Small talk usually has to do with the weather, taxes, or how the Leafs are doing. It allows us, in unnatural environments, to express our desire to get along–that we are not a threat.
A friend and I were discussing the delicate dance of introduction and getting to know people, and I mentioned that, “I could hardly bear small talk.” I arrived with that as part of my, what you need to know if we’re going to connect leaflet that I was imagining delivered around the world, by drone. At three in the morning, I woke up and realized what a dumb thing that was to say. What the hell was I thinking?
We need small talk. It’s the way in!
Small talk usually has to do with the weather, taxes, or how the Leafs are doing. It allows us, in unnatural environments, to express our desire to get along–that we are not a threat. If I’m in the grocery checkout line ahead of you, and I take the little divider wand and put it behind my loot that I’ve unloaded onto the magic belt, and I look at you but say nothing, your brain might begin to derive myriad assumptions about me:
I’m on the run from the law.
I have a terrible yeast infection.
I hate puppies and everyone else too.
Conversely, if I turn to you and say something like, “Napoleon should have done yoga,” you might take your booty and move to another checkout chute. Napoleon should have done yoga, is too intense, of course. The statement demands that you have an idea of, not only history, but the benefits of a good hour of Kundalini postures. But, if I turn to you and say, “I sure do delight in finally being able to buy booze at the grocery store now,” then, I’ve offered you a comfortable, non-confrontational spot right next to my personal space. You know that I’m not a threat because my comment is nothing more than a zeitgeist nod to being human. The day is ours; your bag of chips tipping over the wand to nudge my bottle of Syrah.
Small talk, properly launched, has the potential to grow into a really great conversation. Every single person that I met on my voyage out west, I met by simply throwing out a pebble of it in an attempt to shatter what keeps us apart. Something as simple as, “It’s a lovely evening for a walk,” lead to a good forty-minute conversation about one man’s younger days in the Rocky Mountains. “It’s a beautiful part of the world,” mentioned to a woman tending a municipal flower bed in Campbell River, lead to the establishment of the theory that most people on the west coast fled from somewhere else, some terrible, soul-sucking job. “How was your trip? Are you glad to be back?” launched by another, lead to me crumpling on the ground in a moaning heap and yes, I’m still in therapy.
Okay, so not all small talk works.
The discipline like anything else, has its’ extremes. I once listened to a person at the gym go on a kind of verbal sleigh ride, for almost ten minutes, through the day’s events, from making a sandwich to losing a purse–none of which were remarkable, or, frankly, the least bit interesting. Don’t be hasty to judge, though. Turns out that this woman was going through a mind-boggling divorce. Some people drink to ease their pain. Others talk.
On the opposite end of the scale, I’ve made the effort with those who have no modicum of skill in this area at all. Some are painfully shy, and would rather be away from the crowd and hiding under the closest picnic table. Others, dare I say it, are tremendously full of themselves and nobody told them that a little attention thrown outside of their own ego, you know, like a bean bag toss, can bring wonderful results:
“Hey, that shirt! I like it! Had one just like it!”
“Thank you very much! I got it in Montreal!”
“Oh how nice. Were you on vacation?”
“Yes. Yes, I was. We had stopped to do laundry at a laundromat. We brought along a bottle of wine, which we finished right before I emptied the wrong dryer into my suitcase and left. I now own several of these wonderful paisley men’s shirts, plus six pairs of boxer shorts. Boxer shorts are really comfortable!”
“I know. I actually do, because that was my laundry that you stole, which reminds me, I have a few items that might belong to you.”
–So there’s a fun story that came out of not very much effort. In the movie, they get married and live happily ever after.
Every once in a while, I find myself in a situation where the smallest effort on my part, appears to have an exponential effect in another. There’s an elevator I ride, once a week–well, twice, because I ride it up, and then later, down. It’s a slow beast, enough to be worthy of note. One day, I summoned the unit in order to descend from the fourth floor. The doors opened, and I stepped in just ahead of another woman. The doors closed, glacially, giving me plenty of time to grok that this woman was exhausted. She had one of those trolley bags with her, a light coat over her free arm, and a hairdo that, even in the early part of the afternoon, was in need of a little attention.
“Man, this elevator is slow, isn’t it?” I said.
“Oh. Yeah,” she replied, eyes fixed on the floor in front of her.
“It’s almost as if there were two, very aged men down deep in the basement, relegated to pulling on ropes to raise or lower us, and today, it seems, that they are really tired!”
The woman started laughing. She bent over her trolley and let fly a rather startling belly guffaw. I was miming the fella’s hauling on the lines, actually surprised that she thought it was that funny. The voyage ended with a slight jostle. The doors opened, and I motioned for her to exit ahead of me.
“Boy, I really needed that laugh,” she said. I unintentionally followed her out to the parking lot, several paces behind as I headed for my van, and listened to her still laughing. I felt I had made a connection, small though it was, and that it had made a difference in someone’s day. I love that. Makes me feel like I've tapped into that elusive thread that joins us. Sacred, I feel.
“So? Hot out there, huh?”