Revisited: A small man discusses small talk

I’m not real big on small talk. I understand that it’s a necessary social lubricant that greases everyday interactions, easing our way through the world. I know that when someone asks “how are you?” that they’re not really looking for a full medical and psychological report. I know the answer can fall into only about four categories: (1) “great,” which means better than average; (2) “fine,” a sort of neutral don’t-bother-me response; (3) “good,” usually said with a downward lilt that really means “not good”; and (4) “pretty good” (with a high-pitched stress on the “pretty”), which means horrible.

But I still think there’s too much of it, and I despise the excess. Much like the wolverine caught in a steel trap, I’d rather gnaw off my leg and leave it behind than continue a trivial conversation much beyond the standard four-phrase convention (“How are you?” “Fine. How are you?” “Fine”). Except instead of chewing off my leg I’d have to chew off the lower half of my face so it could continue the conversation after the rest of me is gone, and it seems physically impossible to gnaw off your own face, so maybe that’s not the best analogy. (This should give you some idea why I’m so poor at small talk.)

As the conversation continues, I shrug and I shift and I lean away, giving every possible body language indicator that I wish to be out of there. I even thought of inventing a fake pager that you could trigger that would allow you to extricate yourself. But this was in the day before cell phones and voice mail came along, and nowadays people would think you’re a Neanderthal to still be carrying a pager. Which I am, but that’s beside the point.

The worst is when you’re in an inextricable situation that nothing short of a stroke is going to free you from. I was at the dentist last Thursday having a crown re-cemented, my mouth numb, my body horizontal and my face half-covered with the nitrous nosepiece. My dentist was a young and recent addition to the practice. I had no concerns for her ability to deliver my care, but she showed she was new to the game by the way she handled the requisite dentist office small talk.

“So how was your weekend?” she asked. How was my weekend? Good lord, woman, this is Thursday. On Monday and Tuesday, you ask about the weekend just past. On Wednesday, you talk about the weather. On Thursday and Friday, you ask about the upcoming weekend. Don’t they cover this somewhere in eight years of medical training?

“Oh, I had a great weekend,” I’d like to say.”I conquered Asia on Saturday then went on a three-state murder spree on Sunday.” I could even blame the nitrous. Instead, I kept it together and responded like a good dental patient: “Mmmpphh umph”.

I may hate small talk, but at least I understand the rules. You do have to study your enemy to know best how to deal with it. I’ve developed a number of defenses that I use to get me out of these situations. My best is this semi-permanent scowl I’ve developed that keeps most casual acquaintances at arm’s-length. (At age 54, it’s become such an ingrained part of my face that my smile is little more than a horizontal slit, and anything trending more upward makes me look like psychopathic.) Just now, sitting in a coffee shop and writing this piece, a vague acquaintance walked by the table and the ol’ slit/nod acknowledged her in such a way as to make her keep on walking.

I’m still looking for better strategies to deal with the unexpected encounters you occasionally stumble into. My wife and I were grocery shopping the other evening and I had stepped away to track down the organic cat litter special. When I returned, I rounded the aisle endcap to find my wife chatting away with someone we had gone through childbirth classes with 18 years ago. I was trapped into the ongoing conversation. What could I possibly say or do? They went on about our respective children, how shortly after giving birth she had lost her job with the airlines (who hasn’t?) but got free air travel as a buyout perk and her daughter was looking at colleges in Pennsylvania because that’s where her husband was from; his immediate family is Methodist but there’s a whole branch that’s Mennonite and it’s always strange to see them and how they dress…

Wait a minute, I thought, husband? Oh no, that’s right, I did see this vaguely familiar guy by the hot deli bar earlier, and soon he’s going to stroll up and this encounter is going to explode into a whole other dimension. I gotta get out! Clumsily, I raise my finger, mumble “I’m ‘onna g’get that other thing…” and rudely walk away. Just to be on the safe side, I leave the store and walk home.

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4 Responses to “Revisited: A small man discusses small talk”

  1. fakename2 Says:

    There is another alternative–when someone asks, “How are you?” You say, “I’m terrible!” First I almost ran over my neighbor’s dog last week, then I found this ulcer inside my mouth–right here, and it really hurts, do you have any idea how to treat that?…And then…etc., etc. This puts the onus on them to leave, which they will. This is foolproof.
    Granted it’s a little tougher in your grocery store situation, where you came upon an already full-blown small talk session in progress. In this case you have to escalate by saying something like, I hate to interrupt, but I think I overheard the manager saying something about a bomb threat…We should all check out and leave now…

  2. bethsciallo Says:

    small talk in Scotland consists of:
    1) the weather
    2) the lack of summer
    3) where you went on holiday or where you’re going on holiday to escape the rain and catch some sunshine

    seriously!

  3. planetross Says:

    My brother and his wife were vacationing in Mexico and were going to get a free dinner or something if they let a “time share” person talk to them for a “few minutes”.
    After about 30 minutes of being pressured, the wife excused herself to go to the bathroom.
    When my brother noticed her walking outside the window 10 minutes later in her bathing suit and headed for the pool, he ended the discussion, got the free whatever, and kicked himself for not doing it before her.

  4. Phillip Donnelly Says:

    Small talk is for small minds, but convention dictates that we all follow its dictates, to a greater or lesser extent. In the social sphere, it is easier to avoid, using the Davis W method of an urget appointment with organic cat litter, or some other ruse indicating that there is somewhere else you have to be.
    However, there are those out there for whom small talk is not only natural but desireable. It’s true, I tell you! I’ve seen and heard them; exchanging platitudes and conversational tokens like bad bonds on a Black Monday. Left ot their own devices, they can keep this up for hours. Come the revolution the Small Talk Police will hunt them down, but until then, we must sit tight and bide our time.

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