On Understanding Small Talk

When I began working full-time with real people in a real office, one of the most difficult things for me to adjust to was small talk. In my prior life, I was a stay at home mom but worked part time as a real estate assistant. I worked from home, mostly, only coming in contact with other humans when absolutely necessary. All of that changed when I was hired for my current job. I was not only coming into contact with people, but lots and lots of people. Customers as well as my coworkers. It was like living with a new family 8 hours of the day. Living with STRANGERSno less! I was really naive about it, too. I thought, “Okay, all of these great people are here making a living, doing their best every day, and getting along so well! I am so lucky!” And I am lucky. And these people are great. But there is a culture in every workplace that I was not prepared for. There are also professional adults in the real world, and I was not prepared for professionalism or adults. So after trying to make friends with everyone, it took months to learn that it is not smart or necessary to do that. I began to understand the terrible importance of small talk.

It really bothered me. I had been off my medication (every. single. pill.) for nearly 6 months at the time, and the adjustment of a new environment nearly drove me crazy. I wanted to form a relationship with each and every one of these people. I wanted to be on everyone’s good side. Instead it just made things terribly confusing. I didn’t understand when people made snarky comments or shot down my ideas for change. I quickly realized that I would have to conform to the culture I found myself in. When I hit a hard breaking point and decided to get back on my meds, things slowly started getting better. I learned to shut my mouth when I wanted to talk about my personal life. I learned when it was okay to be silly and when to relax. I learned who I could confide in and who I couldn’t. But mostly I learned to be quiet. I have to remind myself every morning that I need to choose my words very carefully, or all hell could break loose. It is so much easier to be quiet and avoid small talk altogether.

There is a security officer, Albert, who comes into the office sometimes and he is super nice. He is also super chatty. Most of the time I just smile and nod, you know… laugh at his jokes because he’s funny. But I always find it horribly awkward. I know small talk is inevitable when he comes in.

Yesterday he walked in and asked what I was doing this weekend.

“Is he about to ask me out on a date?” Brain asked.

“Shut up. We are both married and he is twice my age,” I retorted.

“But why would he ask what your plans are? What’s his point?” Brain challenged, running around in circles.

“I dunno, Brain, maybe there is something going on in the community that I may want to attend. Like a circus for the kids, or a concert,” I reasoned.

I turned my attention to Albert as I attempted to think of my plans. “Oh, I don’t know… going to a birthday party. Maybe clean up the yard a bit.” He nodded. “Cool,” he said. Knowing I should return the awkward favor, I asked him what his plans were. I knew he was itching to tell me. I smiled and nodded, you know, as he explained that he would be hunting and going mudding. I feigned interest. I laughed at a couple of jokes because he’s funny. And that was that. It was a difficult conversation, but I gave Brain a silent round of applause for allowing me to get through it without a uttering a single stupid word.

Brain was put in time-out earlier this week, however.

A customer walked in and asked me to print off a few documents for him. I complied and began searching for what he needed from our system. As I was focusing on the task at hand, I saw him smile and look at my ring. He asked how the new year was treating me so far and if I was going to get married. I told him I was married in November, and he congratulated me. But things began taking a turn for the worse when he started pressing. He asked a lot of questions, like how long I’ve been working here and if I just got out of high school and if I get employment benefits. He told me he has been married for 28 years. I said, “Wow. That’s really close to 30 years.” Then Brain got excited and began spitting words out of my mouth. “I have two kids and was married before,” Brain told the strange man, trying to convince him I wasn’t as young as I look. I am a mature woman for God’s sake. The man’s eyes lit up. “Oh, really?” He asked. “Yes! I didn’t end it though, the marriage. It was his fault because he left. I would have stayed forever,” I blurted.

“BRAIN!!!!!!!!!! WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING? STOP TALKING!” I silently shouted.

“What?? He’s obviously super interested in our life at this point,” Brain replied.

But all of a sudden the man was visibly disinterested. “Oh, okay,” he said. I quickly got up and went around the corner to the printer to retrieve his papers, whispering, “Shut up, shut up, shut up, shut up,” to myself until I sat back down and a coworker came to my rescue with the rest of the man’s requested paperwork.

The conversation played over and over in my head until… well… it’s still happening. It will happen until I die.

Until next time,

I.W.

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One thought on “On Understanding Small Talk

  1. Small talk is the worst and it’s always (for me, it seems) full of unfinished sentences or paragraphs or seconds of silence that should have been filled but instead just end. Small talk is like watching a bunch of small fish flopping around on the bank of a river, gasping for water, drowning in the air. – S.L.

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