I am tired of myself. I am tired of the petty complaints and banal half-jokes coming out of my mouth. I have become a person who is compelled to try to be “funny” with cashiers, even though I know I am not being funny and they don’t appreciate the effort. It’s getting worse with age, and I am mortified when I consider the trajectory.
I’ve become more and more frustrated with my inability to break the chains of acceptable social discourse and get to the heart of the matter. Any matter will do. In other words, I no longer have any talent for, or much patience with small talk. But the habit is ingrained. I keep doing it, and I need it to stop.
Oh, sure, sometimes it’s necessary to our survival. Sometimes we have to fill the air. Sometimes it’s better, safer, to talk about weather/traffic/shoes. When one works in theatre it’s essential to arm oneself with some light chatter, a protective shield to wear in lobbies. A theatre lobby on Opening Night is no place to start saying what you think. But all the time? All the time?
If I see you at the grocery store and ask “what’s new?” you will then have to spend the next couple of minutes of your only life and mine rooting around for something to talk about that might be new. New, but not too revealing. Not offensive. It should be fairly upbeat because nobody likes to be a downer even when you feel like one, and you want to sound like an interesting person maybe, or at least not someone scary. It’s hard to keep coming up with that stuff! Everything that happens to us is stored somewhere in our brains. I, for one, am full. I have no more room for this accretion of small, ultimately meaningless facts and prattle. I am sorry to have generated so much of it myself. “Not much, you?” “The kids are fine.” “Nice day.” “I like your shoes.”
FOR FUCK’S SAKE! WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME! If this is to be our last moment together on Planet Earth, do you really want to spend it griping about how tough it is to find a parking spot in downtown Winnipeg when there’s a Jets game on? Describe to me the state of your soul, paint me your dark heart or your wildest joy and offer to me, like magic elixir in a shining silver cup, a tiny drop of the goddamn truth or I am leaving.
Honestly now: if someone walked up to you and said “I never told you before, but I was in love with you in high school,” wouldn’t that be better than saying “wow it’s cold?”
That really happened to my mother once, not long after my Dad died. She was sixty years old and one day she bumped into the minister who had officiated when she married Dad. He took her out for coffee and told her that he had hardly been able to perform the ceremony because he was so in love with her. I’m sure there was a little small talk leading up to it but the point is, he got to the point. She didn’t pursue a relationship with him but he gave her, if nothing else, one of the most memorable conversations of her life. Just when she might have been thinking her life was over, someone told her it wasn’t, that there once had been other possibilities and there would be again. Wouldn’t you rather be that guy?
At a Christmas party last year I saw a man I have known for quite some time, without actually knowing him at all. I asked him “how’s it going?” (Admittedly not a strong opener from someone who isn’t looking for vacant pleasantries, but I’m only human.) In response to my stupid question, here is what he said, sitting amid the tinsel and the boozy revelers: “Not very well. Pretty down actually. I’m really depressed.” God bless us everyone. He could have said “good, you?” and I am so glad he didn’t. I stammered uselessly in reply but later recovered and emailed him. He and I went out for dinner. I still don’t know him terribly well, but at least I know the name of his elephant and I know that he is brave.
I was having a beer with another person I didn’t know well. We weren’t very far into the conversation when she said “I don’t care about food.” I upgraded her from acquaintance to friend on the spot.
Now. In case any gastronomes out there are about to burst into tears, I want to say this: I like food. Food’s great. I think it’s important to be mindful about where our food comes from and how it is produced and prepared. But to be honest, I am just not that into it. Foodism is so nearly a religion now that I’m scared to admit I don’t know which end of a smoked salmon you’re supposed to light. I don’t know how you can tell if the olive oil’s a virgin. It seems rude to ask. I have nothing to contribute to a coriander debate. Does it taste like the underside of a lawnmower or not? I respect and admire and envy talented cooks, but I am not built that way. There are other things I want to be good at. Also, I am lazy. Go ahead and arrest me for heresy. I’m sorry, epicures, but I’m through pretending.
I don’t know about you, but I think I’d like it if, before I die, a couple of people on earth got to know me a little bit. I actually ache for that. I ache for it while being terrified by the prospect. So I think we should give it up. The small talk. Try to go without, just for a day. Like a cleanse. I’m starting a movement.
I googled “National No Small Talk Day,” in case someone else has already come up with this. You know what came up? Instruction manuals: “How to Make Small Talk with Strangers.” If you are reading this, and you are a person who needs a manual in order to make small talk, I would love to talk sometime.
(Incidentally, there are many, many wonderful National Days that have been declared. National Tartan Day, National Pie Day, National Sweater Day, National Glazed Spiral Ham Day. That last one is an American one. Things sometimes do have a way of getting out of hand down there in the States. There. I said it.)
Dropping the chit-chat could cause a lot of trouble, I know. We won’t do it every day. Just imagine! Things would grind completely to a halt. After about two weeks we’d all be living in the desert, making snake soup (sorry, bisque) in a tin can and reminiscing about what it was like before the apocalypse. But I think if we all take a day off from what a friend of mine calls “blorting crud-blab,” it might be refreshing.
You don’t have to say everything you’re thinking. In fact, let me make it clear that this is NOT what I’m suggesting. It’s not National Brutal Unsparing Honesty Day. If you don’t like your friend’s new haircut, you can talk about something else. And it’s not National Day of Potentially Dangerous Confessions. You don’t have to tell your deep dark secrets if you don’t want to. You just have to talk about something meaningful. Say something that matters, or ask a real question. Or you could say nothing at all.
Are you with me? Let’s do it! Friday, October 28, 2016 is hereby declared, by no authority whatsoever, to be National No Small Talk Day. Or hell, why not International? It’s already in my phone. We’re having it on a Friday because Opening Nights are usually on Thursdays. If you work at an office and it goes badly for you, you have a couple of days’ buffer zone before facing the break room again. We’re having it around Hallowe’en because it’s ooooh, scary. We could even have a No Small Talk Cocktail Party. What would that be like? It might not go smoothly. There might be lulls. We might survive.
Spread the word. This website has upwards of than seventeen (17) followers, which is mighty impressive, I will grant you. But if we’re going to have an actual movement here we may have to cast our net a little wider. Think of someone you know, or would like to know, and tell them about it. Share the link! Make a poster! The t-shirts could read: “Say the wrong thing, but say SOMETHING.”
I am not on Facebook, so I don’t know if you should give up small talk on Facebook or not. You decide. And then don’t tell me what you have decided, because I don’t give even the tiniest rat’s ass about Facebook. I don’t know what the Facebook equivalent of small talk is, but I think it involves cats.
It’s always a good idea to practice a new skill. Maybe you could leave a comment, telling me one of the things you’ll say to someone on National No Small Talk Day. Here are some things I might try:
- Hello, welcome to my party. Please describe to me the state of your soul. Start at the beginning. Talk slow.
- I am terrified of the future, and appalled by the past.
- Can people change?
- Happiness is a worthless goal. Discuss.
- I have always been secretly in love with you.
I feel better already. Love your shoes, by the way. Please, try some of this dip. It’s free range. And these ice cubes? They’re artisanal.
©2016 Ellen Peterson. Drawings by Griffin Peters.
See also The Bug Circus page for a review of our recent production of The Wizard of Oz.
(By the way, if you would like to become a follower of this website, it is slightly more complicated than I think it should be, but it can be done, and nothing bad happens. Go to the top right of the home page. Look for three dots, like an ellipsis, you know: … Click that. The Follow button is at the bottom of that page.)