Thoughts on Small Talk

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)

Me: Hello!
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.

Small Talk (1929)
End Credits – Small Talk (1929) (Photo credit: twm1340)

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.

More on Friendship

Part one: comments and critiques may break my bones, but silence will break my heart.

RuleOfStupid wrote an awesome post about feedback and friendship and other stuff… 🙂  Something he said struck me, and hopefully he wont mind if I quote:

“People who really know you can’t be mean to you, because they know your story and the battles you have fought to be who you are. So anyone who is mean to you does not know you. So it cannot be personal. In which case they’re not being mean to you, they’re just being mean.”

With all respect, I must disagree with him.

There are several people connected with me who have been mean to me and it is because they know me very well that they are able to do so.

Usually this is just one of my siblings, angry at me for something I did or said to hurt them. I may be nice, but I am not good. Sometimes the evilness just pours out of my mouth and before I can stop it, my verbal poison has struck deep. They retaliate by saying something equally mean. Knowingly mean. Pulling some deep insecurity out from the depths of my soul and rubbing it in my face. It can get real ugly. And only someone who really knows you can be that mean. Luckily, unconditional love is stronger than verbal poison, and it all works out well in the end.

But here is a case where it does not work out well: Lets say, for the sake of argument, that a wife leaves a husband, and the husband’s family decides to never speak to the wife, EVER AGAIN. Even though they knew her and loved her for almost twenty years before the split.  These people are not just being mean, they are purposely being mean to the wife because they know her and know how much this silence will break her heart. Did she deserve to be treated this way?  Perhaps… Probably… Yes, but it still proves my point: People who really know you CAN be mean to you. Meaner than strangers could ever be.

Part two: TMI.

Oops, did I say to much? What if, while building a friendship, even a blog-friendship, you learn things about a person that you don’t like? Doesn’t that kill the friendship? Friendship, like every relationship, needs boundaries.  It is better to only show the nice side of your personality, to tell only the stories of the honorable battles fought, to keep the mean or judgmental thoughts and the cruel past acts hidden, in order for people to like you.

I want friends, but if honesty is part of friendship, then I will fail every time. I cannot be honest about everything I think and feel with a person who does not already have a built in unconditional love for me. Because to know me, is to not love me, to paraphrase the old saying. I am not putting myself down, I just haven’t lived the most, well… exemplary life. Deep inside there is a part of me that is selfish, who wants to lie and steal and cheat, and who can be very, very mean.

This is why I try so hard to just be nice, to everyone, all the time. I want people to like me, not for who I really am, but for the person I strive to be: generous, honest, and faithful.

But here I am breaking my own rule again, spreading TMI all over my blog, and scaring away potential friends.

Will I ever learn?

On Friendship, continued.

Once upon a time… OK, actually, two weeks ago, I was at work and a client said something unbelievably nasty to me. It was so nasty, it made me cry. I do not normally cry at work. In fact, I don’t think I have ever cried at work. My instant and perhaps childish reaction to this was to use every single curse word I know while describing the incident to my co-workers. (This did not take long – I am not a creative curser.)

Here are the reactions I received from them:
1) shut up, someone will hear you.
2) too bad, but he is the client after all.
3) get over it.

If this exact same thing had happened to one of them, I would have reacted the way a friend would: I would have given them a shoulder to cry on and agreed with every word they said, just to help them get it all out. Then I probably would have said the equivalent of, “shut up, someone will hear you” and “too bad, but he is the client,” because they are both valid points. (I never would say to anyone, ever, about anything, “get over it.” I think those are the most insensitive words you can say to a person who is hurting.)

It was precisely this event that has led me to think so deeply about friendship.

I have, in the past, described my co-workers as friends. Some of them have known me for almost ten years. We’ve been through many stressful moments together, we’ve bonded over terrible clients and long hours and miserable working conditions many times over the years. I’ve eaten many meals, and consumed vast quantities of alcohol with these people. They know the details of my personal life and I know theirs. I have always thought that I was so lucky to work with people who know me and care about me.  (Side note – my job involves a lot of travel, which is why we spend so much non-work time together.)

