I suck at small talk. It’s not that I’m not wordy or unable to spew nonsense. I just can’t chat about weather. Or end tables.
The people at Potbelly’s are very nice. I like them all. They make me salads. But they also try to make me engage in small talk. And I come off sounding like a serial killer.
“So, any big plans for the weekend?” says the manager to me as I wait in line. I’m sure it’s part of her job. I’m sure she doesn’t really want to talk to me.
“Oh sure. I got plans to do stuff,” it’s not a test, but somehow I’m failing. “Yeah I do stuff all the time. When I’m not here, I’m doing stuff. I plan on having fun this weekend. I think there’s something going on that I’ll do. Something at the park district maybe? I’ll have to ask Jill. She’s my wife. Not for permission but she might have made plans. I’ll check with her.”
What the fuck? I’ll just spout. It’s like my brain’s in a panic and it’s spewing information in an attempt to end the interaction. Here, here’s information! Is this the information you were looking for? Is this enough? I’d really like to move along now. Does this satisfy your small talk demands? Just take whatever words you were looking for and LET ME GO!
I’ll hear myself sounding like the English portion of an instructional recording that teaches people the awkward way to speak English.
They smile and I get my salad and I feel stupid. I just don’t know what to say. Do I tell them all about my real plans for the weekend? Do I talk about my kids, my job and my crippling insecurities? I know they’re just trying to make my wait in line less boring. They’re not really going to follow-up on my weekend plans. But something in me is broken and I simply can’t engage at this level. There’s just nothing there when I look for words in the small talk section of my brain. So I grab everything I have and shove.
You know who’s great at small talk? My sister-in-law Julie. It’s sort of her job. She’s a stylist. Of hair. She’ll cut the shit out of your hair. She’ll also change the shape, color, and smell of it until you are no longer certain that you are you. When you use your own credit card, you’ll feel wrong. Like you’re stealing someone’s identity. You won’t know who you are anymore. You’ll convince yourself that it means that you no longer have to live by any of the old rules. And then over time, you’ll get to like it. You’ll develop a taste for that nasty life. Living outside the lines. You’ll spank yourself. You nasty.
But before all of that decadence, you’ll be sitting in Julie’s chair getting your hair done. And while Julie’s working, you might feel the need to talk. It’s only natural. It’s okay. This is a safe place. Julie knows what to do with your bullshit.
You bring up an end-table. Julie can tell you about a really cute one she saw in the latest CB2 catalogue.
You tell her about the party you’re getting ready for. Julie will list a handful of her favorite party themes down to the last favor and appropriate drink recipe.
You start in sobbing about the guy who cheated on you when you were dating but you thought he would stop cheating once you got married and then you were sure he would stop cheating on you after you had his children, but of course he didn’t and now you’re getting your hair done because maybe you’re just not pretty enough and if you were pretty then maybe he wouldn’t want to cheat. You drop this on Julie and she’ll tell you about the Twilight series.* Because, seriously, what the hell can you do with that mess?
If you came at me with all of that, I’d have to go Dexter on you and inject some night-night potion in your neck and cut your hair with your head slumped over.
But Julie listens. And lets you spill your life as your hair falls. And she knows all the right noncommittal things to say. She walks that line. Somewhere between vocalizing the occasional absent-minded “Uh-huh” and delving in with an Oprah-style interview, she’ll know exactly what to say and how much to say. She won’t pass judgment. She won’t share your secrets. And you will feel good. You’ll look good, you’ll feel good, but you’ll still be married to a degenerate.
I don’t know what Julie does with all of those secrets.
Maybe she uses them to fuel the Twilight fan fiction she’s probably writing when the kids go to bed.
Maybe she tells the other Julie, the one who lives in the parallel universe on the other side of her bathroom mirror.
Maybe she whispers them to the mulberry trees.
*I make most of this stuff up. I don’t know any of the things Julie’s clients say to her. Though one time I did overhear Julie talking to someone about end tables. Can you think of anything less meaningful?