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How to Endure and Possibly Triumph Over the Adorable Tyrant
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Wednesday
Sep092015

In defense of small talk 

I like small talk. I don’t understand why it’s forever being maligned. “Make your talk big!” everyone keeps telling us. “Cease your infernal chit-chat! Your talk is disgustingly tiny. Stop your small talkings! Get to the big talks! The biggest!”

Look, I’ve got my fair share of social anxiety. Many of us do, I know. If any of you is devoid of self-consciousness and can launch into any and all topics with ease, I want to get to know you, because you sound fascinating. Email me pronto! But in the meantime, I’m going to speak for us socially anxious folks. Actually I haven’t polled the socially anxious community, because they won’t answer my calls, so I’ll just speak for myself, a more-or-less typical nervous sort.

When my social anxiety is rearing up (i.e. every time I’m out in public), it can be tough to interact. On some days, it’s a challenge to get outside. Eye contact is a hurdle I psych myself up for. Casual interactions are especially fraught. The neighbor is waving! Alert! Say something! Wave back, you idiot! If I smile at my supermarket cashier and she doesn’t smile back, I can spend the rest of the day wondering what I did wrong.

I overthink things, and employing small talk in these scenarios allows me to stop overthinking. Small talk is a comforting fallback. I know that I can say “How are you?” to my neighbor and she’ll say “Fine, how are you?” back — and sure, maybe I don’t actually know how she is, but meanwhile, we’re both human beings acknowledging the other person’s humanness and we’ve done a fine job of it. No one’s cried! Well done, all around.

Without the safety net of small talk, who knows what I might blurt out? Might I tell my dentist about how my dog spent the morning humping a throw pillow? Could happen! Could I ask my hair stylist if she ever pooped her pants at an age when a person really shouldn’t be having accidents like that? You just never know with me!

If there’s one thing I dislike, it’s silence, so I’m sorry but if asking you if you’ve read any good books lately is too boring, I’m going to end up quizzing you about your unlikeliest erotic fixation. I’m not going to like it; you’re not going to like it; but that’s where my racing brain is going to go. And then it’ll turn out that you’re my kid’s guidance counselor, and I’ll have to decide to stay home forever.

Small talk is an introduction. Small talk is the way in. Small talk is polite. You don’t know someone, you don’t march up to them and pry into their innermost secrets. You gotta earn that prying time! Which, depending on how the small talk goes, you may never be granted!

Small talk is shorthand for “I am not a lunatic who intends to break the social contract by talking weird talk about their humping dog.” Small talk, ideally, says, “I’d like to get to know you.” Let’s talk about our jobs, or how strong these drinks are. Let’s get to know each other for an hour or two, and then you can regale me with tales of your sexcapades. Or whatever kind of escapades you’ve been engaged in.

And sure, we’ve all been trapped in a conversation that remains terribly small, but I’d wager this is due to the other person being not all that interesting, or interested. Or maybe that’s on you. I don’t see how a category of talk came to be blamed.

And sometimes, small talk is all you need. I’ll tell you a little story, since we’re getting to know each other. One of my neighbors is a kindly older gentleman who sits on his stoop every day, watching people go by. I always see him when I’m walking my dog. He smiles at me and comments on the weather, or I smile at him and comment on the weather, and we agree on the weather, and then I wave goodbye. I know his first name, and that he prefers temperate weather. That is all. Our conversation is somewhat limited because English isn’t his first language, but even so, we probably push past that, if we felt the need. We just don’t.

One day my kindly friend disappeared. Days turned into weeks and months. Even though all we said to each other was “Nice weather” or “How are you, dear?” I worried. I considered asking one of his neighbors, but he was the only resident of his building who was really committed to stoop sitting. Everyone else just paid their rent and didn’t bother smiling at the neighbors.

I mentioned it to my husband, more than once. I missed him. I tried not to worry. I worried.

Then I saw him. He was walking slowly toward his building, with a cane. I smiled and waved. He didn’t respond. Stroke, I thought. Something bad. You don’t know him. Let him have his privacy.

I was about to turn away and hurriedly unlock my door before things got even more awkward when I heard, “Miss!” My friend was waving at me, his smile huge. I practically skipped over to him. He had suffered a leg injury, and was just back from the hospital.

He clasped my arm, smiled, and then pointed at the sky. “Beautiful,” he said. I agreed. I waved goodbye, went inside, and promptly burst into tears.

