushnaq says), but a wedding, too. Fadi Awad and his wife Sabine knew each other from childhood, but met again by chance at End Small Talk.
“After several group discussions, I liked the way Sabine talked and thought about all of the discussion topics,” Awad recalls. “End Small Talk was the right place at the right time for us to meet.”
People of all ages attend End Small Talk, including kids. Dominika Kunka, a mom of two, makes going to End Small Talk a priority for her and her son Ali, 10. “A lot of the topics that are discussed in End Small Talk aren’t things kids really talk about, like gender equality,” Kunka says. “These talks sometimes go on for an hour or more, and Ali really listens to what people have to say. To me, that’s the most important thing.”
She adds, “He’s learning values I wouldn’t expect a 10-year-old child to appreciate. I’m really really happy to see him attend these talks and get so much out of them.”
End Small Talk is also going global. Community groups in Seattle, Los Angeles, Bangladesh, Cairo and Amman have gotten in touch with Bushnaq and Ismail to organise their own meetup.
The next End Small Talk at Manarat Al Saadiyat tackles the topic of “Home”.
“What is home? Everyone has a different meaning. Is it a place? Is it a person? I think people will have a lot to say about this, considering where we are,” Ismail says. “Not everyone identifies with Abu Dhabi as ‘home’, yet we have to live here. So what does it mean to create a makeshift place into a home? Does doing that make it a ‘home’?”