Originally posted November 12, 2010...
Isn’t it weird how our childhoods are filled with the constant refrain, “Don’t talk to strangers” and then we spend the bulk of our adult social life doing just that? Every social gathering, work function, bail hearing and sex toy party requires talking to strangers. Not only that, but we’re expected to be charming, witty, sexy and inoffensive, all in one introductory conversation. And we’re not to think of strangers in the bad, scary connotation anymore. A stranger is just a friend you haven’t met, they say. This Big City is filled with such friends and I feel like if don’t go out and meet some of them, I’ll become one of those reclusive older gay dudes who calls his two labradoodles his “daughters” and is into really weird porn. There’s only one way to stop that from happening.
Dream: To become really good at small talk.
Goal: Achievable. We’ve all met that stranger at a party who’s so effortlessly charming that we desperately want to befriend them. My pizza gut and big explosion of hair nonwithstanding, I could totally be that guy.
Plan: Come up with a series of small talk topics (or as I call them, smopics) that will delight and impress others, making me the life of the party. Here are some smopics:
1) Murderers. Did you hear about that guy who murdered all those people? Of course you did, and you have a strong opinion, everyone does. Jon and I ran into our friend Gowry recently, while she was knitting on the subway. We know Gowry very well so small talk wasn’t necessary, but it was a crowded, loud train that was not conducive to deep conversation, so our chatter was mostly vague pleasantries, and a little strained. Then Gowry asked if we had heard about that army guy who brutally murdered all those women. We had, and we were off to the races. “I think that’s horrible!” I said, expressing a bold opinion. “Just horrible!” Jon and Gowry agreed, and a woman near us nodded too–she was totally drawn in! Such is the power of the well-chosed smopic.
2) American politics. This is a good way to determine the politics of the stranger you are talking to, without directly inquiring (that’s rude) or having to discuss Canadian politics, which requires you to be relatively well-informed (that’s hard). But any idiot can opine about American politics because their politicians are celebrities and their issues are as black and white as the newspaper nobody bothers to read over there. And astute observations aren’t necessary either, just a simple shout-out will do. For instance, if somebody says something stupid, you can go, “We’ve got a Sarah Palin over here!” Or if somebody says something boring you can go, “We’ve got an Al Gore over here!” Or if somebody says something and then doesn’t follow through with what they said you can go, “We’ve got a Barack Obama over here!” That’s a freebie for your next party.
3) Raising children. This is only a suitable smopic if all of the party guests are childless. Everyone has an opinion as to how best to raise a child, but nothing takes the wind out of those sails faster than a parent interrupting a brilliant single person’s theories on parenting by saying, “Actually, what you’ve proposed is patently ridiculous.” Good bullet points for this smopic include how you’re never going to give your kid sugar, or how you’re never going to let him watch television. This will earn emphatic agreement from the other childless people and maybe a few, “You’ll be such a great parent!” comments. You can also share a story of a time when you felt as if you really “connected” to a child as evidence that you’ll be a great parent, but leave out all the times the child grew frustrated, or angry, or just bored with you and threw you over for Bob the Builder.
Naturally, there are minefields to avoid socially. I was out with a friend once, who had brought along another friend I had never met. We were having dessert or something, and when offered a bite of cake, the friend of a friend patted her stomach and said, “Mmm, well that looks really good, but I can’t have it. IBS.” Even if I hadn’t known what IBS stood for (Irritable Bowel Syndrome), I probably would have asked her, and then done a spit-take. Really, lady? You’re going to bring up your bowels in mixed company with a stranger over dessert? How many fellas are knocking down your stinky door?
But really, I’m being too harsh. There are too many examples to list of the time where I’ve said exactly the wrong thing, though its usually with people I already know, so they are more forgiving. So maybe it’s not only the small talk, but the big talk that needs to improve as well, because even though I fear winding up old and alone with my labradoodle-daughters, I really value the friends I have now. So I must not alienate them. After all, a friend is just a stranger you’ve already met.