I told my husband this story. He said, “Aw, your buddy is back.” Which could be pretty sad, if you think about, but I think it’s nice.

I saw my buddy this afternoon. I was having kind of a rough day, but I went outside with my dog, and there he was. It’s too hot out, he said, but it’s going to be nice really soon. I’m telling you, it cheered me up.

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Reader Comments (38)

I grew up despising small talk because it was so predictable - but because I usually couldn't think of anything witty or amusing to say instead, mostly scuttled past strangers in silence, or felt acutely uncomfortable when stuck in a space with them. Realising eventually that the important thing was to say something, no matter how inane, was a huge release. And then I discovered, of course, that once you've dealt with the weather, or the traffic, or whatever, sometimes you actually move on to the interesting stuff.
When I was at school, it was called 'phatic communion'. Haven't heard that term for quite a while.
Well done!

September 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterPam

Hmmm...I tend to skip past the usual subjects and dive right in with random and possibly-breaching-the-social-contract kinds of things -- but on a small-talk surface-y level, still, if that makes sense? It usually works pretty well for me, though -- but your mileage may vary. I seem to get away with a bit more than I probably should for some reason.

(I had a buddy like that; he was someone I would encounter in my office building's lobby every week or so. Older, with some mobility issues. He liked reading, but almost exclusively on a Kindle. He was darling, and at one point I didn't see him for a couple of months, and I was also worried. When he reappeared one day in the lobby, I was _so_ enthusiastic about seeing him. He'd been in the hospital, liver problems and then complications post-surgery, and some other things. He was back around the building for a little while -- weaker looking and a little less mobile than before -- but we'd still run into each other and exchange greetings or talk about books or whatever. But it's been 6 or 7 months since I last saw him, and I'm afraid things took a turn and I've felt unable to stop in the office I know he worked at -- because I know what floor he worked on, and there's only one thing on that floor -- and ask after him, because...he's basically a total stranger, I don't even know his last name, and I'm sure people would find it odd. *sigh* I really hate it when my semi-regular mundane neighborhood vague acquaintances disappear on me.)

September 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMiss B

I agree. Small talk can grease the wheel of social interaction. Sometimes I feel a little silly at the insignificance of small talk, but then I think, "What are we going to do? Stand there and just stare at each other?" Talking about the weather (or whatever) can ease things plus open the door for (possibly) a real friendship. I've learned to appreciate it. And I'm really, really glad your buddy is okay.

September 9, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterJen

I'm telling you, this post cheered me up.

Thank you for writing it.

Thank you for the small words, the big words and all the in between words. I've been worried about you and it's nice to know you're still around.

P.S. i promise i'll try not to gush at you anymore on Instagram. :)

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterElizabeth Esther

Thank you for this nice and humane post! :) I struggle with small talk, but thinking about what you said, I suppose it depends on small talk with WHO. I am so sick of small talk with other Moms. Yes, the school, the homework, the driving them around to their extramurals, the moods, etc. .. that just makes me shut down and think of something else. It makes it seem as if all middle class Moms are just different shades of boring whether they are working or stay-at-home.
I guess I am expecting too much. I just want to always move straight on to the really personal stuff and, like you said, nobody else really wants that.
On the other hand I also love my "regular strangers" that I know no better that by waving and weather-talk and they can really make my day!

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMelanie

Love!!!!

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTammy

Is it weird that I was genuinely distressed while reading about your neighbor? Like legitimately feeling anxiety. Well, I'm SO relieved he's back. And, I'm a huge proponent of small talk. Mostly because it is the only way I've found to lead into the good stuff.

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterheidi

This is lovely. Those little conversations and interactions with "regular strangers" (love that term, Melanie!) are what make me feel like I live in a small community, not a huge city. I'm much less awkward than I used to be--being a pastor's wife has forced me to learn how to actually interact with other humans, and now I can make small talk for at least a few minutes without immediately launching into my life story.

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLeighTX

I am socially anxious and do not like small talk. It's a good crutch, though, when you need it. I was at a party (of my own volition, what was I thinking) with a friend last week and one of the hosts, who I did not know, came up and engaged us in conversation. It was all small talk. When the host wandered off to greet someone else my friend belly laughed at me. Not with. He was right, the woman who held up my end of the conversation was not me, she was Small Talk Me, who has a different voice and everything. She's creepy if you know Real Me but I guess she works if she's the only me you know.

