Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Art of Small Talk

I'm a thinker. Not necessarily a great thinker, mind you, but a thinker, nonetheless. Because I have to think about things all the time. Sometimes I'm thinking about small, inconsequential things like who decided that there should be a deposit on bottles containing carbonated beverages, but not on those without. Other times I think about deep or gradiose ideas, like how does Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son Isaac impact my life today?

Usually I tend toward the inconsequential end of things.

Anyhow, it takes time to think, to formulate a conherent, logical thought. Normally, when I'm thinking to myself, this isn't a problem. But when it comes time for conversation, that's when I run into trouble.

You see, small talk is an art. (Not to be confused with SmallTalk, which is a programming language.) It is an art that I'm particularly horrible at. So bad, in fact, that I come across, at times, as terribly rude.

To give an example, take a recent trip to the grocery story. As I was standing in line, an elderly man got behind me and noticed that I had my daughter with me. (He seemed oblivious to the fact that I also had my three sons with me.) He started talking about how little girls are cute, but wow, are they trouble when they get older, blah, blah, blah. I smiled, and desperately wanted to say something in response. You know, to be friendly.

But there I stood, smiling with nothing coming out of my mouth. My brain was frozen, trying to work out a response that was friendly, not rude, and had to do with the subject at hand. I came up with nothing. So I just kep smiling, nodding, and laughing when I thought that perhaps, just maybe, he was being sarcastic. Then, I tried to act busy by discplining my son for doing nothing more than standing next to me looking at the candy. Because if I have my hands full with my kids, then maybe the man would stop talking to me and I wouldn't have to come up with any small talk.

I was saved when it came time to load up the conveyor with my groceries, but even that didn't take long, and the man was still talking.

I felt bad, really. The man was trying to be friendly. I wanted to be friendly back, but my over analytical brain didn't know how. I probably rather looked like a codfish.

Sadly, this isn't an isolated incident. I'm like this all the time. I've even practiced on my own figuring out what kinds of things to say to people or ask if I don't know anything about them. Yet, in the heat of the moment, I turn out to be a dud.

Back when I was still in high school, I once brought my wife with me. (Well, at the time she wasn't my wife. She was just "a friend". But she eventually became my wife.) She didn't attend my high school. In fact, she had already graduated from high school. But I had a meeting, so she waited for me.

As we walked the hallway, several classmates passed by and said, "Hi, Ryan." Me? Well, I didn't saying anything in return. My friend-who-would-eventually-be-my-wife told me later that I was terribly rude. No, really I wasn't. Instead, I was just a doofus, lost in my own little world.

And today, as I paid the cashier at the cafeteria for my Diet Mt. Dew, I stood there trying to think of something to say. Some small talk that might brighten her day. After all, she is always rather friendly.

Me? I stood there like a dunce. The only words that came from my mouth? "Thanks." This, in response to her chipper, "Have a nice day!"

Small talk is definitely an art... I guess I need to head off to art school.

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