Friday, December 30, 2011

small talk for dummies (txs to NCB)

Small talk is a necessary part of life. It’s a price we pay for civilized human interaction with an emphasis on “civil.” Small talk is dumb, boring, excruciating, insincere, banal and crucial unless you want people to point and say: There goes that hermetically sealed, introverted scary person who never gives you the “time of day” (which isn’t bad either.)

Speaking of “giving you the time of day” this phrase used to denote the least speck of civility one could expect from his fellow man.

“All right, you annoying dunce, it’s twelve-thirty five.”
“Thank you. You’ve achieved the threshold of civility.”

Small talk has strict rules. If you are careless and break them, you go to “small talk” purgatory- a place where the conversation spins out of control and you are suddenly talking about your childhood tonsillectomy or your Uncle Fred’s arrest or your persistent rash. It will take an earthquake, or a twister or some other dramatic disaster to pluck you from the senseless pile-up of words exchanged.

Here are some useful hand gestures to put in your small talk arsenal that bypass talking but do the job when you see an acquaintance at the supermarket, post office, your front steps, elevator, cocktail party (if you still go to cocktail parties you deserve to be in small talk hell.)

The military salute and release. (from a few feet away.) Hey, captain. You’re the man (but I will be on my way.) Women can do this, too. It will confuse the other person but won’t insult them.

Right palm out, shoulder height:: new way of saying hi and bye at once. I’m acknowledging that I recognize you but don’t come any closer.

Tap your watch:: I’m running late. Got to pick up the kids. (mouthed from across the room) Use this even if you don’t have kids. Nobody can stand the image of two toddlers waiting by the side of the road.

Tap your head: This can mean a bunch of things. I’m a loony and can do what I want. I’m losing it and left the oven on and have to rush home. You probably are losing it so this can fall into the “truth” barrel.

Tap your throat: Implies laryngitis or worse.

Palms up and at an angle, shoulder height, wry smile, eyebrows up: “What are you going to do? That’s life.” This is a great gesture, appropriate to almost any news. It’s friendly, empathetic and you can just walk away. Remember, no words. Pat the person on the shoulder on your way out.

Thumbs up: Everything is coming up roses for me and that’s all you need to know at this time.

Wiggling fingers wave: Dangerous. A wave could result in at least 15 minutes of your life that you will never get back.

When all else fails, we have “Same old, same old.” This means: Relax. I’m still at the same dull job at the same old salary with the same old wife/husband and the same old kids and the same old car. Even if this isn’t true, it will set you free to skip down the road. Don’t succumb to false pride and disclose any personal triumphs unless you want to dive into a swamp and get stuck in banality hell.

“That’s great news.”
“Yes, it is.”
“You must be so happy.”
“I am.”
“Your wife must be happy, too.”
“She is. Very happy.”
“And your mother and father?”
“They’re happy, too.”
“How are we going to end this conversation?”
“I don’t know.”
“Do you think we’ll be here forever?”
“Yes we will.”

The conversational death match. There’s a person who wants to continue and one who wants to get away. The small talk bombardier (picture a kamikaze pilot) will fire away until he hits. "Wait'll you hear this!" is their battle cry. You’re a grown up. Don’t falter.

How’s everything?
And the kids?
How’s that closet system working out?
How’s your back?”
It’s..... fiiinnne. (whew, close.)
Wait'll you hear this.
I really have to run.
John's septic tank backed up. You know John, his father-in-law owns the deli.
He had the cesspool guys there three times and they couldn't find the problem.
(What fresh hell is this? I'm mortally wounded. I've got a septic tank. He got me.) "What was the problem?"
"Wait'll you hear this."

If you’re like me, you have a crazy gene that makes you try to bond with an obnoxious boss or co-worker every so often through small talk.

“Awfully cold today.”
“It’s February in New York. What do you expect?”
(F you, creep. I’m going inside.)

Sometimes no matter how well you small talk, some insufferable French person will insert an opinion and ruin everything.
Why don’t you do ziss?
Why don’t you do ziss?

I used to have an au pair helper who was dumb (as in mute). I was thrilled anticipating a small talk free zone. She would do her work. I would do my work. A shared smile would assure us that all was well. Wrong! She had a tablet to write her thoughts. Spoken small talk is irritating; written small talk is true torture. I like your dress. Thank you. Where did you get it? Gap. Do you mind if I get one just like it? No. I used to have a dress like that but my sister ruined it in the wash. That’s too bad. Do you have a sister? No. What do you want me to do next? Just shoot me.


  1. Consuelo, Just reading this makes me crazy! Never mind being subjected to it IRL.

    ~Ruth returns to her cave~

    Happy New Year!

  2. I know. Happy New Year to you, too.