Small Talk – Large Problem, Right Sized

"Have you tried the decomposed caterpillar the Taylor's brought?" "Oh yes, scrumptious"
“Oh you know Mavis from the hill by the dumpster too?  What a small world!”  “Indeed!”

Small talk is difficult for me.  It’s not end of the world stuff, nor is it something that is unique to me only.  There are larger and more important things in my little orbit that could use improving, but for some reason small talk is something that has always  just jabbed at me.

I never liked what I perceived to be a vacuous and time wasting form of communication.   I felt that I had to be “on” and I just didn’t do “on”.  It wasn’t my style when I was a drunkard, and it’s really not my style now.   Or so it seems.  The way it worked for me was this – I’m going to some cocktail party or get together.  I am already nervous.  I need an exact head count before heading out.   I need to gather the social temperature before stepping into the room. As if  preparing for a heist, I mentally scope out exits and escape paths when I get there.  I look for corners to melt into.  And then of course, I have the meat and potatoes of how I will get through this – booze.  Before, during, or after – doesn’t matter – just need the booze.  I need a mental and emotional escape long before the body follows.  I crave a place to hide within myself, to edge out and the blur the lines of me, so that I feel right…or just for right then and there.

And so it begins – the frontal assaults of “Where are you from?” and “Have you come here before?” and the worst “So what do you do?”  Like a hummingbird in full flight, I dodge, bob and weave around the verbal spears chucked my way.  I deflect and dismantle potential conversation starters. I retort with single grunted words, or worse, convo-killing sentences that no one but the mightiest extrovert can navigate or lob back.   I get sweaty, and feet shift back and forth.  My eyes are everywhere but on the person talking to me.  My attempts to smile are utterly pathetic.  I am pathetic.  Where it my deus ex machina?  I look around, take a slug of my drink and wait for it to be all done.

Small talk is everywhere –  it’s practically impossible to avoid – elevators, taxi rides, public transit, shops, break rooms, etc. I would rather have in-depth conversations one-on-one, but that doesn’t happen while in the deli line and the woman behind me wanting to chat with me about how the price of ham has gone up since she moved back into the neighbourhood. What I have come to see is that I was someone who isolated. I kept to myself as much as humanly possible. I didn’t touch the phone, didn’t answer my door, and distanced myself as much as I could.  I wasn’t comfortable with myself, so why would I be comfortable with anyone else?  And conversely, why would I want to put someone in the unbearable position of having me to talk to?

Hello fears.  Hello self-esteem.  Hello self-centeredness.    Oh these are the party snacks which feed the little pity party in me!  Get them in Costco sizes while you’re at it.  Good stuff.


I realize that when someone is engaging me in small talk, they are trying to connect with another person, another human, regardless of the topic. The topic is usually moot.  They aren’t trying to do anything else other than see someone and be seen.  And hell, they might be nervous themselves, trying to get out of their  own shell.  So I try to honour that now, and engage, even if I don’t feel like it.  And you know what – I’ve done a lifetime of doing things that I didn’t feel like, so it’s something I do to get out of my comfort zone.  And it’s in getting out of my comfort zone that I start to grow.  The desire to crawl into myself no longer serves me.  It’s a great way for me to get out of myself and not isolate. Isolating is not good for me. Never has been. Doesn’t mean I am a yapping, hand-shaking, back-patting machine. But I learn to step out a little bit more and just connect. That’s all it is.

I have also come to see that I didn’t think anyone had anything of interest to say, because I didn’t think that I had anything to offer anyone.  My favourite trick in deflecting any attention on me was to ask a series of ever building questions that focused and even glorified the other victim person.  Passive aggressive?  A touch. But it got them away from me and me away from me.  We would depart, they thrilled and sparkling with having imbued me with their fabulous story, and me thrilled with not having to mention anything about myself.  But as I go through this journey of connecting back to myself, and getting in touch with what the Creator has truly created for me, I see that I have much to offer.  Hard to say.  Hard to type even.  But I have something to offer.  And so does the person who stops me on the street and asks for directions to the bus heading north and then tells me about the last time they were on a bus, as a kid.  I look in their eyes.  I listen.  I smile.

I am not “on”. I am just me – tuned in and turned onto a world I once tried to hide from.  A large world with lots of small talk…wonderful, wonderful small talk.

