Small talk is difficult for me. It’s not end of the world stuff, nor is it something that is unique to me only. There are larger and more important things in my little orbit that could use improving, but for some reason small talk is something that has always just jabbed at me.
I never liked what I perceived to be a vacuous and time wasting form of communication. I felt that I had to be “on” and I just didn’t do “on”. It wasn’t my style when I was a drunkard, and it’s really not my style now. Or so it seems. The way it worked for me was this – I’m going to some cocktail party or get together. I am already nervous. I need an exact head count before heading out. I need to gather the social temperature before stepping into the room. As if preparing for a heist, I mentally scope out exits and escape paths when I get there. I look for corners to melt into. And then of course, I have the meat and potatoes of how I will get through this – booze. Before, during, or after – doesn’t matter – just need the booze. I need a mental and emotional escape long before the body follows. I crave a place to hide within myself, to edge out and the blur the lines of me, so that I feel right…or just for right then and there.
And so it begins – the frontal assaults of “Where are you from?” and “Have you come here before?” and the worst “So what do you do?” Like a hummingbird in full flight, I dodge, bob and weave around the verbal spears chucked my way. I deflect and dismantle potential conversation starters. I retort with single grunted words, or worse, convo-killing sentences that no one but the mightiest extrovert can navigate or lob back. I get sweaty, and feet shift back and forth. My eyes are everywhere but on the person talking to me. My attempts to smile are utterly pathetic. I am pathetic. Where it my deus ex machina? I look around, take a slug of my drink and wait for it to be all done.
Small talk is everywhere – it’s practically impossible to avoid – elevators, taxi rides, public transit, shops, break rooms, etc. I would rather have in-depth conversations one-on-one, but that doesn’t happen while in the deli line and the woman behind me wanting to chat with me about how the price of ham has gone up since she moved back into the neighbourhood. What I have come to see is that I was someone who isolated. I kept to myself as much as humanly possible. I didn’t touch the phone, didn’t answer my door, and distanced myself as much as I could. I wasn’t comfortable with myself, so why would I be comfortable with anyone else? And conversely, why would I want to put someone in the unbearable position of having me to talk to?
Hello fears. Hello self-esteem. Hello self-centeredness. Oh these are the party snacks which feed the little pity party in me! Get them in Costco sizes while you’re at it. Good stuff.
I realize that when someone is engaging me in small talk, they are trying to connect with another person, another human, regardless of the topic. The topic is usually moot. They aren’t trying to do anything else other than see someone and be seen. And hell, they might be nervous themselves, trying to get out of their own shell. So I try to honour that now, and engage, even if I don’t feel like it. And you know what – I’ve done a lifetime of doing things that I didn’t feel like, so it’s something I do to get out of my comfort zone. And it’s in getting out of my comfort zone that I start to grow. The desire to crawl into myself no longer serves me. It’s a great way for me to get out of myself and not isolate. Isolating is not good for me. Never has been. Doesn’t mean I am a yapping, hand-shaking, back-patting machine. But I learn to step out a little bit more and just connect. That’s all it is.
I have also come to see that I didn’t think anyone had anything of interest to say, because I didn’t think that I had anything to offer anyone. My favourite trick in deflecting any attention on me was to ask a series of ever building questions that focused and even glorified the other
victim person. Passive aggressive? A touch. But it got them away from me and me away from me. We would depart, they thrilled and sparkling with having imbued me with their fabulous story, and me thrilled with not having to mention anything about myself. But as I go through this journey of connecting back to myself, and getting in touch with what the Creator has truly created for me, I see that I have much to offer. Hard to say. Hard to type even. But I have something to offer. And so does the person who stops me on the street and asks for directions to the bus heading north and then tells me about the last time they were on a bus, as a kid. I look in their eyes. I listen. I smile.
I am not “on”. I am just me – tuned in and turned onto a world I once tried to hide from. A large world with lots of small talk…wonderful, wonderful small talk.