Feb 142007
 

I have been meaning to write on small talk for quite a while now. I have been thinking about small talk for even longer. The thing that got me thinking in the first place was this: Why are there conversations that I enjoy and others that I find outright boring and what’s the difference between one and the other?

I always meant to start this post with something like: I don’t like small talk at all. I thought it was all about shallow topics. I prided myself on being very deep, thoughtful and philosophical, and therefore I deemed myself to be above the usual party talk. Well, as anyone who has read this blog ever can testify that assumption turned out to be – incorrect. Then I thought, this is a muggle versus artist thing. I’m way above all those shallow, non-creative types. Yeah me, I’m actually so advanced that I don’t have anything in common with ordinary people. More on that later.

I started thinking about this whole issue when I started realizing that I didn’t like parties anymore. I go there, not very often, I dive in, find something to eat and to drink and then chatter away for hours. Sometime later I go home and say to my husband, “You know, if I had stayed at home and spent he whole evening looking at a blank wall I would have had a better time.” He said, “Well, nobody could have noticed that the way you kept talking everybody’s ears off.” I’m a highly trained small talker. I can talk with everyone about everything for hours. Especially when I’m tired, exhausted, or have imbibed alcohol, my mouth goes on automatic pilot and keeps blubbering away without any connection to my brain. I’m one of those people, Jane Espenson recently talked about who always tell funny stories completely with gestures and sounds. And I didn’t fully realize that until I read about it. And then happened to glimpse myself in the mirror while telling a student something about my day. Completely with sounds, facial expressions and gestures. The only thing I didn’t do was get up from my chair and act it out. But only because this was a piano lesson and during piano lessons I don’t get up. Only during singing lessons. While I can’t see myself in the mirror while teaching voice, I’m sure that I am acting out too. Completely unrestrained. But my students usually laugh, so maybe that’s okay.

But back to the parties. As I do often since becoming more mindful, I started watching myself in social situation. Doing the funny stories and everything while part of me was sitting in my head watching over my shoulder and asking, “So, if you don’t enjoy this, why are you doing it precisely?” and “What if you just sat there for a minute and let somebody else have a go at talking?” “What if you just listened for a while?”. I know, shocking concept, but well, I thought, maybe there are other people out there who enjoy telling something who don’t have trained the art of grabbing everyone’s attention as hard as me. Like, maybe my husband. He’s usually the one in the corner who has something really insightful to say, but nobody will hear it, because a) everybody is speaking at once, b) nobody is listening anyway, and c) he actually waits for somebody to leave a space for him, and d) he stops talking if nobody listens. He is also usually highly frustrated by parties and such social gatherings.

As, strangely, am I. But I really enjoy people from time to time. So, what to do? The next part of the answer came to me when we went to a concert last year. A musician friend of ours had a performance with his band. We went out, my husband and I (Only parents know how marvelous it can feel to be free and childless for the evening.) first to the station. In the train we spotted clusters of teenagers and twens. Oh oh. Young adults with beer. Nonetheless we entered the train and were greeted with, “Hi. Do you want a beer too?” The cluster of suspicious males turned out to be two of my husband’s students with the rest of the band. Quite a good band which we already had seen. We declined the beer which they had brought with them to save their hard-earned money. Turns out that nowadays they get drunk on the way where the beer is cheaper. We talked. About where we were going, performances, bands, I don’t know what. We left the train. We went to our jazz concert. We met a lot of friends. We talked about music and musicians and whatnot. We went home early. On the way home I thought about how I had enjoyed the conversation on the train and how boring the conversation had been with our friends. So, why? I still can’t say for sure, but it surely wasn’t the topics. There was nothing deep or insightful in either encounter. But after the evening I almost wished to have gone with the young ones.

At the end of NaNoWriMo there was a celebratory dinner of a group of writers based in the big city. When I told my husband that I wanted to go he said, “But that’s our friend’s birthday. She’ll probably having a party that day.” That’s quite typical of her BTW, we knew that she would have a party then, but she didn’t yet and so there was no invitation. I thought about it and then decided that I’d rather go to a meeting with people I barely knew instead of celebrating the birthday of an old friend of my husband whom we have known for years. And we know all the people who were likely to be there. And I like those people. That’s not the point. But it was one of there parties were I first found out that maybe staring at a blank wall is not that bad an option for an evening. I wondered. Was it because the writers and I had more in common? But there were even musicians at the party. I was puzzled. But I never regretted not going and even my husband was relieved to be able to say, “Oh no, we can’t come. Susanne is out and I have to be with our son.” We thought maybe we were turning into misanthropes. But then I had a lot of fun at the dinner. Not that misanthropic.

Last week I was at a meeting of the parents of my son’s preschool group, an informal meeting at a restaurant. They have those about twice a year. Interestingly only four mothers were there. Yes, mothers, no fathers. We sat there, talked about nothing much, the children and a possible date for ice skating. Again I was doing lot of the talking though not most. Again I was secretly waiting for the best time to go home. Again I hoped I could have stayed home, played the piano, watched Buffy, or stared at the wall, and I thought, “Why?” These were very nice women. We talked about children, learning, and such. All topics that I care deeply about. I was puzzled. And then I got it, or so I thought: nobody was really caring about anything we talked about. We were only making what I’m calling “mouth-noises”. What these conversations lacked was passion.

