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Small Talk

Many people have something they dread about parties and gatherings, especially ones where a lot of the people are strangers. Some people worry about what they have to wear or how their hair looks. Some are introverts who worry how long it will take them to feel exhausted. I have a different problem – wondering how I’ll keep my mouth shut. It’s not because I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid because I know that’ll happen. What I hope I can avoid is betraying my social class and revealing myself to be a potentially dangerous outsider.

I realize that this sounds extreme, and I do like to exaggerate for effect. But you probably haven’t seen some of the looks I get when a conversation with a stranger runs through the delicate art of Small Talk. In Minnesota, this is a conversation that often involves a plate of food in one hand and a beer in the other (wine if Minneapolis). When you find yourself in the same general space as a stranger, either by accident or because you’re trying to make a business connection, you talk about:

The weather
The Vikings, or
Something involving the outdoors.

That’s at least the traditional read on the situation, and conversations like this I can handle – despite the fact that I don’t give a rip about the Vikings and will always be a Dolphins fan. These are the traditional subjects of introduction, the smallest of Small Talk. Lately, however, I have been in a few situations where the Small Talk moved on to something larger and perhaps darker. These subjects included:

Cars, and
Something involving finance.

These topics are interesting because they say a lot about the people who are speaking. I say this not because of their vacation in Mazatlan, which I really don’t care about, but because of what is not said directly; they are members of the White Middle Class. People who consider this to be valid Small Talk have started to utterly disregard the notion that other people don’t live like them, don’t care to live like them, and frankly think that they are consumerist pigs who are exactly this nation is going down the toilet in a rapid counter-clockwise motion, tankooberriemooch. Whew!

This kind of Small Talk is a statement of belonging, a pride in a particular social class. It’s a form of barking, not talking, and like a dog staking out its turf it tells me to keep away. Often, I do. I will do just about anything to avoid a situation where I think the people involved are going to be members of a kind of White Middle Class that I clearly do not belong to. Like any social group formed by our species of standing-up chimp, it demands cohesiveness. Unity. Exclusion. I’m not a member of that social class, and I never will be. Their Small Talk makes that very clear, as it is supposed to.

Now, how on earth can I get into trouble in these situations if I just shut my mouth? I can’t, it’s true. The problem is that I am a very outgoing person, an extrovert whose ranking in the Myers-Briggs scale wasn’t just ENTP, it’s more like EEEENTP. I rarely keep my mouth shut for long. When I do, parties can be a wonderful experience as a kind of anthropology; I just have to picture myself as Jane Goodall among the wild chimps of Gombi, and it’s all a lot of fun. I wait to see if they can use tools, for example, especially when handling imported beverages.

I don’t intentionally make myself stand apart from the White Middle Class. It just happens because I don’t see the world they way that they do. I don’t live for the things that come from wealth. I like to talk about other things that make me think like … well, like I hope Barataria does. I like parties where I can swap stories about Bach getting into a swordfight with someone who is really into another historical figure I know little about, like Voltaire. That may make me a geek, an intellectual, or a wacko. I really don’t care. The nature of our Small Talk is what defines whoever the Hell “my people” are. It’s not about the subject of our conversation, it’s about the fact that the conversation exists.

I don’t like being an outsider. I don’t think people like me as an outsider, either. Few members of our species of stan … well, let’s say folks like their own folks, and I’ll happily meet anyone halfway that wants to. But I don’t expect people to be like me and I’d prefer it if they didn’t take one look at my pale skin and assume that I’m just like them. Odds are, I’m not. If you wanna check it out, let’s try some Small Talk and see.

5 thoughts on “Small Talk

  1. I’m SO bad at making small talk. When it comes to politics or policy-making in nonprofits or the idiocy of rewarding banks for bad business practices, count me in! But having to come up with other stuff always leaves me very quiet. Thanks for this explanation about why it bothers some of us so much.

  2. Thanks for the reassurance that I’m not alone! We all know what the weather has been, what’s the point in analyzing it? And I hate sports! And the last vacation I took….

  3. I think the comparison to dogs barking is an excellent one.

    You could be talking about the English middle class too – I haven’t noticed much difference since moving here. There is a very short list of acceptable topics of conversation. It makes me wonder why many people bother to socialize at all.

    But when I lived in New York, it got exhausting listening to the hipsters raving about art and music and what was “underground” and what was “cool.” Same bark, different pitch.

    There’s a lot of pressure to be a follower in our culture. Even smart people do it, because they don’t wish to be ostracized. It doesn’t feel good to be ostracized. It may not mean as much nowadays if you don’t fit in, but our animal brains know that going against the pack used to mean we were less likely to survive without the pack’s cooperation.

    The obvious thing to do is to try to surround yourself with other people who also hate small talk – or whose idea of engaging conversation is more like your own. Means having fewer friends, but hey, when it comes to friendship, I’ll take quality over quantity every time. It’s probably due to that attitude, in fact, that I am blessed with both.


  4. Interesting your take on vacations. It seems there are 3-4 minnesota type vacations.
    Cabins (lucky you) but it really can lead to a lot of discussion (i.e. surrounding area, maintenance, history, recreation, even local politics).
    Flying they like visiting other areas and the convenience of flying (often so expensive once you get above 2 people) or they have far flung relatives.
    The black hills or metro chicago area. 2 opposite directions and different but a 8-12 hr
    drive.Still a commonality.
    Another one that can be interesting but is harder for some to talk about is church or family camps if you are open minded it can be quite revealing. Our kids went 6 times. There is a area an hour north of my dads we can visit for cheap and my daughter loved it. Its on a peninsula has modern and rustic cabins and camping. You have a mile(s) of beach walking reminds me of coastlines uninterupted by private property. Canoes are available. Reading is encouraged. Food is cheap and good. Usually mixed with field and forest. You can learn about rivers or bike trails. Your/ our kids make new friends for a day or week. Plus tv is generally not allowed. I am not a purist. And there are 2-3 large community rooms if it rains. and if you are a go getter there is often a bunch that needs getting done painting, yardwork, shuttling to town for groceries or libary.

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