14 Comments Add yours

  1. “I’m not on, I’m just me. Tuned in.” What a wonderful way of looking at it. The next time I feel anxiety about having to be “on,” I hope I remember these wise words.

    1. Thanks UB! I never had it in me to be “on”, and I really appreciate those who have that energy and vibe that I don’t. But I find that just being me is what it is…it takes all kinds 🙂
      I appreciate you commenting 🙂

  2. Once again timely, I’m going to a dinner party tonight that I have been looking for excuses to not attend since I accepted the invitation. I know if I were still drinking, I’d have a whole ‘nother mindset. I’d probably still be dreading it, I don’t know the others that are attending and I’m not all that crazy about the host, (so why did she accept, you’re asking. Me, too) but I’d have that crutch waiting for me at the door, something to take the weight of the evening off my lame left foot of social conviviality. I think I still think I have something to prove, “Look at Kary May, she doesn’t drink anymore and she’s still the life of the party.” I don’t want to be the life of the party anymore, I’ll gladly pass my scepter to the next in line. I have nothing to prove anymore.

    1. Well said! I think that the idea of putting on a show or the pressure being put on to perform in some way takes a lot of energy and goes against what you may really be about. Authenticity is something I strive for now…I don’t always get there, but it’s a lot better than I used to be! I hope that you had a great time at the dinner party!!


  3. michelle says:

    I feel your pain.

    I suck at small talk. Really.

    1. Ha ha…I still have a ways to go too, but it doesn’t paralyze me any more! Nice to have company 🙂

  4. Oh my goodness, you just hit a nail on th head… and I didn’t even know there was a nail to hit!!! I do that all the time… ask endless questions about the other person, and I am now just realizing that I do it so I don’t have to talk about myself!!! And you know what’s the real kicker? Sometimes I leave that same conversation miffed that the person didn’t ask me anything about myself! And I’m saying I’ve done this at AA meetings, not in active addiction!!! Wow, you really just opened my eyes, Paul! Thanks for this post!!

    1. Oh dear, I was laughing at what you said because I recognized that part you mentioned about being annoyed no one asked about me!! How crazy is that kind of thinking? I too have done this sobriety many, many times. I totally forgot about that part…thanks for adding that!


  5. Mrs D says:

    my parents taught me and my sisters that the best way to mingle and talk to others was to always ask questions of them. People love talking about themselves..! And I’m always interested in others. I don’t think it’s passive aggressive, I think it’s smart and lovely. xxx

    1. Hi Mrs D! I understand what you say about being interested in others. I guess what I was trying to convey (and maybe not as well as I wanted to!) was that my asking the other person questions about themselves wasn’t at all about being interested in them. It was the opposite – I didn’t care about what they had to say, so me asking about themselves was a sort of passive-aggressive thing maybe towards myself. “I don’t like this guy, don’t care about him, so I will ask him lots of things to make him talk about himself more!” – nuts. But these days when I ask someone about themselves, it comes from a place of interest and true inquiry…as you mentioned. That is polite. What I used to do wasn’t…at least underneath the surface it wasn’t. 😦

      Thanks for bringing this to light!

  6. Number 9 says:

    i agree-not passive aggressive just good manners. i ask questions for both reasons because i don’t want the focus on me and becuase i’m interested in people’s stories! especially the people that usually dont talk much, they ususally have the best stories when i pull them out with questions

    1. I do agree that the quiet types sometimes do have some great stories…just need some work to get it out of them!

  7. Lol! Great post. I always wonder who are those people that are good at small talk!? Most people I know would say that they are not! Not me either! Lol! For me it’s a learning experience, it helps me focuse on others instead of me, it helps me practice how to connect with other people and listen, something which i had no clue how to do after i got sober; without my social buffer – the alcohol- I had no clue how to have interactions with other people. It’s still hard but much better than it was. And sometimes in the process i get to know someone a little, or learn something new. Good growth opportunity.

    1. YES! I was going to mention that in the post…almost everyone I know says that they aren’t good at it, that they’re shy, that they fumble, etc. but man, those people never show up to the place I go to or work at! But you are absolutely correct – it was much harder without the social buffer. But the buffer, for me, was false and temporary. Listening and taking in things is a skill, and something that I need to work on more. But it does get better, especially when I actually *do* want to get to know people more. At least, most times…lol.

      Thanks for the comments 🙂

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