Sunday, June 23, 2013

Talking Small

When I began to date after my divorce, I cried every night.  Just the idea of dating made me sick.  I attributed this to the fact that dating involves small talk, and I loathed making small talk

Small talk—the polite social banter in which you engage with people you hardly know—shouldn’t be so hard.  It’s fairly formulaic.  You commiserate about the weather, say you love someone’s shoes, ask what someone does for a living.  It’s not intellectually challenging.  And yet I hate it, for two reasons: 1) I don’t really care about the things that get talked about and find it exhausting to have to pretend as though I do, and 2) I always worry that I’m terrible at it.

After only two or three dates, I came to realize that my worry was unfounded.  It turns out that I am a spectacular small talker.  I am a genius at small talk, a Rhodes Scholar of inane queries, polite laughter, and feigned interest.
My dates, on the other hand, were morons in the small-talk department.  From the man who informed me that he didn’t have any male friends because he was so good-looking, to the virulent anti-Semite, to the gentleman who confided via telephone that he was wearing a thong under his Versace suit, they were all sadly inept at the art of graceful, innocuous conversation.
Fortunately, a tall, handsome man asked me out, talked about his family in a way that was both fascinating and appropriate, and kissed me in the elevator down to the parking lot.  My dating days were over.

So why am I thinking about small talk?
Yesterday I went for a walk through my neighborhood and encountered an unfamiliar woman about my age throwing a ball for her dog.  The dog was darling, and I smiled as I passed them.  The woman smiled back at me wanly.  Then she looked me up and down and said, with equal parts condescension and weariness, “I see you walking a lot.  You’re always so good to yourself.”

Her tone indicated she was taking me to task, as if walking was a self-indulgence that was interfering with all the cancer-curing I was supposed to be doing.   Apparently no one ever schooled her in the finer points of small talk, the most important of which is, Be nice.

As I walked on, I started thinking about middle school.

Middle schoolers are notoriously bad at small talk.  In the first place, they haven’t yet learned the nuanced distinctions between pleasantries (“Who do you have for Algebra?”) and heartfelt confessions (“I, like, hate her.”) 

Also, middle schoolers are assholes.  And I say this as someone who has spent the better part of my adulthood writing books for this segment of the population, mainly because I love them.  But, come on.  We all know it.  (And if you are a middle schooler reading this, you know it better than anyone.)

Middle schoolers are at the mercy of other middle schoolers.  They don’t know from nice.  (Okay, some of them do.  Some of them can make you cry with their sweetness.)  They say unspeakable things to and about each other.  Moreover, when a middle schooler is unspeakably spoken to, she doesn’t have an arsenal of coping tools at her disposal.  (As one gets older, these may include hanging up phones, pretending not to care, and saying mean things about one’s tormenter in one’s blog.)  She may cry, or tell her mother, or swear.  (Older people do these things, too, but not as well.)  But she will feel victimized and wretched, and she will not understand why anyone has cause to be so mean.

So as much as I hate small talk, it does serve a purpose.  It allows us to connect to strangers without saying hateful things about their eye makeup or inadvertently divulging the details of our own battles with bulimia.   And we can go to cocktail parties and high school reunions knowing we are likely safe from everyone’s inner seventh grader, who is just dying to bust out and tell us how, like, fat our ankles are.

As for my neighbor?  I know she meant well.

And a little cosmetic dentistry couldn't hurt.

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