It was very amusing for me to read people’s reactions to my post about talking to strangers at bars because the truth is that I am not good at being chatty. JG had to teach me.
I grew up without much small talk. My parents were raised in New York City, and I learned from osmosis not to make eye contact to passersby. I hardly said anything to cashiers or bank tellers other than the bare minimum of greeting and goodbye. Our house was in the middle of the woods, so I never waved to anyone walking by, like in a neighborhood. We all just carried on in our own business. No need to chat. We have things to do. Leave me alone.
Then I went to college and became a freshman mentor for sophomore and junior year. My job was to draw out quiet people, connect students to each other, identify events for group attendance, and create my own programming. At the beginning of the school year, my goal was to be able to say the name, hometown, and major for every kid on my floor within the first week, and I could always do it. Ever since, I’ve been really good at getting to know people in a contained context. If I’m at a friend’s open-house birthday party, I can do small talk like no other. How do you know So-and-So? Do you live around the area? What do you do? How about that sports team? Isn’t this weather beautiful/awful? Have you tried the cheese? I don’t mind this type of chatting because I already know that the other person has some connection to me, ie, knowing our mutual friend. If I know that I’m going to see this person in the future, I log away the vital details: So-and-So’s co-worker. Born and raised local. Phillies fan. Hates being cold. Lactose intolerant. The next time, I have even more information to build on, and the cycle continues happily.
Despite this learned behavior, I continued to shake off eye contact and make my interactions as brief as possible out in the wild. I had things to do. Leave me alone.
But I was also married to JG, and he grew up with lots of small talk — essentially the polar opposite to what my attitude was. For example, when we were on vacation in Denver, we stopped to get gas. It was one of those places where you had to go inside to pay with a credit card, and I stayed in the car and waited. And waited. What was going on in there? How long does it take to swipe a card and get out of there? Finally, JG returned to the car with a long story about how he got along great with the cashier. Apparently, they had an in-depth discussion on the differences between liquor laws in Colorado and Pennsylvania. That cashier was a really nice guy!
Seriously?! I was dumbfounded. It never would have even occurred to me to strike up conversation like that, much less chat on and on. What was the point?
JG had no (adequate) response. There isn’t a point, really. It’s just nice to do.
Exactly, so, really, what’s the point? Just move on. Keep going. Leave me alone.
Not really. Years later, after solo work trips and life in a small town, I’ve learned to embrace the casual chat. The point, I’ve learned, is that I might have a really interesting chat with a really nice, interesting, smart person. The point is that I would miss out on it if I didn’t extend a little conversational offering to start. Sure, there’s a bit of a risk that the person is a dud or a creep or just weird, but I haven’t found that to be the case very often. From the top of my head, these conversations with random people have led to recommendations for books and restaurants, warnings about bad traffic, and spirited sports debate. My natural inclination is to hide away in a corner, and sometimes I am in a rush to get going, but when I’m feeling outgoing and I have time to spare, why not strike up conversation?