I was wrong. They care more about their job security than about my feelings. Which is perfectly normal for co-workers. Somehow I deluded myself into thinking a friendship existed where it did not. How did I came to that erroneous conclusion?

Here is Google’s definition of friend:
A person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations.

I had (and still do have) a great deal of affection for my co-workers. What I ignored was the ‘mutual’ part. The fact is, as long as we’ve all known each other – I’ve never hung out on a random Saturday with any of them. I’ve never invited them to a party or celebration of any sort and they’ve never invited me to theirs. I was never ‘that kind of friend’ with any of them. But as I am beginning to understand, to them this means that we are only acquaintances.

So how is it that I can still feel affection and concern for people who don’t feel the same for me?

Am I simply too empathetic?

And why is the word empathetic so similar to the word pathetic?

It is possible that I am thinking about this a little too much.

Regardless, I am not done with this topic yet. Tomorrow I’m going to talk about why I think it is a really good thing that I am so pathetically empathetic and how it looks like the blogosphere will save me from the depths of despair. =)

On Friendship

“Ah, this is why I have no friends!” is something I say often.  When, for instance, I blurt out my true opinion about my boyfriend’s clothing choices, or after I spend five days in a row in my pajamas watching Lord of The Rings, the extended version with all the behind-the-scenes footage, for the tenth time.

But the reason for my lack of friends goes deeper than my brutal honesty or my occasional obsessive compulsive behavior.

(I don’t want to sound completely pathetic here, I do have a few friends. But I can count them on one hand. Maybe even on a hand with a finger or two missing. And weeks or months or years will often pass between visits.)

I don’t count my boyfriend as a friend. I have a wonderful, truly romantic relationship with him, we enjoy each others company and have a lot in common. But there are certain things you can not and should not talk about with your lover. Don’t talk about wrinkles and unwanted hair and sagging skin when you want to maintain your sexual attractiveness with another human. Don’t complain about unfinished chores or bad habits if you want that other person to occasionally surprise you with flowers.

I also don’t count my family as friends. All of my siblings (there are four of them) really do enjoy my company as much as I enjoy theirs. We have a better sibling-relationship than most children from large families have. I also have my parents and my step-parents and a huge collection of aunts and uncles and cousins to rely on when I need the help or companionship of other people. But they didn’t choose to have me as a relative. It is nice that they like me, but more importantly, they love me unconditionally. It requires little or no effort on my part to maintain the relationship.

So laziness and a comfortable romantic relationship is one part of the problem. The other part is this confusing, uneven, self-confidence problem.

A part of me thinks very highly of myself and can rattle off a list of strengths and accomplishments instantly. I started writing that list – but deleted it, because I am also humble. =) But seriously – I have a good brain and a good body and I am proud of the things I have accomplished thus far in my life. I try to be kind and generous. I really care about other people and how they feel. When I ask you how you are, I really do want to know. I can ignore my own wants, needs and opinions to just listen and respond to another person’s thoughts.

But here is the confusing part: I have a really hard time calling a person I’ve known for years and asking them to go somewhere or do something with me. It makes me very uncomfortable. Fear of rejection maybe? Or of putting the other person in an uncomfortable position? Of being an unwanted burden? I’m not sure. If they call me to invite me to join them, I want to make up excuses and stay hidden in my house. But if they press the matter, I will say yes. When I go, I invariably have a good time.

In essence, I want the other person to do all the work of the friendship. While I will always answer the phone when they call and I will always be an attentive listener, I won’t pick up the phone to call them. I want someone else to make all the arrangements and just tell me when and where to show up.

When I use the word friend, this is the sort of relationship I am looking for.

Which means I don’t have a lot of friends.

My siblings live far away and I don’t want my entire social life to revolve around my boyfriend.
I need to figure out this friend thing. The sooner the better.