Small talk for me is a challenge, this is not my first post about my struggles with it and it surely will not be my last. It is not that I struggle with conversation, I easily fall into exchanges with strangers whom I know very little about. It is frivolous talk that I have trouble with.
I am the person at the grocery that sees someone from high school that I know (but not well) and I make a hard left turn to avoid interaction. It would be one thing if it were a former friend or teacher I liked but recognition that I once knew OF a person without actually knowing them is not enough to warrant a non-conversation that will drain me completely.
I started thinking about this over the weekend because I ran into two people from my past and met a few new people as well. I bumped into an old friend I lost touch with as well as a former school mate from when I was a child. I also met a few relatives I had never met before. I had all kinds of exchanges with people this weekend, they were all very different. Any of them could have fallen into the small talk place that feel so inauthentic to me but most did not. I was reflecting on these exchanges yesterday as I got ready for bed.
I will start on Sunday and work back, I am good news first person when it comes to good news/bad news.
This weekend I had extended family in town, this is family I do not know well, second cousins whom I have never actually met. Todd and I had the opportunity to spend a little time with them earlier in the weekend and I instantly fell in love with my female relative. She is my father’s cousin so she is his age or maybe a little older, I found her to be a kindred spirit.
Sunday my grandmother was having a brunch at her house so the rest of the family could spend time with our visiting relatives. On our way to my grandmother’s house we stopped at a grocery in my home town to pick up a few things as our contribution to the brunch.
I typically do not like to do this, stop at the grocery in town that is. It is for the exact reason I illustrated above, the potential for awkward encounters and forced small talk is too high. My home town has grown significantly since I was a child but my family has lived there for 50 years so it is almost inevitable that I will run into someone.
As we rounded the corner to the produce section I saw an old friend picking out juice with her daughter. Todd and I stopped and talked with her for a while. It was nice. She is married with three children now, still living in town. She got to meet Todd and I told her where we had settled down as well. We exchanged numbers and talked about having dinner sometime in the future to properly catch up. It was nice to see her, I was flooded with a sweet nostalgia.
Todd and I went on to my grandmother’s house and spent time with my second cousins while also meeting my third cousin and her husband who apparently recently moved into town, I had no idea. It was nice to have more time with my second cousin as well as an opportunity to get to know my third cousin (who is my age). We actually spent more time talking with my third cousin’s husband but we discovered he graduated from the same college as Todd in IL and grew up a few towns over from Todd. There is even a strong possibility that he and Todd played baseball against each other in high school because the two schools were rivals I guess. He and Todd had a lot to talk about, they are in similar careers, both very math/science oriented and the obvious connection both being from IL. I also found out through conversation that my third cousin was a social work major in school and now works in healthcare. Her position is a bit different from the work I want to do in healthcare but it was still nice to meet someone with similar ambitions.
I plan to keep in touch with my second cousin now that she has returned to Ohio and Todd and I plan to invite my third cousin and her husband out for dinner in the near future.
While Todd and I are both introverts all of these interactions with new people and an old friend I had not seen in years were fine because they were meaningful. There were connections made and things to talk about, it was not forced or awkward.My experience Friday was very different however.
On Friday a family member, who Todd and I are not close with, was getting married. We attended the wedding more out of obligation than interest in doing so. That very fact felt inauthentic to both of us. For me it was more in support for my grandmother. My grandmother’s 90 year old sister (who I had not seen since I was 9), as well as her niece and nephew all traveled down for the wedding. This was a time to come together as family for my grandmother, so we did.
I ended up being glad we went because I sat with my second cousin at the wedding and had wonderful conversation with her, this is where our connection began to bloom.
A downside to this wedding is that my relative getting married is my age and went to school with my brother and I. There were people from school at this wedding who neither my brother nor myself had interest in interacting with. I thought I might get through the entire wedding without issue when it was toward the end of the evening and I had not had to engage with anyone I did not want to. That is when it happened though.
Todd left our table for a moment and as soon as he left his chair someone else was occupying it. It was a man I went to grade school with. I knew him when I was five, I don’t think (to the very best of my recollection) that we ever had another class together after first grade. My point is I really do not know him and it has been 25+ years since I have seen him. When he sat down I was engaged in conversation with my second cousin so he started up a conversation with my brother who had been sitting on the other side of Todd. My brother was in school with this person’s sister so although he did not really know this man there was a very flimsy connection to his family.
As my conversation with my second cousin came to a close I knew I was not going to be able to avoid speaking with this person, it seemed as though he was waiting to speak with me. For the life of me I could not figure out why, what do we have to talk about? I turned in his direction and he started asking how I was and about my life, I answered his questions and responded with similar niceties, asking very topical questions about his life. The conversation was relatively brief, there really was not much to say. When dead air took over the conversation rather than making his departure, which would have been appropriate, he made a tasteless comment and caught me off guard.
To give further context to this interaction, I was not dreading speaking with him simply because I felt we had nothing to talk about, although yes that was part of it. The other part is that he had been over the top obnoxious from the moment the wedding started. He is apparently extroverted and very attention seeking. His behavior, in my opinion, had been garish while sober but as the night went on and he continued drinking it crossed over into disruptive and inappropriate.
So while my initial reluctance to engage with him came from wanting to avoid a superficial conversation, his drunken state heightened my feelings of discomfort with his presence and his insistence to “catch up”.
I was grateful my brother was sitting on the other side of him because when the man took the conversation from, in my eyes, unnecessary to incredibly inappropriate I was at a loss. Up to that point I had been polite but for me polite stops when you make me uncomfortable.
I was caught between saying exactly what needed to be said in this moment and concern for the repercussions. Thankfully before I had the opportunity to finish processing what had just been said my brother stepped in.
As a rule I am not one who needs saving, I am perfectly capable of handling things on my own but I will say in this instance I was thankful for help. My brother was eloquent and dealt with the person appropriately.
This is certainly an extreme example of why I am typically unwilling to do small talk. I have been in similar situations without them resulting in the train wreck this interaction became. Generally speaking though small talk like this is painful, not train wreck painful usually, more like fender bender painful. It isn’t that I harbor any feelings of disdain for those who I am conducting small talk with, this is not an issue of ill-will usually. I have always had trouble explaining what it is about small talk that I dislike so much because it has less to do with people and more to do with the actual act, then I found this quote and I really identified with it.
Yeah, it’s like that.
I am happy to sit in silence. I do not feel the need to fill a silent void with chatter, I actually prefer not to in some cases. The silence is where I get my energy. I guess I like to be selective of who I share my energy with because some people and some interactions help build my energy and then certain people and interactions can steal it right away from me. I do my best to be polite when engaged in small talk, but if I have a choice between small talk with someone and a sharp left turn to avoid it I am going to make that sharp left turn.