Kalina Silverman: on a mission to go deeper
June 11, 2018
Words: Helene Ravlich/
Photos: Kalina Silverman
Several years ago, Kalina Silverman began the journey now known as BIG TALK - a personal social research project. She wanted to be able to go out of her way to meet new people and skip the small talk, to have deeper conversations, and make more meaningful connections.
She began with a video series, approaching strangers and skipping the aforementioned chat to ask them one question: “What do you want to do before you die?” People not only shared their deepest desires, but moving stories as well.
Inspired by their responses, she wanted to share them with a wider audience. The natural vehicle for the videos was YouTube, and the thought-provoking series soon went viral. Unsurprisingly, it seems that we’re all looking for that deeper human connection. As Kalina says: “Asking a big question that actually requires a thoughtful response breaks the ice and the conversation gets more real.” We wanted to ask her some questions of our own, to find out more about BIG TALK and where it led her.Right now you are based in Singapore as US Fulbright Research Scholar. What does that entail?
My research project was originally “Bridging East West communications through BIG TALK,” but it has since evolved to “Evaluating effects of BIG TALK in establishing empathy between migrant workers and Singaporeans.” I give a lot of talks and lead BIG TALK events for different people throughout Singapore. Last week I led an icebreaker for a Muslim women's International Women's Day event, and I regularly go to Little India to interview migrant workers as well. My goal is to publish a new framework of BIG TALK questions and guidelines that can be used for peace and conflict reconciliation in international communications contexts.
Our interview reminded me that no matter what material things you have in life, family, friendship, and human connection are all that matter.”
Simply by listening to others express the same sentiment I was feeling inspired me to do something about it! I like to listen to people's needs, and take my time to develop a creative idea or solution that feels most intuitively helpful to me, while also tangibly impactful for the greatest amount of people.
I've always loved doing many things at once. For example, when I was a little kid I said that my dream job was to "be the five A's - author, actress, animal biologist, artist, and architect. So far, I feel like I do take elements from all those jobs. Although, I'm still looking for a way to work with animals!What have been some of your most amazing BIG TALK experiences?
A boy with autism told me BIG TALK questions helped him to open up and express himself to his family.
A basketball coach told me he played BIG TALK with his team on their bus ride to a basketball game and it made the guys bond in a really deep way. People use BIG TALK for dating too. I can't reveal too much, but someone deployed in the army in the Middle East told me he exchanges BIG TALK letters with his girlfriend back home. And he asked me to make a custom BIG TALK proposal card for when he comes back in April!
I followed my intuition when approaching people for BIG TALK. For example, I only talked to people who looked relaxed or alone. And I would only walk up to them if they could see me clearly.What are your most memorable moments from filming the series?
When I interviewed a man in a business suit on Rodeo Drive in Los Angeles, and he broke down in tears to tell me about how he worked so hard just to support his family, I was shocked. Our interview reminded me that no matter what material things you have in life, family, friendship, and human connection are all that matter.You worked on a documentary film in Germany about the Holocaust. What was your role, and what did you learn from the experience?
I was a researcher, reporter and creative director/filmmaker. The documentary was about the impact of the Holocaust across generations of Germans and Americans. I learned that our ancestors' experiences can really influence our present perceptions and motivations.
“My goal is to publish a new framework of BIG TALK questions and guidelines that can be used for peace and conflict reconciliation.”
“Nature is a place to be yourself, a place to find balance and rhythm. It changes with or without us.”
I hope to publish a documentary of my Fulbright experiences with migrant workers and Singaporeans, and work on more films in the future around international migration and deep personal/human experiences.You've talked about enjoying the outdoors, hiking and rock-climbing. How important is it to establish a regular connection with nature as we progress in the digital age?
The outdoors is what fuels my life. This afternoon, after finishing my research work, I'm going on a hike. In the mornings, when I can, I love to swim, preferably in freshwater. I once read that the things that make people happiest in life are camping, dancing and singing, and I fully agree.
So much! Nature is a place to be yourself, a place to find balance and rhythm. It's also something to respect and revere, because it changes with or without us. After suffering a stroke, Walt Whitman wrote about what makes life worthwhile. He said: “Nature remains; to bring out from their torpid recesses, the affinities of a man or woman with the open air, the trees, fields, the changes of seasons — the sun by day and the stars of heaven by night.”