I was never any good at small talk. I could think of a hundred things to say, but when I opened my mouth, none of them managed the treacherous journey to my mouth. I can’t help but imagine tiny, synaptic ninjas, or maybe Boba Fett clones, waiting for the words to pass by and silencing them before they are pronounced. Maybe they’re the same things that keep you from peeing when you think others might be watching. Who knows what science may discover in the future?
Typically, I tried to avoid small talk altogether by not bumping into a certain kind of people. You know who I mean, the people that you know well enough to necessitate a friendly greeting, but not invite to your birthday or wedding. These people are too familiar to ignore entirely, or pass by with just a nod, but not familiar enough to skip small talk and have a real conversation—hence avoidance. While this occasionally results in strange-looking actions, coming out of a door and immediately going back in, it usually works out okay. If evasion isn’t really an option, you can always go around with headphones in your ears, or a distracted look on your face. Both can be ‘get out of jail free cards’ when passing by someone you ‘know.’ “Oh no, I wasn’t ignoring you, I’m just far away and visionary.”
There are times, however, when none of this will do, and you have to bite the bullet and just talk to someone. Scary, I know, but it happens. Just remember to keep your head.
JANE: Hi, ______. How are you doing?
YOU: I wet the bed until I was 14.
That was NOT keeping your head. Let’s try it again.
STEVE: Hello, _______. I read your report. Why don’t you come by my office later today so that we can discuss it?
YOU: I can’t. On Wednesday afternoons I sit in my office dressing up radishes in doll’s clothes and having a tea party.
Honesty is important, but not always the best policy. Maybe you’d better stick with that far away, visionary thing. If you need help getting the look right, just try to think of the big bang and an ever- expanding universe, while trying to fathom what space the universe is expanding into, and what was there before. If this seems a little too complicated for you, try thinking about why ACME never made quality products, and, if they never improved, why the coyote didn’t just go to Canadian Tire.
I’m a little beyond such necessities now; through much trial and error, I’ve managed to learn how to keep my calm and actually use one of the many responses I’ve thought up before ever stepping out of the door.
MIKE: Hey, how’s your day goin’?
ME: 4:00, but I’m not sure what I’ll get up to after that.
I wasn’t always this suave, though. There was a time when I was as raw as you are now, and my inability caused me nothing but grief.
Brad was never what you would call a ladies man. He got tongue-tied at a moment’s notice, becoming the proverbial deer in headlights. Pretty girls would sometimes approach him, drawn by his good looks and keen fashion sense, only to find themselves at the mercy of whatever random thought his mind could come up with.
“I love your jacket.”
“Your jacket? It’s really nice.”
“I accidentally peed on the corner of it once when I was drunk.”
Most girls just chose to walk away.
Brad worked as a government accountant in a tiny basement cubicle. Boxes of files loomed like gargoyles above the moveable walls of his office, surreal in the flickering fluorescent lights. While the other employees, all accountants or clerks, were incensed or depressed by the dreary conditions, Brad clung to them; complaints about the dark, dank workspace always made a good response.
Routine made Brad’s life liveable. He avoided talking to new people by going to the same small grocery store every day on his way home from work, getting gas from the same gas station every week, and doing all of his banking and bill paying online. He screened his calls, letting his answering machine (which he had painfully programmed through 15 takes and with the use of a fully written script) pick up any unknown number…and most of the known ones.
On one of many Tuesday mornings, everything began to go wrong. An overnight power outage ambushed his alarm clock, leaving a lazy autumn sunrise to wake him an hour and a half late. This meant that his morning drive to work, normally made before other motorists were awake, let alone driving, was in the middle of the morning rush. Two near misses, and three middle fingers later, Brad arrived at his office only to find the photocopier hopelessly jammed, and his favourite stapler missing. So the day progressed.
His morning had gone so badly that when Brad arrived for his pre-scheduled, quarterly haircut that afternoon, he was almost unsurprised to learn that the woman who had been cutting his hair for the past 8 years was unavailable, something to do with her son’s eyebrows, a backyard fire, and a turkey baster filled with gasoline. Brad took the news in stony silence, and let himself be shepherded by the salon owner to a strange, yet identical chair to the one in which he usually sat.
The owner gave his shoulder what was supposed to be a comforting squeeze and walked over to a short, mousy girl who had been sitting down the row from Brad, slowly spinning her chair in circles. Brad had seen her working here before, though he only ever saw her working with children. With them, she glowed, making the children laugh so hard that he couldn’t fathom how she managed to actually cut their hair. Now she just looked upset, and Brad could hear snatches of the argument now apparent between her and the owner.
“Come on, Kim, Julie is off today, and I don’t have anyone else free. You haven’t had a customer all afternoon!”
“Miranda, I only cut hairy children. Do children cuts for hair. Do haircuts for children!” Kim stammered.
“Kim, he’s a really nice guy, and I really need you to cover this for me.”
“I won’t donna…”
“You’re my sister, and I love you, but if you don’t get the hell over there, you’re going to be looking for another job.”
Kim looked nervously over at Brad. “Fine.”
She grabbed a plastic sheet from over the arm of her chair and walked quickly over to Brad, carefully sizing up his hair. She draped the sheet over him, tying it at the neck, and picked up her scissors.
Brad hesitated for a moment, before quipping: “Brad.” Mortified, Brad couldn’t stop thinking “Me Tarzan, you Jane.”
“Me Tarzan, you Jane.” Damn. Somehow it had coasted down his synapses and spelunked down to his tongue.
“Your body is Tarzan.” Kimberly blushed, frantically trying to reel her words back into her mouth.
Brad turned crimson, unsurprisingly unable to find the right reply and looked down at his lap.
The snipping sound of Kimberly’s scissors slowly filled the void. The knot inside Brad’s stomach slowly loosened, and he braved a glance into the mirror, ready to glance away if Kimberly happened to meet his eyes.
Kimberly was focused on Brad’s hair, her tongue sticking out ever so slightly from the corner of her mouth. Her mouth moved every so often like she was convincing the hair to fall away, instead of cutting it. Brad was entranced.
Before he knew it, the haircut was done; Kimberly lowered her scissors and their eyes met in the mirror. For the first time in his life, he didn’t look away. Neither did Kimberly.
Two years and eight haircuts later, Kimberly’s sister finally lost patience and set the two of them up. Neither of them has ever been happier.
If you asked him how he’s doing now, Brad would probably still tell you that he likes chunky peanut butter better than smooth. Kimberly would tell you her favourite colour is grape. Small talk is overrated.
Still need a laugh? Why not check out some of the other articles from Laugh at the World?