As an introvert, I do not trust small talk. It is not something I engage in willingly, not something that comes naturally, not something that I value. And yet, as a person in the world, I am often confronted with the need for small talk, no matter how studiously I try to avoid it. Somewhere along the line, I decided to accept myself as I am, and that meant that I was not a small talker, and that was ok by me. Unfortunately, reality can be a nag, and I still found myself feeling awkwardly silent from time to time. Oh, I tried to busy myself with a magazine or book at the break in a meeting, or I diligently re-read the handouts while others chatted. I was not comfortable, though, and that made me wonder if perhaps my strategy was not the right one.
Things came to a bit of a watershed when we got a dog. Living in a rather urban area, part of dog owning is visiting dog parks. At first I was fascinated by this sub-culture of dog park going dog owners of which I had been until now, unaware. There were many unwritten rules and social cues for both dogs and owners. I liked to think of myself then as an objective observer, a kind of anthropologist. I noticed that the dogs were much more able to negotiate the complex hierarchy of the pack than were the owners. Some humans pretended to be unaware that there was any kind of pecking order at all- they were the equivalent of the gamma girls, like in War Games, they knew the only way to win is not to play at all. The others, though, the others were in a pitched battle for dominance at the dog park. Really, at first it was a hoot to watch them jockey for position: greeting new dogs, “And who is this?”, dispensing advice, and gossiping about the other regulars behind their backs. But then one day, WE were regulars, and that gamma girl act wasn’t cutting it anymore. We were going to have choose sides in the feuds, and step up to our rung on the dog park social ladder.
This is where the small talk comes in. In the dog park world, it takes a long time before you have to reveal your personality-- before that you’re just “Isabel’s mom,” and people greet your dog, not you. It took a while, but the day finally came when one of the other regulars introduced herself, by name, and just like that, no longer was it acceptable to drift into the park with our puppy and watch the fireworks; now we were recognizable, and we had to decide who to talk to, where to stand, how to greet other people. I began to dread going to the park. My days as an anonymous researcher planning my treatise on these people were over; now, I was expected to join them.
I expressed my loathing to go to the dog park one afternoon to the 13-year-old girl I mentored after school. She wanted a ride home, but a quick look at my watch showed that I was overdue at the dog park. I told her so morosely. “What’s wrong with the dog park?” she asked. “It sounds fun.”
“I hate it!” I exclaimed, with uncharacteristic zeal.
“Why?” she asked, somewhat taken aback by this show of emotion, and somewhat intrigued by the weakness she sensed.
“Because you have to make conversation with strangers! I don’t like that.”
Here was a child who came to me weekly and shared her successes, but more often, her failures. I was always patient and full of advice for her. I knew that if only she listened to the wisdom I generously dispensed, she would surely be on the path to a better academic career. She looked at me with what I recognized as the look I so often gave her.
“You can do that!” she encouraged me. “It’s easy.” She knew the shoe was on the other foot, but I was still putting on my socks.
“I can, but I don’t WANT to.”
“Start like this,” she said patiently. “So, what do you do for a living?”
I laughed. “That’s pretty good advice.”
“Then say, ‘What kind of music do you listen to?’ They’ll say country, or hip-hop, or rap. You say, ‘Who’s your favorite singer?’”
I laughed again. It was funny to hear those words coming from her. It was also a sound strategy, but I knew I’d never do it. “Thanks, Raynia,” I told her. “Lets get going.”
That afternoon, I spent a silent 45 minutes at the dog park.