But then I thought again. For example, my father is really passionate about taxes but that doesn’t help me to find talks about taxes interesting, not even with him. And then I really had it: it was not the topics at all. I have had interesting and stimulating conversations about things like bell bottoms or plumbing. No, it was the people. That was why I often found talking to my students more interesting than to people my own age. When you grow older, often something inside of you dies a little. You’re buried in everyday life, you don’t play, you don’t have real fun and then you get a little deader inside every day. And that’s what I can’t stand. My mother told me something similar when I told her about my problem with small talk. She said that she missed working not because of the work but because of the chance to talk to younger people. She said, “Everybody my age talks about the same things over and over again. This is boring.” Well, about everybody my age seems to do it too.

But then I’m talking about the same things over and over again and I think that’s a different brand of boring. At least I care and I’m passionate and don’t have the feeling my life is running on tracks and there’s nothing I can do to change it. And this giving up a little every day and dying a little every day is what my husband calls the danger of growing older. Not the danger of growing old, no, the danger of growing older. One of the women at the preschool meeting said, “I’m always happy to have a chance to go out in the evening.” and I sat there staring in bewilderment. I like it at home. There are plenty of interesting things to do at home. (Like blogging.) I don’t really need to go out and do something I don’t really care about only to distract me from my utter and sheer boredom at home.

Okay, so it’s about the people. But then maybe not. So, where do I go and where don’t I? If everything that’s not an absolute yes is a no, does that mean I won’t be attending any preschool-related activities any more? Or family gatherings? Because those often feel the most boring of all. I don’t want to sit there like a teenager with a face that says, “Are we done yet? Can I go home now?” But I don’t want to stop seeing old friends and family. Any strategies for getting people to talk about things they really care about? Things I don’t know about them yet? Or about the world?

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  25 Responses to “small talk and the dangers of growing older”

  1. If you talk about things you really care about in the circles I travel (i.e., mostly moms), people think you are a zealot and avoid you in the future.

    But I also think you find me terribly boring. But that’s probably the cabin fever talking.

  2. If you talk about things you really care about in the circles I travel (i.e., mostly moms), people think you are a zealot and avoid you in the future.

    But I also think you find me terribly boring. But that’s probably the cabin fever talking.

  3. I find this a very interesting post. I wonder if we find people that we have known for a while boring because we think we already know all there is to know about them. Like family.

    I try to ask new questions. At Thanksgiving i asked one of my brothers if he had ever had problems with depression, which led to some very interesting conversations with my SIL, whom i have know for 26 years.

    But then again, some people are boring to me. I find myself staring over their shoulders to see what else is going on.

  4. I find this a very interesting post. I wonder if we find people that we have known for a while boring because we think we already know all there is to know about them. Like family.

    I try to ask new questions. At Thanksgiving i asked one of my brothers if he had ever had problems with depression, which led to some very interesting conversations with my SIL, whom i have know for 26 years.

    But then again, some people are boring to me. I find myself staring over their shoulders to see what else is going on.

  5. I think we all get into ruts of conversation with people with whom we have a lot in common-its one of the coolest things about the blogs. You connect with people that have something(s) in common with you, but they have totally different lives and perspectives on it. I always think of my job as being the most boring on earth, but to some folks, its really cool. I, in turn, think being a coffee barista at starbucks would really rock my socks!

  6. But you know our family, if you talk about things – things that are really important to you – they have the talent to completley depreciate them …

  7. But you know our family, if you talk about things – things that are really important to you – they have the talent to completley depreciate them …

  8. De and my sister have a point. I forgot all about that. A lot of people like to play it safe and not to talk about emotional and important stuff.

    Meno, I don’t think that it has something to do with the fact that I’ve known people a long time. I’m not bored when talking to my best friends or to my sister.

    And as Ellie said, there are a lot of interesting blogs out there even if the things they blog about aren’t always earth-shattering.

  9. De and my sister have a point. I forgot all about that. A lot of people like to play it safe and not to talk about emotional and important stuff.

    Meno, I don’t think that it has something to do with the fact that I’ve known people a long time. I’m not bored when talking to my best friends or to my sister.

    And as Ellie said, there are a lot of interesting blogs out there even if the things they blog about aren’t always earth-shattering.

  10. I came here to tell you how much I enjoyed your comment on Christine Kane’s blog! Are you FlyLady-ing? lol I also *really* enjoyed this post! Really got me thinking… I *don’t* go to those things that I don’t feel a connection to – unless I know someone I’m deeply connected to will be there! And that’s what I was thinking as I read, that’s what the difference is for me: do I feel a spiritual connection? Is this person *awake*? Like Ram Dass said, you look in a person’s eyes, and you’re going – “Are you in there? I’m in here.” Because a lot of people aren’t awake and aware. I’m not passionate about taxes… but if I was talking to an awake, aware person about taxes, I would probably enjoy it! ‘Cause my spirit would be fed by the exchange. It’s not whether they’re passionate about it; it’s whether they’re *awake*. Wow! Thanks for your post!

