I am the ultimate queen and reigning champion of absolutely despising small talk. That’s right, if hating small talk were an Olympic event, I would take gold, silver, and bronze and I would solemnly cross my hand over my heart as they played the national anthem for my complete and utter domination at hating it.
But I’m also disgustingly good at it. Not by choice mind you. The skill was drilled into me as a matter of self-preservation. But that doesn’t mean I always play by the rules of appropriate small talk. Sometimes out of boredom, or maybe just a wild need to experiment, I tend to…try and spice things up a little.
In Middle School, whilst extremely bored one day in the girls’ locker room, and not a little bit on edge about the aerobics we were about to be forced to take part in (Richard Simmons is still a man of my nightmares thanks to Middle School girls’ gym), I found myself listening to a conversation about the upcoming frog dissection in Biology.
“Oh my word, it’s so gross! Do you think we have to actually cut them ourselves?”
“I hope not! I think I’m going to throw up!”
Just for fun, I decided I’d cut in. “Oh, we have to do more than cut the frogs. I hear Mr. Bray has tiny barbecues set up for us to cook the meat when we’re finished and we have to try some. Well I guess probably only if we want an A.”
A wail immediately went up from the girls around me. “You’re joking right? They’d never make us eat the frogs! Right?!” Girls were actually crying.
Without skipping a beat I said, “Why would I lie about something like that? Besides, I’ve heard frog meat is pretty good!”
I need to cut in right here to tell you that I never once thought of myself as a pathological liar. I always assumed that it was obvious when I was being super ridiculous that I didn’t intend anyone to believe me. The problem is that I didn’t always pick up on social cues–and when I did, sometimes I was already too caught up in my story to stop myself. And it was just so much more interesting than regular chit-chat!
The thing is, child Andi was forced into completely controlled and very stressful small talk on a regular basis. I am of course speaking of the fact that I am one of those curious souls who grew up with a minister for a father. And let me tell you—people are very weird about their pastors a LOT of the time. And the family that tags along with them usually get sucked in one way or another. People would tell me about their strange medical problems, goiters and colostomy bags included. Sometimes I was regaled on that latest new fad that was obviously sending everyone to hell and have witnessed brochures on the evils of playing cards, geometric coloring books, movie theaters, the Internet, and obviously those portents of evil: bar codes. But most of the time it was about subjects so mundane and expected that I could barely keep my eyes focused and remember to add the occasional smile and “ya” to the whole thing. And through all of it I gained the ability to grin and nod and make a good listening comment on absolutely any subject. I saved my wild stories (lies) for classmates and friends out of what was probably an overly wound up imagination and a whole lot of stored stress.
In my adulthood, it has been very hard to not duck out of absolutely every occasion in which small talk is required, since Dad’s job is no longer on the line. I have a tendency to go right for the meaty stuff like “What was your most painful childhood moment?” Or perhaps, “Who is the first person you ever knew really well that died?” I’m kidding of course (was that obvious?), but I often find myself almost incapable of listening to whatever appropriate topic of chit-chat we’re on and wondering what dark or ostentatious tid-bits might be lurking behind every perfectly normal looking pair of eyes. Now those things would be worth listening to.
But I’m learning that small-talk is actually absolutely necessary. It can be abused, sure, but it has a very real and very needed function. Hating small talk is like hating to boil water before you make tea. Sure, it’s not the most interesting part of the whole event (I am definitely guilty of slipping into existential quandary while insisting on watching the kettle boil), but it’s very important. Without boiled water all you have is a soggy tea bag in some cold water. It’s not very appetizing. You could drink it anyway and pretend it’s tea, or you could give the tea bag a chew or two but it really doesn’t work at all. (Translate that metaphor as you will into actual conversation tactics.)
I am coming to believe that everyone, and I do mean everyone in some part of their souls is longing desperately to connect with others at a deeper level. But we simply cannot dive into the very heart of real conversation without making sure the temperature is right if you understand my meaning. We have to take the time to make people feel validated, and safe, and like they are talking to a kindred soul before they can really dive in deeper. But without that—we have no idea what kind of person or context we are spilling out the deeper parts of our souls onto.
And just to take the metaphor a bit too far (because what fun would it be if we didn’t), there are definitely people who go on boiling water without ever making any tea. Conversation tea is vulnerable and risky business, and boiling water for no reason can get to be such a habit. We need tea! And by that I mean eventual deeper conversation! It’s the part that gets me down the most—that some people just really aren’t interested in “tea” at all. And constantly being the one who tries to introduce the tea to a very reluctant audience who are happy with their shallow con… I mean boiled water… can start to be very dreary business.
I still struggle to be sold on the whole business. At times I think that small-talk is a symptom of living in a broken world. If we could only all be totally and absolutely trustworthy to the people around us—and know that everyone around us cared for us at the deepest level—maybe we wouldn’t need it anymore. Or maybe it would only be for fun (and not to make Pastor’s daughters queazy with stress while they consider what exactly IS the correct response to someone who has just told you that they have bleeding ulcers on a regular basis?). But on better days, I think of it more like little affectionate touches in conversation form.
I’m here. I notice you. I’m available.
What I think the business of small talk requires, more than anything, is the ability to be fully present and to take joy in it for what it is. Like a ray of sunshine, or a wisp of wind across your face, or birdsong. I think of God listening to us being absurd humans and smiling, just like a mom who smiles while listening to her children talk nonsense or invent silly games together. If God can take joy in us, even in our sillier and shallower moments, surely I can find the patience to be with someone and appreciate who they are, even if I never find a way to the deeper stuff. I think I can do that. I know I can.
On a side note, if you find yourself occasionally being a bit absurd just for the fun of it and find that people are believing you when you really did NOT expect them to and you know the secret to getting out of it—please please tell me how to get away without being awkward or making other people feel bad. Because I have yet to totally solve THAT problem.