8/4/2012 10:00:00 PM Column: Never say what you really think during chit-chat
One’s mind can go to strange places to fill in conversational blanks.
Casey Martin Courier Columnist
I am absolutely horrible at small talk. Big talk, I'm your man. The bigger, the better. But I can't do small talk. It's all fraught with rules and feigned interest and glib comments, and I just can't seem to get it straight.
A friend approaches and says "Hiya, Casey. How's it going?"
"It? Oh, fine. Thank you. And your "it?" Is "it" also fine as my "it" is fine?"
Okay, that may be a bit exaggerated. I'm not exactly awkward in conversation, but sometimes, I can feel less than comfortable unless it's someone I know quite well. If a stranger talks to me, I'm completely thrown and rather suspicious. Why are talking to me, guy in line behind me in the grocery store, and why are you so interested in my purchase of a ginger root, a pint of Chunky Monkey and a jumbo box of diapers?
Since I do have friends, it follows that I must have met these people somehow, and have engaged in scads of small talk. I'm often not quite comfortable, though. Running into friends or acquaintances in public, I sometimes have to think it through to an idiotic extent. Do I tell a joke? If they don't laugh, do I assume that they didn't understand it, and dissect the joke for them in detail, thus depriving the joke of all its hilarity? And what if someone starts telling me about their medical problems? I should appear concerned, but how many questions are too many? It seems that if someone is eager to share something so personal, and if I want to appear interested, I should really ask who their doctor is, whether I could see the diseased part, whether the diseased part turns any funny colors, whether it has any funny odors, whether it's communicable, if I could just see it one more time, and then show them my own diseased parts.
But I've learned that's overkill. No, you are supposed to tut sympathetically, say how sorry you are, and then change the subject, all without letting a single "ew!" escape your lips.
Another of my concerns with small talk is when to stop. When is this brief conversation over? I was done talking a long time ago. I'm now thinking about what to have for dinner, what that noise my engine was making is, and whether the face I'm currently making conveys enough sympathy and interest while also not showing that I'm no longer listening.
In order to hide my fear of small talk, I've learned small tricks here and there. I'm always so impressed that people can do these things automatically when I have to think about them. One of the main tricks in my quiver is something I learned from a children's book: the conversational ball.
Someone asks you how your day is. The response, I've learned, is "fine." Most people do NOT want to hear how you are really doing. Or, more precisely, most people do not want to hear how I am really doing. I can be quite explicit, and just a tad gross.
After satisfactorily answering the question, you then throw the conversational ball back, asking how THEIR day is. Back and forth. Easy.
Unfortunately, the conversational ball has led me astray. The other day, I was in Phoenix with my family, staying at a resort. While walking through the lobby, a man in a suit with a nametag on his lapel asked me how my stay was.
"Fine, thank you. And yours?"
And I've done it with birthday wishes more times than I can count.
As far as gracefully exiting a bout of small talk, I've found that if I don't know how to cut loose from a friend, I simply turn my body away from them, as if I'm keeping eye contact with them, but really, their incessant prattling is keeping me from Much More Important Things (buying Cheetos). Then I wait for the "Well, I won't keep you."
Please don't think that I'm awkward. I am. And how. But I'm not TERRIBLE to talk to. Most people take my unease as a sign of humor. And when the conversation progresses to something of substance, I like to think that I have something to share. Those initial insecurities do fade, and then I'm terribly fun to talk to, I bet.