I went to a conference this weekend, I wanted to be on time. I checked the first thing on the agenda. It was networking. I felt a heavy weight in my stomach like I’d eaten a lead sandwich. I felt torn. Should I be late or would I be forced to hover around the coffee table in a state of silent, awkward panic? My usual techniques weren’t going to work. I would normally give myself a job and look busy. I have always naturally given myself a role at any event, even if the event had nothing to do with me.
I can talk if I have a purpose. I went as a guest to someone else’s works party and ended up behind the bar serving.
At this conference, I was just a delegate, I didn’t know anyone. The only reason I was attending was that someone had asked me directly and I didn’t want to appear rude. I was flattered to be asked, although I suspected he had asked everyone he’d ever met. My contact was the organizer, he would be off somewhere busy. Lucky guy. I offered help in my email, he kindly declined. I thought begging would seem too much. I arrived ten minutes late so I could blend in. I would rather just leap straight into the first event of the day than have to mingle with strangers. As I was led to the check-in desk, the tall man escorting me casually commented, “there is hardly anyone here yet.” Probably because they hate networking. I chose not to respond, I smiled, warmly instead. He walked away, leaving me stood alone, socially exposed, like a zebra cut off from its herd on an African plain. Luckily, I had a tool kit built up over the years of, “bad traffic isn’t it?” “Have you come far?” “Are we ever going to have a summer?” The conference gave me an added level of questions, like, “Who are you here with?” I love to listen and this allows me to get through these occasions. There are plenty of people who like to talk. I often let them, the downside being, I am not very good at getting away if they like talking too much.
Small talk is awkward because it is a minefield of social etiquette and rules, it has taken me years to master after making a mistake after mistake.
I talk too much or not enough, about the wrong subjects. I don’t know when it’s my turn to speak, and by the time it is, I have forgotten what I was about to say. At some level, I don't see the point of it, mainly because when I look in the eyes of other people, they don’t seem to be very committed to it either. I like knowledge and talking about deep subjects. I enjoy getting to know people and exploring life, the universe, and everything. I am honest and small talk isn’t honest.
A stranger asks me, “How are you?” I know they don’t really want to know, so I say, “I am fine,” and I am not, nobody who ever gives that response is. “Nice day,” I say, “I can’t believe it’s this warm in February,” I am then stumped because the words are meaningless. I will never see the waiter again. It is just such hard work. I need to get the intonation of my voice right, my facial expressions to fit my intention, while intently watching the person and thinking of the polite thing to say in the right circumstance, jumping in when necessary and not talking over anyone else.
Small talk is the worse type of talk, it is not small, it is the most work I do. I can see it is mostly fake or irrelevant, I do it for the comfort of those who expect it, and to fit it, not because I choose it as a recreational activity.
Another person joins the conversation, and I don't have the timing for more than one person to catch their eye, to time my response. I can’t hear what they’ve said over the loud music and electric fan whirring around, then I need to let other people pitch in their points. I find it awkward to know what sort of grouping to stand in, how close to someone, what to say to them, and have time to think to attribute the correct facial expressions. After all of this, I need to periodically check if they are bored. They don’t look bored. What if they are faking? How can you tell? “What do you think?” an intense young man asks. “Oh sounds great,” I blurt, smiling. I hadn’t heard a word. “It was a sad situation,” he clarified, “Oh,” I whisper, quickly exchanging my smile for a frown.
If you observe a group of children trying to engage in small talk, you will notice that they aren’t very good at it. Children talk about the oddest of subjects with no introduction to a change of topic, but they get better with practice. I have disadvantages to start with, and then don’t get as much practice for the type of communication that I have no natural skills for in the first place.
A man walks over to me at the coffee table and stands very close. I awkwardly step back a pace very slowly, like a old film rewinding. He speaks quickly at me. I instantly relax, I know how he feels. Watching his obvious nervousness, I regain my confidence in my ability to communicate. I listen, after ten minutes I want to run but I know to stay is kind. I realise that none of us really ever get it right. I always blame myself for every social mistake, wrongly. Conversations with a stranger are always, on some level, a bumbling affair, full of mismatched offers of ideas and understanding. I don’t have to blame myself every time for every social faux par.