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKizz

I love this post. It opened my eyes a bit. I, too, have a social anxiousness and didn't fully realize that small talk is my friend. Thank you.
Reading your experience with your buddy reminded me how, when my mother died, I took a whole afternoon to drive around to some of her 'regular' spots--the photo counter at CVS, the hairdresser, the drive-through at Kelly's Roast Beef--with a photo of her. I don't even know the names of any of the people I talked to (and maybe she didn't either), but their reactions were so sincere. I felt so much better knowing they wouldn't be wondering where she was. And I felt a connection at a time a grief that made me feel good about humanity.
Thank you for your post. --Cathy K

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterCathy K

Cathy K, I love your story so much. You were so thoughtful to value your mother's acquaintances enough to let them know what had happened. That is really lovely.

Alice, I'm so glad your buddy is back and I hope he'll heal up well.

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenterk

We are social creatures. We have this yearning to connect--how that shows up in your words, that are as sincerely beautiful as that sky Buddy saw.

*good to see you

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered Commenteralexandra

I live in the UK where it is considers very American to ask questions like 'what do you do?' The weather, however, is a required topic at the start of every conversation!

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterShannon

I passed a man the other day as I took an evening walk. I smiled and said hello. He laughed, threw an arm skyward and said, "I keep asking how many more days we'll have like this."

It made my week.

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterAmanda

Oh Alice, you are such a terrific writer and so incredibly funny. You know how some people say they can drink everyone under the table, which I always thought would be a great visual, 24 people crammed under one table with one lone drunk throwing up above them. I can make conversation with any and all humans, babies, animals. This happened to me in Paris when I COULDN'T SHUT UP NO MATTER WHERE I WAS. I know others were alarmed, but no one was more alarmed than I was. You'll write No Small Talkings! and I'll write Someone Shut Me Up!

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterSuzy

I'm so happy your buddy is okay. very happy.

September 10, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterIsabel

It's nice to hear you again, Alice. Your blog is one of the few conversations that I have followed (silently) for years. Because of your post, my world is little bigger today than it was yesterday. Thank you.

Oh, and I cried when I read that your friend returned. It is important to have acquaintances; it gives us context.

September 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterStephanie

Think how happy you made your stoop-sitting neighbor, just by acknowledging his existence. I hope you will tell him how much you missed him while he was gone – it will make his day. And while we're at it, I'm glad to know that you're okay too; I've missed you while you were gone.

September 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMJ

I'm so glad I found this post. I have so many friends who are outgoing and witty and I've always been the envious of their banter with complete strangers. I think of really great things to say... an hour or a day later. I feel like I have found a group of people who understand what it means to be in a room and have a conversation inside my head and not really want to share that conversation with anyone else in the room. And yet, so often, once I do begin to talk, you know - to other people, I can make it look natural.
And I'm very glad your buddy is better. Cookies. Cookies are a nice way of communicating without saying anything at all. Just FYI.

September 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterTami

As a introvert and social phobic, I wish I had the gift of gab. In the spirit of friendliness and optimism about my social skills, I *try* to make small talk, which usually ends awkwardly. Maybe one day I'll get it.

September 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMary Clare

You should learn Arabic. You can make small talk in Arabic for HOURS. In fact you can't have any conversation without about an hour of near-scripted "how are you?"-type talk.

September 11, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMimi Smartypants

Alice, I just want to say that I love your writing and I see it as such an inspiration. I love when you post, because you are humorous, but also an excellent writer. So, just, thank you.

September 13, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterMK

A post! A post!! *ahem* What I meant to say was that I'm so with you. Small talk is different from making conversation, in my mind. The former is low stakes; you're not making big demands of each other, but you're connecting. The latter is so hard for me, given my nearly terminal awkwardness. I am filled with terror at, say, the prospect of having dinner with someone I've just met. But striking up a conversation about the weather or the slowness of a line with people nearby? I'm your gal.

September 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterR

Alice! I can relate to this story because you are my internet buddy. I have wondered and worried about you (Where did Alice go? Does this mean I need a Twitter or Instagram account?)

Very glad to see you here!! It is cold and rainy in Portland, Oregon today. I am reading three books: 1) on my e-reader: "Medium Raw" by Anthony Bourdain, 2) by my bedside: "Henry's Sisters" by Cathy Lamb, and 3) for my book club: "Say What You Will" by Cammie McGovern.

September 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterLisa W.

Alice - I love your writing.

September 14, 2015 | Unregistered CommenterKathryn

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