  11. I came here to tell you how much I enjoyed your comment on Christine Kane’s blog! Are you FlyLady-ing? lol I also *really* enjoyed this post! Really got me thinking… I *don’t* go to those things that I don’t feel a connection to – unless I know someone I’m deeply connected to will be there! And that’s what I was thinking as I read, that’s what the difference is for me: do I feel a spiritual connection? Is this person *awake*? Like Ram Dass said, you look in a person’s eyes, and you’re going – “Are you in there? I’m in here.” Because a lot of people aren’t awake and aware. I’m not passionate about taxes… but if I was talking to an awake, aware person about taxes, I would probably enjoy it! ‘Cause my spirit would be fed by the exchange. It’s not whether they’re passionate about it; it’s whether they’re *awake*. Wow! Thanks for your post!

  12. Maybe it is because we know each other so well that we think of other things while talking to each other. There is not enough of the adrenaline produced by chatting to people we want to impress to keep us focused.

  13. Maybe it is because we know each other so well that we think of other things while talking to each other. There is not enough of the adrenaline produced by chatting to people we want to impress to keep us focused.

  14. I am depressed. You DEFINITELY don’t want to talk to me.

  15. I am depressed. You DEFINITELY don’t want to talk to me.

  16. I agree with de in that talking about things that matter is sometimes the instant cue to be ostracized. I mean, it’s definitely not cool for me to recycle or be liberal in the deep south.

    Small talk though, sometimes is the stuff of life. I think it is necessary in some circumstances in order that you open the door into talk about things that matter. I find it to be true in blogs and in face to face conversations.

    great post.

  17. I agree with de in that talking about things that matter is sometimes the instant cue to be ostracized. I mean, it’s definitely not cool for me to recycle or be liberal in the deep south.

    Small talk though, sometimes is the stuff of life. I think it is necessary in some circumstances in order that you open the door into talk about things that matter. I find it to be true in blogs and in face to face conversations.

    great post.

  18. I enjoyed your comment on Meno’s blog about maintaining friendships and am so pleased I came to check out your blog. Your post gave me much to connect with and think about, that’s the kind of writing I like the best.

  19. I enjoyed your comment on Meno’s blog about maintaining friendships and am so pleased I came to check out your blog. Your post gave me much to connect with and think about, that’s the kind of writing I like the best.

  20. Marvelous comments. I don’t know where to start. First the easy one, yes, Caren, I’m doing the Flylady-system. Not all of it, but enough that it has made a huge difference.

    I try to spend time with people I feel connected to, but then there are things that are important only to people who are important to me and I choose to attend those because of their importance to them.

    Capacious, don’t think I don’t want to talk to you because you’re depressed, I found out that most of the bloggers I like have some history with depression. And I like people to talk to me when I’m depressed too.

    Liv has a point too that not all small talk is evil.

    Shara and Hel, I’m going to check out your blogs too…

  21. Marvelous comments. I don’t know where to start. First the easy one, yes, Caren, I’m doing the Flylady-system. Not all of it, but enough that it has made a huge difference.

    I try to spend time with people I feel connected to, but then there are things that are important only to people who are important to me and I choose to attend those because of their importance to them.

    Capacious, don’t think I don’t want to talk to you because you’re depressed, I found out that most of the bloggers I like have some history with depression. And I like people to talk to me when I’m depressed too.

    Liv has a point too that not all small talk is evil.

    Shara and Hel, I’m going to check out your blogs too…

  22. I think idle conversation is not very idle at all. It takes some effort to get it right.

    I find I need a combination of things to enjoy a bit of small talk. I need to be listening AND speaking – not just one or the other. I need to be interacting with the other people involved in the conversation – not waiting for my turn to speak and then spewing out what I want to say without considering what they were trying to get across in the first place. The topic is also at least a bit important, but I suppose one can make just about any topic interesting, depending on which aspects of it are being discussed.

    And I don’t think I get it right all the time. Mood plays a huge role in everyone’s ability to enjoy a conversation, and mood is anything but constant.

  23. I think idle conversation is not very idle at all. It takes some effort to get it right.

    I find I need a combination of things to enjoy a bit of small talk. I need to be listening AND speaking – not just one or the other. I need to be interacting with the other people involved in the conversation – not waiting for my turn to speak and then spewing out what I want to say without considering what they were trying to get across in the first place. The topic is also at least a bit important, but I suppose one can make just about any topic interesting, depending on which aspects of it are being discussed.

    And I don’t think I get it right all the time. Mood plays a huge role in everyone’s ability to enjoy a conversation, and mood is anything but constant.

  24. I spend a lot of time with my husband’s students and, believe me, youth can be as dull as dishwater.

  25. I spend a lot of time with my husband’s students and, believe me, youth can be as dull as dishwater.

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