By Doni Joszef
I’ve never been good at small talk.
I sometimes manage to fake my way through a quirky little chitchat, but for the most part, my mingling skills are pretty pathetic. When I was younger I thought this was unique, as though everyone else knew how to naturally navigate the social maze, while I awkwardly fumbled my way through it. The art of chitchat comes less naturally to some than it does to others. Introverts (such as yours truly) just have to suck it up and play along, while extroverts (such as my wife) smoothly socialize without even thinking twice about what they should say or why they shouldn’t have said what they just did.
Small talk is an unavoidable fact of life.
It’s what fuels the majority of our daily social transactions.
It’s how we keep people close enough to maintain cordial bonds, but far enough to avoid the exposure of intimacy.
The funny thing about small talk is that it often follows familiar patterns.
As I mentioned in a previous article on family dynamics, people tend to play “games” which involve predictable roles that we chronically perpetuate to fulfill some psychological need. Family functions are not the only arenas where such games unfold. Dinner parties, wedding smorgasbords, charity events—the typical small-talk factories where people bounce off one another in an effort to get through the night without looking like idiots—are full of such games. Here I catalog some of the typical players, which may ring a bell. These roles are not mutually exclusive, gender-specific, black or white, all or nothing labels. They are simply cliché categories on a broader spectrum within which we all find ourselves at some point.
So, without further ado, let’s meet the cast of characters . . .
The Room Scanner. She has her eyes on everything and everyone—except the person with whom she actually speaks. She makes robotic deposits into the conversation, such as “uh-huh . . . right . . . yeah . . .” just to show that she’s still with you, though her eyes tell a very different story. You may feel invisible, as though she pressed the mute button from the moment this pointless little chat began. Her mind is clearly everywhere but here, which makes the conversation relatively deflating and painfully superficial.
The Talk & Texter. He’s similar to the Room Scanner in that they each check out of the conversation psychologically while remaining present physically. The only difference is the destination to which they escape; the Room Scanner escapes to survey her surroundings, while the Talk-&-Texter escapes to survey his iPhone. To avoid seeming rude, he continually assures you that the incoming messages are “urgent” and that he’ll “only be a second.” His apologies and explanations are as autonomic as his e-mail alerts; you silently wait for him to return to reality or sometimes you may even seek refuge in your phone, as well, so as to level the playing field with an unspoken “see, I have important stuff to check too!”
The Mutual Facebook Stalkers. You stalk each other on Instagram, you shamelessly friend each other on Facebook, and yet, in real life, you pretend she’s a complete stranger. Sometimes you’ll acknowledge one another with an awkward smile, but it’s usually a game of chicken to see if and how this relationship ever gets an upgrade from the virtual to the actual. Nine times out of ten, we pretend we don’t know each other, even though we know more about each other than we’re proud to admit. Stalking is safer than talking, and these relationships tend to be maintained by the former more than the latter. See you on Instagram.
The One-Word Responder. Talking to him can feel like pulling teeth. His answers come in one syllable. His tone is flat. His facial expressions are blank. He doesn’t seem to notice how little effort he puts into conversations, and if he does, it doesn’t seem to bother him. He resembles a walking vegetable; be prepared to carry most of the conversational weight, and don’t expect a very stimulating discussion. If you can squeeze half a sentence out of him, consider yourself talented.
The Overfriendly Sentimentalist. Either you underestimated the extent of this friendship or she’s totally overestimating it, but this conversation is lasting far longer than you anticipated. As far as you were concerned, a simple smile/head-nod combo would’ve been sufficient; but here you are, talking, and talking, and talking, like she’s your new best friend. Next thing you know, she’s inviting you for lunch and tagging you in Facebook posts. You’re scared to tell her that the feelings are not entirely mutual, so you just play along and avoid her whenever possible.
The Awkward Over-Thinker. I’ll cover this character in the first person because I play his role on a constant basis. I think too much, and so my ability to conduct normal, fluent, cool, and casual small talk is severely hampered by my inability to quiet the mental chatter racing through my mind. Talking with me may feel uncomfortable because I’m trying too hard to avoid that very discomfort. You probably want to say something like, “relax, calm down, this isn’t an FBI interrogation, we’re just here to talk about nothing because that’s what people do at these things.” But this tends to only make things worse. I know I’m thinking too much. I know it’s awkward. I don’t enjoy it either. So let’s just pretend that nobody notices and continue talking about sushi. Thank you very much.
The Predictable Pick-Up-Where-We-Left-Off Topic Clinger. You know what she’s gonna talk about before the talking even begins. It’s the only thing you have in common, so it’s the only thing she ever brings up in conversation. You want to inform her that it may be time to select another topic from the menu of discussable items, but instead you anticipate the predictability of the conversation you’re about to have, and pretend it’s been on your mind ever since you saw her last. She’s about to do the same. Surprise, surprise.
The Sweet-Talking Charmer. He’s a natural salesman. He’s not necessarily the deepest chap, but he knows how to say the right words at the right time, and he doesn’t even seem to be trying very hard to make it happen. It’s as though he was born to socialize; he totally owns this setting—he was made for smorgasbord schmoozing. People like me hate people like him, because he does so well what we do so miserably. That’s why we comfort ourselves by assuming he’s shallow.
