It’s called “small” talk for a reason

Small (adjective): Inferior; Inadequate; Insufficient

We’ve all been there; bumping into an acquaintance in the high street, being served by an overly-intrusive cashier, running into a colleague in the work kitchen. All those situations where you are not close enough to the person to engage in a conversation of real depth yet are still socially expected to participate in polite conversation. Simple, polite, excruciating conversation, as far as I’m concerned. Because it has no real depth; because it is superficial and mundane and repetitive.

I do not have enough fingers to count the number of times I am met with “so, how was your weekend?” on a Monday morning. Nor the number of times I hear about the weather of late (“isn’t it cold, out”; “you’d never believe it was summer”; “cor, isn’t it getting dark out”) regardless of the season. Nor how many times I am asked the obligatory “how are you?” when faced with an unplanned encounter – they don’t care, they don’t want to know how you really are (and you don’t want them to know how you really are; that you unexpectedly cried into a tub of Ben & Jerry’s the night before whilst watching Masterchef and you’re not quite sure why but you’ve somehow lost sight of who you are amongst all of life’s disappointments) so you end up lying and perpetuating the meaningless, small-talk cycle with “fine, thanks – you?” Eugh, ghastly.

“Small talk” is my pet peeve. Okay, okay, I have (loads) others, but this is the one I am faced with on a daily basis at work and struggle with so often that I have had no other choice but to develop a process that aids me in avoiding such encounters. When I am sat at my desk and am considering getting a coffee or picking up my lunch from the kitchen, I first assess the environment – like a predator surveying its prey, I pop my head up from above my computer or (when my vision is blocked) get up and circle the area in question to determine who I am likely to run into and whether or not it is worth the risk. If I have established it is safe to enter (i.e. FREE OF HUMANS) and have made the decision to advance, I dash with all the gusto and motivation that has previously been sucked out of me through doing my job and gallop towards the kitchen. Once in there, I execute the task at hand with well-practiced speed and ease whilst continuing to keep both an eye and an ear out for any approaching prey. It’s slick – I am skilled at this – yet sometimes you are caught out by the light-footed whom you have not detected approaching. It takes all the energy I can muster to ensure the inevitable groan that follows remains in my head.

This internal groan has become all-too-familiar for me in social situations such as the above, with the most painful being when I am about to be served by the cashier in a supermarket. It is bad enough when “the human at the checkout” in Superdrug wants to converse when all I am trying to do is buy a measly eyeliner, but at least it will be a short transaction and I feel comfort in the knowledge that the agony will soon be over. But in a supermarket you usually have a full shop and if you have managed to find an empty till – which, at the beginning, may appear to be a bonus as you do not have to queue – you are not only faced with the inane conversation that will no doubt ensue when you are packing, you also have the added time of when you are loading the items onto the conveyor belt beforehand. Engaging in small talk at this early stage is excruciating; to avoid it, refuse to make eye contact. Focus your attention solely on the items as they pass from your trolley onto the conveyor belt, even if you end up looking as though you are obsessed with your food (who isn’t?!) Unfortunately, however, if you survive this hurdle you will most certainly be unable to avoid the cashier forcing you to engage with them with you once you reach the other end of the till to pack your items. The various attempts are either humdrum and tedious (“Isn’t it cold outside?!” – “I wouldn’t know, I’m stuck in here talking to you”) embarrassing for them (“Oooo I love this salmon pie” – “I don’t; it tastes like shit”) or humiliating for you (“Party tonight?” – “No, this is all for me to gorge on later”). Cashiers around the world, I ask of you – no, I beg of you – to stop. I just want to buy my shopping (she whines, like a temper-tantrum toddler).

Having moved away from my home town to live in London a year ago, I am fortunate enough to not accidentally bump into acquaintances very often these days (not the reason I moved away, but certainly a justifiable reason for doing so) and, being far enough away from where I also work, most of the people I come into contact with are strangers. Therefore the only conversation we ever engage in is when I sarcastically retort “you’re welcome” when they have forgotten to thank me after I held the door open/moved out of the way for them (another pet peeve you will no doubt have the pleasure of reading about at a later date). However when I do happen to run into someone I sort-of-know-but-not-really or once-knew-and-want-to-cut-out-my-life I either a) pretend I haven’t seen them by staring intently at my phone or averting my gaze to the sky, b) act as though I haven’t recognised them, look through them and continue walking, c) run, or d) say a quick hello, followed immediately with sorry-gottadash-bye. The whole thing is exhausting.

I sound like a miserable, anti-social cow. I’m not (ish); I actually really enjoy spending time with a group of people, a close friend, or dear family, having often been described as a “chatterbox” (cringe) or “bubbly” (double cringe).  It’s just this; the older I get the more I value time spent with those with whom I have a relationship of real depth and substance, where we can both be open and honest and real – about who we are, what we think and what we feel. To then engage in mundane ‘chit chat’ with people I don’t know or, quite frankly, do not care that much about just feels pointless, empty and unfulfilling. Why would anyone want that?

Yet we are so British and we are so polite (something I absolutely advocate and encourage when it comes to common courtesy and manners, but not when it is socially-enforced conversation which feels uncomfortable, embarrassing and awkward) that we enter into small talk almost out of habit. The thing is, in our fast-paced, technology-driven Western society we are always on the go and allow ourselves very little free time outside of our jobs, hobbies and families – time to ourselves – to step back, absorb and just be. Filling this rare time with small talk purely because it is what we are expected, or conditioned, to do is ridiculously unappealing to me.

Anyway, that’s enough about me. How are you; did you have a good weekend?

LS.

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