Complaining about how much you hate small talk isn’t exactly an original idea. In fact, it’s one of the most obvious sources of material for even the laziest of hacks. I’m sure we’ve all found ourselves cornered by a coworker amid questions about the weather, the weekend and the footy. Many of us will — between the neighbourly sentences of “how’s it goin’” and “not too bad” — reflect on the banality of the situation with a smirk and think about how such an exchange seems simultaneously pointless and necessary. Most people, however, will keep these observations to themselves alongside their knowledge that a million people before them have cracked jokes at small talk’s expense. I however feel an obligation as the laziest of hacks to share my discomfort about small talk.
So there, that’s me making a declaration that my ensuing observations, though identifiable, are far too ingrained as an object of social ridicule to be considered astute.
What I would like to share is how engaging in chit-chat doesn’t just make me feel awkward, but makes me want to turn and sprint to the farthest point from the conversation on Earth. Presumably to find myself in Newfoundland, eyes glazed, nodding in agreement to a Canadian’s observations about the unseasonal weather, while holding my breath hoping to pass out and wake up to a paramedic who is too pressed for time to ask me how my day’s been.
I’d like to be able to share something that happened to me as a child that contributed to my ineptitude with inconsequential conversing, but some of my earliest recollections involve me thinking up ways to avoid answering pointless questions. The question: “how’s school” was the most irksome, being the childhood equivalent of “how was your weekend?”. At one of the few adult parties that I had the misfortune of attending, I put myself to bed — before cake was served — with complaints of “crippling stomach pains”. I was physically fine of course, making it that much harder for the paediatricians to diagnose me. “I’m afraid your son shows all the archetypal symptoms of Acute Social Awkwardness, or ASA. I’m going to have to ask you to keep him away from any distant relatives, shop attendants or taxi drivers”, was not a diagnosis forthcoming from an array of doctors called in to see me on the days following family parties.
Hairdressers to me are among the worst offenders when it comes to tedious chats. I deplore that role of friend that some hairdressers wish to assume. This is a view of mine that baffles my ever-friendly girlfriend, her hairdresser presumably keeping a file of her affairs longer than her GP’s. My evasion of hairdressers is chronicled in any photo album featuring me. My hair will frequently switch in photos between Jon English in All Together Now and Jerry Seinfeld after a visit to Enzo. I’ve only recently found a hairdresser who asks only pertinent questions: those regarding my haircut, and for this he has earned my lifelong business.
My neighbour is worse still. As the only person I know to be less employed than me, he seems to make a living from milling about the front of my house observing the neighbourhood. He’s inescapable and always present whenever I’ve got somewhere to be. In most cases, I can get away with a friendly wave as I drive into the garage, closing the automatic roller door (with the car still partly beneath it) on any chance of discussing the admittedly frustrating parking situation on our narrow street. My neighbour’s particular brand of small talk jumps straight from a 1980’s beer commercial, calling on my knowledge of all things blokey. The fact that my blokey knowledge begins and ends with the 1998 AFL Grand Final, these conversations are hard for me to bluff my way through.
On one occasion, faced with the prospect of a chatty-looking neighbour in the front yard, and a fast-approaching uni tutorial, I made a decision to jump my backyard’s six foot fence almost impaling perineum in the process. The absurdity of my actions still not apparent to me to this day.
Simply put, when it comes to small talk, I think that I’m above the implied social law. I’m granting myself a pardon on the grounds that I fear the repercussions of me reciprocating small talk. I know that questioning me about my weekend will result, at best, in a prolonged silence as I rack my brain for an appropriate follow-up question; at worst, in me making a citizens’ arrest handcuffing a co-worker over a desk while shouting at him “ask me something interesting, something interesting!”.
If refusing to engage in small talk by avoidance is a social misdemeanour, then over-engaging in small talk is an offence on par with treason, murder and failing to bow correctly to the Queen. On occasion I’ll feel inclined to make a concerted effort to be friendly and enthusiastic when a shop assistant asks me about my day. Unfortunately, my enthusiasm is often misconstrued as sarcasm, and my broad smile and use of adjectives like “wonderful” are greeted with looks that read “I’m just trying to do my job, you creep”. Putting me back in my expected place, that being nodding politely after being asked whether I’m “just doing some shopping today?”.
I’ve also fallen into the trap of overreaching in small talk with attempted humour at the Post Office. Posting a parcel, the girl behind the counter, scales and plethora of lollies, calendars and USB sticks — which seem to cover the Post Office — broke the monotony of the post with a bout of the hiccups. I offered to scare her, ridding of the hiccups, a request she obliged. I joked “sometimes when I post letters, I write the postcode outside of the four orange boxes, just to see what happens.* Did that scare you?”. I received nothing more than a look of befuddlement and my change.
I think I’m just beset with a group of bad social skills. I can’t seem to grasp the art of inane chit-chat for the sake of being friendly like everyone else. I can’t understand what inspires us to spend so much time each day talking about so little. Conversation and rhetoric serve a functional place to communicate, sympathize and entertain, and sometimes all three (Dr. Phil). Can’t we all just be a little bit more pragmatic when it comes to conversations, like, say, the Germans. They’re friendly, but pertinent, and they get shit done.
*I was of course kidding about the postcode thing. Those boxes are there for a reason, and if we don’t respect the post and its protocols, we’re left with chaos and undelivered mail.