I suck at small talk.
The other day my boyfriend and I were walking down our street and we ran into a mutual acquaintance. He was standing on the corner, all alone, and as we approached, we all said the usual words of greeting, “hi” or whatever, and then I said: “What are you guys up to?”
Guys. Plural. Huh?
The only way to explain this flub is to imagine for a moment that I am an actor, rehearsing for a play. Because of my familiarity with the dialogue, I accidentally say another actor’s line before they get a chance to say it.
This is not the first time I have said aloud what I expected the other person to say. I also finish other people’s sentences and feed them potential words when they are searching for the right one. I think it is the silence I am afraid of. A phone conversation with me is deadly. If you pause to take a breath, I will fill the space with my voice. I’m not listening at all, I’m just talking.
The way it should go: (example adapted from the wiki on small talk)
You: Hi, how are you?
Me: Fine, thanks. Have a good weekend?
You: Yes, thanks. Catch you later.
Me: OK, see you.
But sometimes they get jumbled in my head and I use them out of order.
Me: I’m fine, how about you?
You: Uh, I didn’t even say Hello yet.
Or I will get into an unending loop:
Me: Hi! How are you?
You: I’m fine, how are you?
Me: Great, and you?
When used correctly, these practiced words and phrases act as a social lubricant. A comfortable, easy way of interacting with our fellow humans, the acquaintances and the ‘almost’ friends like the guy we ran into on the corner. People we don’t know well enough to just pick up the ongoing conversation the way we do with the people we are close to. I’ll guess that in our tiny village days, 8,000 or whatever years ago, we didn’t need small talk. We knew how everyone’s day had gone – we were there with them as they experienced it.
Neanderthal You: Hey, how’s it going?
Neanderthal Me: The same as it’s going for you, duh! (I say this occasionally to my boyfriend after we’ve spent the day together. He really loves it when I do that.)
I want to get better at small talk. I want to sound like a confident and easy-going person who always knows her lines. Mastering the art of small talk will make me popular among all my acquaintances and admired by the new people I meet when I’m walking down the street. It will also make me excellent at sales.
Actually, I take that back. The best sales people I’ve encountered in my life did not engage in small talk.
Hans Dippel is the world’s greatest fine-wine salesman. I don’t know how he did it, but he managed to remember everything I ever said to him every time we spoke, even when many months separated our conversations. I would have bought anything from him because when I spoke with him it felt like I was speaking with a close friend. No, better than that. A best-friend who had no life of their own to talk about and was entirely dedicated to hearing about mine. (I just googled him – looks like he was running for city council last year – I’m not surprised at all.)
So here is an immensely popular, really likable guy who must have thousands of acquaintances, but who does not engage in small talk. Interesting.
Perhaps small talk isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Maybe it isn’t a skill I should attempt to master. Or maybe it isn’t the small talk that I suck at.
What really screws me up in these short, light conversations is not listening to what the other person is saying. After saying that initial ‘hello’ I should just pause, take a breath, and pay attention to their response. If I did that instead of trying to remember my line, I might retain some of what they actually said. If I did that, maybe the next time I ran into that person on the street I could think back to the last conversation we had, and pick up where we left off, instead of starting all over again.
Me: Hey! good to see you.
You: Yeah, you too.
Me: So did your brother ever arrive to pick you up, or did you end up walking home?
See, an ongoing conversation. Without being close friends, I’ve managed to make him feel good by giving him something personal to talk about. But in the end the effect is the same… whether you are the master of small talk or have the memory of an elephant, if you make the other person in the conversation comfortable, they will like you.
The purpose of small talk is to provide an easy way to help everyone get along with each other. And even for the people in the tiny village, that’s really not such a bad thing at all.
My Dad sent me an email: “I read a blog on “small talk”…. Thought it would be a great topic for MofM and to read your take on the subject……just a thought”
(As an aside – I just love that he referred to my blog as a thing separate from myself – makes it feel more real.)
Hope you like what I wrote, Dad, and thanks for the prompt.