You know how some people, when in a socially awkward situation, like by the coffee machine at work, or in a party where they know no one, opt to start a conversation about the safest subject they can think of? Even if they deep down think it’s boring? “The weather wasn’t so good today, I guess summer is over (Yawn)” or “Did you find the house easily? Yes, that turn after the exit is a bit tricky (Yawn)”. I’m referring to the art of small talk.
People usually go for those subjects, as they don’t know the other person, they don’t know what they like, or if they would like the same things as themselves. The benefit of having a pain free social interaction, seems to be bigger than the cost of boredom and inauthenticity, in the eyes of the person initializing small talk. Understandable as this is, I dare say there’s a bigger loss in such choices than just a boring conversation. The loss of an opportunity to make a new friend.
I personally think I’m socially challenged and suck at small talk, so I usually avoid it, like vampires avoid garlic. If I’m intrigued, I’ll speak, if not I’ll smile and nod silently. A couple of weeks back however, I was at a party and introduced to a girl that the host thought had a lot in common to me. “All right”, I thought. “Here’s my chance, to practise everything I know about talking to someone you don’t know”. And I tried.
We started talking about where we live, what we do etc. I could see she was equally uninterested in the conversation as I was, yet we both kept it going, jumping from one expected question to the other, repeating each others’ sentences slightly paraphrased, like well trained parrots. The conversation ended about an hour later, when finally she said “I need to go to the toilet”. I was proud of myself, because this was the longest small talk I’d ever had and at the same time relieved, as I had almost exhausted my cliché conversational ammunition.
In that party, I wasted an hour of my life in the most uncomfortable way possible – ok no, standing in line in a Greek post office or tax office might actually be worse – and I’d managed to keep talking, without actually saying anything. I still didn’t know about her, much more than what the host told me, when we were introduced. Neither did she.
Big deal you’ll say and I agree. We meet many people all the time; we don’t always hit it off. But the thing here, is that by choosing not to be myself, I didn’t even really try. If I had just cut to the chase from the start, – whatever I define as chase at least- I would have at least entertained myself. Moreover, she could have either liked it or disliked it, making it easier to connect or simply find someone else to talk with.
Being afraid to be authentic, cost me the chance of making a new friend. Either her or someone else. I did earn though, one of those “friends” you meet at parties and as soon as you’ve said “Hi, how are you?” one of the two retreats, to “Have a smoke”, “Go to the toilet”, “Have a drink”, “Get some cake”. Do you think it was worth it? I think, I’ll stick to my socially challenged behaviour.