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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