The Self-Pitying Martyr. Be prepared to feel sorry for her; one of her kids is sick, or her maid just quit, or her mother-in-law is driving her crazy. Whatever it is, she’s stressing out about it, and you’re about to play Mr. or Mrs. Caretaker for the moment. She wants people to feel sorry for her, and sometimes people are kind enough to pretend they actually do. But her sob stories are so predictable that you eventually begin to wonder if she knows how to enjoy anything other than smell of her own stress.
The Name-Dropping One-Upper. You don’t stand a chance against this guy; he knows all the “big” names to drop, he’s invited to all the “big” events, and he’s been honored by all the “big” institutions. No matter what you talk about, the conversation will somehow find itself sprinkled with casual mentions of his awards, his achievements, his honorable accomplishments. Deep down he’s like a little boy playing a “my daddy is stronger than your daddy” type of game. But he’ll never know it. And he has all the trappings and trophies to cover it up. Be ready to applaud him and boost his ego. That’s all you’re really needed for, and that’s all he’s really interested in. Just play along.
The You-Gotta-Try Enthusiast. He reads a lot of “revolutionary” self-help books, he tries a lot of “revolutionary” diets, and he feels the need to share his enthusiasm with others who could care less. It’s not that he’s faking it; he’s genuinely excited about these new “life changing” discoveries. And if he didn’t find new “life changing” discoveries every other week, people may even take his excitement a tad more seriously. But he comes off as gullible, presumably because that’s what he is. You don’t want to burst his bubble by pointing this out, so whenever he whips out the “you gotta try . . .” routine, you simply nod your head, ask him to e-mail you the link, and mark that e-mail as “read” before you go to sleep. Tell him you loved it.
The Apologetic Excuse-Maker. She’s always making excuses for why she has to run or why she can’t talk longer. What you want to say is “no excuse necessary; do what you have to do, there’s no minimum requirement for the length of this conversation.” But she wants to assure you that you’re worth more to her than this shortened conversation may indicate, so as a gesture of reassurance, she conjures a clever excuse, like her husband is lost and heavily intoxicated, or something similarly urgent and plausible. Grant her permission to leave, and pretend you also have something important to do. Write a fake e-mail to yourself if you have to.
Too Much Information. You just met him, and you already know what combination of anti-depressants he takes and how many times a week his wife prefers to sleep on the couch. He describes himself as a very “honest” and “open” person, but these confessions feel more like emotional purges than normal bits of dialogue. There seems to be some kind of boundary confusion or filter malfunction; in his mind, boundaries and filters are signs of inauthentic phoniness. He may be right, but that’s what small talk is for. He has either been in therapy for too long, or not long enough. What you want to say is “T-M-I,” but instead you say “thank you for sharing.”
The Drama-Loving Dirt-Digger. She’s always well equipped with the latest gossip and the spiciest secrets. She dresses her obsession with a mask of concern, as though she feels truly sympathetic about the secrets she’s exposing. What she says: “It’s so sad, isn’t it?” What she means: “It’s so juicy, isn’t it?” You hate to admit it, but you secretly enjoy the contact high you get from her drama addiction. But you proceed with caution, because you know she’s as trustworthy as she is sincere, and you never know when the secrets she decides to expose will be your own.
The Got-You-Cornered Debater. Talking to him can feel like a cross-exam interrogation; he’ll correct your grammar, check your facts, and challenge your most innocent remarks. You want to remind him that this isn’t a chess game, but you submissively take his abuse like an obedient little child. By the end of the conversation you feel like a failed term-paper, brutally marked up with edits and corrections. His unspoken goal is to proclaim “checkmate!” and your unspoken goal is to respond “get a life!”
The “I Thought I Saw You” Bump-In. You saw each other from across the room, but quickly pretended like you didn’t. Then you saw each other across the hallway, but quickly pretended like you didn’t. Now you come face to face, and there’s no escape. You are forced to acknowledge each other’s presence and you do so joyously and invitingly so as to compensate for the previous lapses in cordiality, exclaiming: “I thought I saw you . . .” or “That looked like you, but I wasn’t sure . . .” You can run, but you can’t hide.
The Lopsided Couples’ Convo. This is the worst. Two wives start catching up on the last ten years, while their husbands are forced to awkwardly interact on the sidelines. By the time they actually think of something to talk about, the wives are finally wrapping up their walk down memory lane, only to notice how nicely their husbands are playing. What the husbands want to say is, “OK. The bell rang. We’re free to go now,” but they’ve already gotten themselves caught up in some nonsense discussion about a politician they know nothing about, and now they need to figure out a way to pull the plug before the wives restart reminiscing about color war 1994.
The “We Meet Again” Do-Over. You already went through the small talk game. You already went through the, “So, what are you up to . . .” script. You said your goodbyes. You covered your bases. And now here you are again. Bumping into each other exactly 13 minutes later at the salad bar. You smile and say something like, “twice in one night . . .” to which she says something like, “my lucky night . . .” You did your time. You exchanged your smiles. No need for an encore, nor is there really an interest in one. Serve yourself some salad, and avoid a future bump-in at all costs.
• • •
These are just some of the many characters we meet in the social jungle. They are simply prepackaged roles which many of us find ourselves playing—consciously or unconsciously—when we’ve already said “hello” and don’t really know what to do next. They provide us with a sense of security; they give us a script when we can’t come up with one on the spot. There’s nothing wrong with playing these games, so long as we can see them for what they are.
Let the games begin . . . v
Doni Joszef, LMSW, works in private practice and presents innovative workshops on a variety of psychosocial topics. He is pursuing a Ph.D. in media psychology. For more information, call 516-316-2247 or visit DoniJoszef.Com.