Small Talk by Conlee Ricketts
I confess: I am socially awkward. Small talk physically hurts me. Barbeques, potlucks, staff meetings, work parties, birthday parties, it all hurts. It’s a weird kind of physical pain that obviously starts in my head the minute I know I will be expected to attend any of these events. Next it travels to my heart and gut; I am jolted back to adolescence where I feel the heat of an enormous spotlight shining on my insecurities fearing the loud speaker will announce shortly,
“Look! Over there! Conlee has resorted to a comment about the weather! Ha! She doesn’t know how to navigate this social situation at all!”
People are amazed that I can get up in front of 100+ people, talk, teach, joke, and put the room at ease by sensing group discomfort or confusion—but ask me to make small talk after and I’m a nervous wreck. I admire anyone who can work their way around a room chatting and introducing themselves to new faces with ease. There’s an art to it, but picturing myself doing it almost makes me nauseous.
Much of this is just how I’m wired. I love genuine conversations. I want to hear what you have to say, but if you ask me a question I kind of expect you to listen to my answer. Most people don’t in the small talk situations. “How was your weekend? How’s your daughter? How’s your Dad?” It amazes me how many times I get asked these tiny questions only to be cut off or disregarded before I finish my first sentence. One of my friends once told me, “Conlee, they don’t expect you to be honest when you answer.”
Why did they ask? My life revolves around having conversations that I want to invest in. I listen to parents who don’t understand why their child is acting the way they are, friends who want to handle their divorce better, or kids that want to share something with me that may be as simple as their last camping trip or as complex as how to handle other kids at school who are using cruelty as a coping mechanism. I just don’t understand small talk. I ask “How are you?” because I expect you to tell me the truth. If your life stinks—if you are elated—if you want to cry, I expect you to tell me. I ask questions because I’m prepared to listen to whatever you have to say.
I see similarities in how my daughter navigates social situations. She is a quiet observer. Once she has you in her circle she is wildly talkative and animated. When she was four years old her initial stare and silence used to make me uncomfortable, probably because it held a mirror up to my own behavior. Adults I worked with would try to converse with her and she would stare…and stare…and stare, until (because of my own self-consciousness) I would answer for her. That was the worst thing I could have done. So I stopped—after I warned her that I would no longer be answering for her. She didn’t change; I was the one who needed to change. I stood there in awkward silence while she stared at my co-workers. They chatted her up a bit more then re-directed conversation back to me. I realized that it was all small talk! So in my crazy world it didn’t matter that she didn’t answer. In fact, even at that young age, she always had interesting insights into everyone she met just by watching them. She was always right too.
So, I’m a little slow on learning my lessons, but I have a new rule: If you want to talk to me—please agree to listen. I will be listening to you…and watching. I will know more about you from watching then I ever will from trying to make small talk, so please be sincere. Also, if you see me standing quietly by myself, please know that I’m not stuck up. I’m scared. Come talk to me; I will love listening to your stories, adding some of my own, making a few jokes, being sincere, and listening fully. Fair warning though, because of the way I engage in conversations, I will know which of your stories are true, which are B.S. and which ones hide something deeper, so be prepared to be honest. I am, and it’s way more fun!