Saturday, April 9, 2011
What are the rules of engagement when it comes to small talk? Is there an art to it, or does it just happen for some people as part of the natural flow of their lives? I've never been good at small talk. I fancy myself a good talker but I despise redundancy or being perceived as boring. Yet, even when I let go of the notion that am being both redundant and boring I still am unable to have a successful, short conversation that isn't rife with anxiety and awkward pauses. This anxiety manifests itself in fast talking, sweatiness and an over expressive flailing of my limbs.
Allow me to use a real life example and then we'll break down the game tape. I was walking the dog and as I was going to cross the street I saw a lady walk out of a nearby building. I was at least 100 feet away from her, well beyond the threshold of having to politely acknowledge someone else's existence. Regardless, she was looking hard at the dog and bellowed:
Her: Is that a pug?
Me: (in my head) no it's a Great Dane.
Me: (out loud) it sure is.
Her: (still from a distance) It's cute.
Me: (realizing I have to close the gap to be polite, I start walking over) Yeah, they're so ugly that they're cute.
At this point I've walked over to talk to her and she tells me that her friend has two pugs and blah, blah, canine diabetes, blah blah, early blindness, blah blah 3 legged blind pug. And I'm there with her, I'm mixing it up, throwing counter punches of faux interest and inserting appropriate giggles at punchlines and serious eyes of recognition for the serious parts. I start to notice that she keeps cutting me off and not listening to my very short bursts between her long digressions. I limit my interruptions to knowing nods and let her continue.
About 4 minutes into the conversation she stops her blather sharply in mid sentence and says "Well, I've got to get going." She said this in such a way that implied that I was keeping her. I thought by the way she went on and on (and on!) that she was making time before her ride arrived. But no, she was driving herself and yet she stood around for several minutes talking to me, who clearly had no desire to talk to her in the first place.
I'm not upset that this lady talked to me, I just couldn't figure out her motive. I began to obsess about our conversation. Was I less engaging then she had hoped, is that why she put a premature end to our conversation? Maybe she wanted me to pick the dog up so that she could cradle it in her arms and whisper sweet nothings to it. I gave her several outs early on for her to easily exit from the conversation yet she chose to keep on talking. Perhaps she is terrible at small talk as well and needs to work at her concluding skills.
That really is the main problem with small talk, when does it end? What if I pulled up beside the lady at a stoplight or met up with her later at Starbucks? Am I required by social contract to wave and/or give her a few more lines of conversation? I couldn't blatantly ignore her could I? I think there needs to be a code word used in every conversation that states your intention. I need to know if I am supposed to develop a thought or just rattle off a few quick lines of wit. There is nothing worse than trying to cram your whole life story into 30 seconds or to extend the ingredients of a chocolate bar into a 15 minute speech because you've misread the desired length of the conversation. "Uh, yeah, that Snickers has got, uh...nuts and nougat. You know what I like about Snickers? it has caramel. I just love things with caramel, they are the caramelliest."