Monday, February 04, 2008

Lesson 1: Small talk, the art of

Wherein I'm thinking about creating a seminar and taking my act on the road

Small talk is a conversational gambit practiced by insecure people afraid of silence. No problem, by following a few simple lessons you can avoid being pulled into this vortex of insecurity and maintain an impregnable zone of personal space.

Perhaps an experience of mine would make a good example. This is the type of occurrence that could happen walking down the hall with a coworker or with a complete stranger while waiting in line for coffee or movie tickets. First the small talk, then I'll break it down and explain all the options.
Other person: Did you watch the game last night?
Me: What game?
Other person: The Superbowl.
Me: No.

If I may compliment myself, not bad. I successfully avoided a protracted and meaningless conversation and expended all of three words. Using a few advanced techniques I could have made this even shorter, but that's another lesson. Let's isolate each line and discuss.

Did you watch the game yesterday?
Take particular note of this frequent tactic of the small talker. Assuming his interests are your interests, that his experiences are yours. He asks about "The Game" assuming there is no ambiguity about the question.

What game?
A number of options are available here and I chose the most risky. Asked a yes/no question I replied with my own open-ended question. This is the answer most likely to lead to a conversation. I escaped...this time. Other answers:
  • "Yes." (1) This, too, can lead to a conversation; but one built on confusion leading to anger. My inquisitor was speaking of the superbowl and I would have replied in the affirmative having watched Fulham & Aston Villa. What would have followed would have been a mess.
  • "Yes." (2) another option is to answer in the affirmative and just let the small talker talk. Since small talkers are more interested in listening to themselves than to anyone else, just let them go until you run out of time and leave them with a pleasantry.
  • "No." Short, to the point, and ends the encounter. Might seem a bit rude as it gives the small talker no further avenue. Said with a smile in a situation when you're not trapped with the person, this is effective.
  • "No, I was with my mother at the hospital. She's on her death bed." Best used on strangers, not coworkers. Tends to shut down the small talker and often has them apologizing for bothering you.

The Superbowl.
Luckily my open-ended query has stunned the small talker and kept him from his collection of cliched responses. The best he can do is a simple answer and we're still in binary mode. While risky, when properly unleashed, the open-ended question makes the small talker uneasy because you've demonstrated you won't conform to his expectations and any further contact will probably be needlessly complicated.

A no here comes as a relief to the small talker. With the expected exchange of banalities not forthcoming, it's the small talker who thinks he's escaped an annoying encounter. If stuck in line with this person, he'll suffer in silence rather than risk speaking to someone willing to change to a topic he knows nothing about.

In the end, the small talker is left confused and frustrated and the encounter is finished without delay. For the next lesson, we'll practice the "hmmm" and half-shrug.


Anonymous Leo said...

What did you do in elevators in January (or July) in Minnesota?

2/07/2008 09:39:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Except for when I worked on the 17th floor of the TCF building I took the stairs. But generally speaking and in no particular order:

1. smile and nod
2. stare straight ahead
3. pretend to read whatever papers you're carrying.
4. If not at work, wear headphones.
5. noncommittal grunt.
6. noncommittal shrug.
7. if forced to interact, these cover most occasions:
a. "yep, that was something"
b. "that's why they call it winter"
c. "that's why they call it summer"
d. "How 'bout them Twins."
e. "Yes, I know how to get to St. Paul."
f. "[floor number] please."
g. "Do I know you? Then why are you talking to me?"

True story: at a party, minding my own business, when someone asks me "Your not saying much." And I replied "That's why I married my wife, she talks enough for both of us."

2/07/2008 10:08:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Your shoud probably be you're.

2/07/2008 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

and shoud is definately should

2/07/2008 10:14:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Speaking of the TCF building and lawyers, once had to walk down all 17 flights of stairs because of a bomb scare. One of the lawyers in a lower floor had returned from speaking to a client at the Hennepin county jail and there was a clicking sound coming from her briefcase. Took 2 hours, an evaucated building, and the bomb squad with bomb sniffing dogs to determine she'd forgotten to turn off her dictaphone and the clicking was the end of the tape.

2/07/2008 10:15:00 AM  
Blogger bill said...

Though really, once you combine the Nordic stoicism with the Minnesota Nice, is there really that much in the way of elevator conversation?

2/07/2008 11:58:00 AM  

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