How (Not) to Make (Painfully Awkward) Small Talk

More reasons I should live out my life in a dark room and only communicate with other humans via the Internet.
Publish date:
April 24, 2012
introversion, I am totally hopeless at being normal, nerdery, small talk

My bag of dirt loves me unconditionally.

Early this morning, you might have found me staggering gracefully through the garden center at Home Depot, juggling three plants in one hand while balancing a 32-quart bag of potting mix on my shoulder with the other, because this time of year -- and with apologies to Erasmus -- when I have a little money, I buy garden supplies.

My slow approach to the sunny checkout counter was monitored by a little girl who seemed mesmerized by my outfit; I was wearing a dress with a full pleated skirt, and a petticoat underneath, strange attire for a garden center but I am not going to the trouble of putting on a loathed pair of pants exclusively for the purpose of buying dirt. The dirt doesn’t care if I’m in a dress, after all.

But the girl’s enraptured stare suggested she was envisioning some kind of princess costume she might have at home, and wondering if she could wear it, like, whenever. Even to go shovel-shopping with her mother.

I wanted to tell her, “When you’re a grown-up, you can wear big poofy skirts all the time, if you want!” But I didn’t, because I’ve learned the hard way that parents don’t always like it when you tell kids things like that. Or that someday, they’ll be able to eat cake for breakfast, if they want. And nobody will be able to stop them.

Distracted by these extremely adult revelations, I almost walked right into the store clerk, who was regarding me and my plant-juggling and my bag of dirt and my petticoats flying above my knees in the blustery wind with a single raised eyebrow, seriously, just the one, like a cartoon character.

I realized that odds were good I seemed positively dangerous wobbling around the store with a heavy bag of Moisture Control potting mix on my shoulder, like a fat seal on an out-of-control rolling ball, constantly under threat of tumbling over and maybe crushing someone.

I also realized I probably had dirt on my face.

“Gosh!” I said to the glaring clerk -- yes, I really did say gosh. “Today just can’t decide if it wants to be warm or cold!”

And LIKE MAGIC, she smiled pleasantly and agreed that if only the sun would stay out, it would be SUCH a nice day.

I have long considered myself to be the world’s worst person at small talk. I’m pretty sure that’s an exaggeration, but if I had a dollar for every time I’ve stood staring at another person with my face frozen in a terrified smile as I desperately tried to think of something pertinent to say, I could certainly buy a nice collection of bags to put over my head so I never had to make eye contact with anyone ever again.

For me, small talk is a chore I need to merely survive; I don’t expect to enjoy it, I don’t expect to glean anything interesting from it. I just need to get through it and have it be over. You can imagine what a pleasure I am as an elevator companion. But I USUALLY LIVE, which means I must be doing something right.

So today I’m laying bare my truly useless and awful small talk secrets, and you are all going to think I am so much worse of a person after having read this.

SECRET #1: The Weather

New Englanders, at least, really like to talk about the weather. This wasn’t something folks much talked about when I was growing up in Florida, probably because every single conversation would have gone: “Hey, it’s a beautiful day!” “Yes, but there might be thunderstorms later!” “Yes, but then it will be beautiful again!” I suppose people who grew up in places like southern California are similarly ill-equipped to have the kind of meticulously detailed weather-conversation that New Englanders -- and likely Midwesterners and others who suffer the extremes of which Earth weather is capable -- prefer to have.

However, you can ALWAYS bring up the weather in this part of the country and have people wanting to talk about it. If the weather is pretty, they want to talk about how it will inevitably get crappy again. If the weather is crappy, they want to debate the relative crap factor of this particular bout of weather, because they’ve seen weather that is WAY crappier than this, probably in 1977, and you’re going to hear all about it now. But that’s okay, because if they’re talking, then you’re not talking!

SECRET #2: Random Compliments

If I am truly desperate for something to say, I am not above making shit up. Usually this takes the form of a completely insincere compliment. If I say, “Hey, nice top!” then at least we can then discuss where the top came from, how long the wearer has had the top, whether they themselves like the top, and how the top serves them in this crappy/noncrappy weather we’re having.

Note: If I know you and have ever complimented your top, please know that it was totally sincere. I only insincerely compliment strangers, usually in elevators.


SECRET #3: Sports

I don’t know why I bother with this one because it always backfires. I either get the only other person in the whole of metro Boston who doesn’t follow baseball/football, or worse, they want to invite my opinions on various players and their relative capacities in throwing or catching or swinging or kicking various bits of sporting equipment.

I am also doomed by my inability to remember what sport is in season at any given time. I have cheerfully asked people for their opinions on the Patriots’ chances at the Super Bowl in, like, May. Weirdly, if I am lucky enough to ask this of more extreme fans they usually have a ready answer for me and don’t even think it’s strange of me to ask, as football fandom knows no off-season around here.

Nevertheless, I tend to keep, “Hey, how about those ball-throwing/catching guys playing that game really well/really poorly?” deep in reserve, as a last resort. Like for long cab rides.

SECRET #4: Politics

So now you’re going LESLEY ARE YOU MAD? Yes, yes I am, mad like a fox that is cornered in an elevator with a non-sports-following person who has run out of weather-based observations to make. See, everybody has opinions about politics, and most of the time they will volunteer them at length, which allows me to focus on the task of merely nodding and smiling, a job so simple that even when I am teetering on the edge of a small-talk breakdown I can manage to do it.

The trick is not to express any actual opinions of my own. I usually just ask the occasional pertinent question -- “So, how exactly is the president personally responsible for your kid’s bike getting stolen/climate change/the KFC Double Down/your bad luck fishing last weekend?” -- to keep the one-sided conversation going.

This may sound terribly inauthentic of me, but honestly, small talk is just about the most inauthentic thing I can think of; it’s a social obligation we participate in as a means keeping our interactions civilized. Otherwise we’d spend all our time staring blankly at one another. So as much as I loathe small talk, I understand its purpose, and I do try to participate, even when my efforts result in spectacular failure.

And the sad truth is, the vast majority of polite company doesn’t want to hear about the weird stuff that interests me, like the finer points of video game plotlines, or how to make pickled fennel, or where to buy big poofy petticoats in fun colors for wearing to Home Depot (although if you do, come find me, we will talk ALL about it).

So I stick to the weather, and for a moment, I can seem like a normal social person and not like a giant gravitational mass of awkwardness temporarily shaped into human form. I just want to buy my bag of dirt without feeling like a weirdo, you know?