I want to share something haunting me. You might find it funny, perplexing, but it dogs me. I can’t do chit-chat. I can’t make small talk. I only seem to do big talk which can clear the room or cause a glazed expression in thirty seconds.
I’m an introvert for sure, and that means my inner world is my preference. But hey, I also live in the outer world, ineptly. I’m awkward at parties, ill at ease with smiling, nodding, winking and saying sentences with no meaning or significance to me.
I know what this small talk is about, it says ‘I’m friendly.’ ‘Are you friendly?’ But I can’t do it. When I’m in the middle of a social gathering I have the sensation that I’m surrounded by talking robots, nodding, eating, drinking, laughing.
How do I fit in? What can I say? Who would want to listen to me? I often eavesdrop in order to make more sense of people’s words and worlds. Hello! Good to see you. Are you still at the bank? What are you driving now? Going anywhere nice this summer?
One thing that amuses me is how frequently these apparently polite questions are mere portals so that you have to hear an endless stream about their lives, their jobs and friends, and I have been trapped many times with five hundred photographs on an Ipad of ‘our last holiday in Majorca, we found a private beach and…’ I can finish their sentence ‘…took photographs all day.’
I’m not English by birth so this habit of parties with quizzes is worse than jumping in nettles to me. It is an exquisite agony of the first degree. I wonder could I use Google as I’m not British? Why not use Google anyway? It would make things so much easier. And we could all go home.
The questions are so remote to me, the queen who had no living children, the year Henry VIII killed his 5th wife, the British ships lost in the battle of Trafalgar, the date when the Boer War ended.
I try to be open-minded and picture similar questions about German History. It wouldn’t happen, the open sore that was Hitler took away that playfulness with historical dates that is evident to me every time when I’m faced with a quiz.
A friend tells me to relax and not care, laugh terrors away, reminding me how much geographical knowledge I have and how useful I was in the quiz for Palestine. I was a bit cross though, with people not knowing about countries bordering the Baltic. Being cross was the only excitement I got, as if I needed any.
I feel surplus when I don’t know the answers. I can’t join in. My only resource at times like this lives in my head. It’s the voice of Sherlock Holmes, the old one from the B&W films, Basil Rathbone. Basil often points out the error of my ways.
I do feel like lobbing verbal hand grenades at parties and… Basil stops me. Look here old chap, he says, let’s start at the beginning. First we have to find an enemy before we can blow them up.
In all my years as a detective, he continues, I’ve never once investigated a suspicious death at a Christmas quiz, a garrotting round the dinner table or a spontaneous combustion at a cocktail party, have you, old chap?
My emotions change back into friendly feelings. I wish I could say how I feel. What would happen if I said to my dinner companion, I’m all at sea with small talk round the table, it’s so hard for me to be enthusiastic about this starter. A hint of a nod, a distant smile, silence. We both look down at our brioche with something on it.
What if I made things clearer? You all seem to love lettuce, if you loved lettuce in Germany, it would be very strange, and if you hated lettuce it would be even stranger. What would you do with a human, if you already did it with lettuce? A lemony smile, radio silence.
Is it the words? Am I too precise? Would I like more form to these conversations, or are they not meant to be conversations? Is the Basil in my brain right when he says that everyone finds chit-chat hard or is he pulling my leg?
Is there a training course for people like me? One that doesn’t just make me survive talking about nothing to strangers but that has meaning for me. O these dratted words that I long to use with people, to engage, to have dialogue with.
I wonder why and when Sherlock got into my brain? Is it okay to have an imaginary friend when you’ve got grey hair? My Basil is real to me, because he balances what’s in my head with what’s out there. The one goes with the other, he tells me.
Basil is cynical sometimes about people’s motives in choosing words. He claims that words are mere plastic that can be moulded and changed with a little heat. Are social gatherings hot so word plastic melts, and this and that becomes another?
Basil says that much of what goes on in small talk is a waste of time. It strokes, it soothes, it calms, it warms, it numbs and so it steals our time, our precious time for autonomous thinking and authentic feeling. I couldn’t have said it better myself.
Here’s what you could do, says Basil. When you’re faced with your social dilemmas try to remember that you’re two things, unique and the same. You’re connected to everyone and everything around you. I tried to do what Basil suggested but failed.
Failure is a trick of the mind, says he, success and failure, introvert and extravert, inner world and outer world, they are opposites that can’t exist apart from each other, and therefore they aren’t actually opposites but variations of the same theme.
And, he emphasises, they are mere preferences, old chap. But if we view these apparent opposites as separate entities, rating one higher than the other, like success over failure, we are in trouble.
Every plant needs the light of day as much as the darkness of night to encourage its growth, so we humans need success and failure to test and prepare us for our next leap forward. In the same way both our inner world and our outer world need each other like day and night.
Basil smiles lighting up every cognitive nerve cell in my brain and in his fruitiest manner tells me that there is no such thing as being normal and fitting in, people can’t be different, only what they are, why they are, how they are, when they are, where they are in themselves at any one moment in their lives.
I listen carefully and catch myself laughing at Basil’s words. I wouldn’t put it past him to be having a good laugh at me himself. Okay, people may just be where they are, perhaps because of their mental constructs, polarised thinking, using their words in a competitive and divisive way, but come on, Basil, what am I to do with that, eh?
Sitting comfortably in a cosy corner somewhere in my brain, what do you know about a table with six people round it and me having to think of something to say? How can I speak their language and stay with them? Not just saying the words but to feel as if they link me to my neighbour?
Trouble is when I try to do small talk I get myself into a big rant very quickly. For example, I am asked about my drive to the party, then there’s a silence and that glazed look and I suspect I’ve told the story about my naughty speeding course for long enough.
Basil laughs in my ear. You have improved a bit, at least you no longer think ‘How are you?’ is a question about your health. You’ve come a long way since that nice man went green while you gave him the details about your ear infection when he asked ‘How are you?’
I’ve tried to imagine everyone feels the same as me. I’ve tried choosing my words carefully. Acting upon instructions from Basil, I know what topics to avoid, my feet, my hernia operation, my ears, my penchant for existentialism, my pet word angst.
What I can do freely is, well not really freely at all, just chatting about nothing feels like spreading butter on toast, my children, their jobs, their pets, grandchildren, holidays, home improvements.
But hey, if I talk like them all the time I will disappear from my own here and now. Basil isn’t a bit worried. Remember, says he, you’re unique and the same. So you said, but where exactly does that leave me?
In a nutshell, you’ve got a small-talk persona like everybody else, and that’s where you are the same. You’ve also got your own self, as unique as your own fingerprints, raring to climb the highest mountain.
My small-talk persona, well what can I say, I have always looked down on the poor thing, but as a link to the world out there, as a sort of go-between, we could come to a meaningful working arrangement, I suppose.
Apart from that, I have to admit, listening to your words got me pretty confused again, Basil. So with your permission, I’m posting them to the universe and wishing them a good reception.