the art of selfish small talk

Young Gorilla. With an attitude. Uganda. photo cred: my Dad
Young Gorilla. With an attitude. Uganda. photo cred: my Dad

“So you said you had a 13-year-old?”

I choked on my beer. Huh?

I was enjoying my book and a beer at a restaurant bar downtown Denver, when a nice gentleman sat next to me and sparked a conversation. We chatted for a while, consumed a few beers, but I can guarantee those words most definitely never came out of my mouth. I told him as much, and the conversation topic changed to baseball.

His phone lit up on the bar and you could see a picture of a little kid illuminated on the wallpaper. He pointed out that it was his son, and then side-eyed me.

“You know, this whole time we’ve been talking, you haven’t asked me any questions. That could come off as kind of selfish.”

I side-eyed him right back as I quickly replayed our conversation in my mind. Wait a second…

“Really? I thought I asked a lot of questions. About your beer preferences. And baseball. And your opinion on basketball (there was a game on TV; I would never normally ask anyone anything about basketball). And how your football picks league thingy that you are winning works. Oh, and your job, and where you’re from, and Atlanta…?” True, I didn’t ask his marital status, if he had children, or what his nightmares were made of, but we hadn’t been talking that long. And even we had been talking all day, I’m not sure I would have. I was very aware I was not asking him the same questions he asked me, but that was by design.

He was silent as he thought. “Huh. Yeah, I guess you did.”

“Maybe I just didn’t ask the questions you wanted to answer?”

This guy called me out on my small talk tactics. I wonder how many countless other people I’ve offended by not asking questions about things they wanted to discuss. And why is it when someone asks you a question, you are expected to ask them that same question back? No offense, but just because you asked me if I have children doesn’t mean I want to know if you have children.

I mean, how many times has someone asked you how you are, and then not even listened to your answer? Do they really care how you are doing today? I’m guessing 9 out of 10 people do not. They are simply exchanging pleasantries. It’s what people do. A majority of the time they are already out of earshot, hurrying on with their day, by the time you figure out what just happened…who asked the question, what the question was, and you’re actually ready to respond. Or maybe you’re one of those people who just immediately say “I’m good!” even when you are not good at all. Me? Please do not ask me how I am doing unless you are prepared to hear how I am doing. More often than not, my response is a heck of lot longer than your typical “fine.” A simple hello will do.

I have this thing where I try not to ask questions if I don’t really care to know the answers. Pretending to care is not a skill of mine. But I am aware of that. And I believe I am putting more effort into the conversation by not parroting back the questions you just asked me.

I know you have to make conversational sacrifices for family and friends and significant others. I know you should care about things that are important to them, and ideally these things become somewhat important to you by association. But because you care about these people, and you care about what they feel is important.

But if I am going to talk to you for one hour at this restaurant bar, and the likelihood of us never talking again is ridiculously high, I’d rather discuss how you feel about the Braves moving out of downtown Atlanta than what your 4-year-old wants for Christmas.

So I guess maybe that is a sort of selfishness. I despise chitchat. But if I must make small talk, I prefer the meaningless exchange of information to be interesting. Because if I am not interested, my mind tends to wander. And when my mind wanders, I come off as rude. And selfish is better than rude?

As I type this, somewhere in the air between Colorado and Wisconsin, I can’t help but overhear two strangers seated across the aisle from me, engaging in the exact sort of small talk I just can’t bring myself to partake in…they make it sound so easy.

Perhaps I am the problem. Maybe I just need to work on my active listening skills. Maybe.

2 Comments on “the art of selfish small talk

  1. Nahh, I don’t reckon you’re the problem, Tosh, you’be just got a touch of old school about is all. It’s more like that bloke is the problem, I mean, he basically admitted to ignoring you in the hope you ask him about his favourite subject so he could hold the floor…it’s like he wanted to use you to feel something that was all about him. Or maybe I’m just so old school that I’m overly-sensitive to all the bullshit people will do in the name of polite, but nonetheless self-referrential, behaviour. Hmm, I think my dickhead tolerance threshhold is at an all time low these days. Anyway, Ithink he was out of line for having those expectations in the first place. LLH&R REDdog

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    • Haha. Thanks. I actually enjoyed our conversation. I just think when he realized I hadn’t asked a lot of personal questions, he made the connection we were just talking about me. He asked questions about my life, I answered. I asked him questions about beer and baseball, he answered. We learned things about each other, but not the same things. I do appreciate your support though! nice to have friends out there. I have a feeling neither of us are driven by the “polite” or expected thing to do. My douchebag tolerance is as low as it can go these days, so I know how you feel 🙂

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