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Small Talk: From Politics To Friendship

Growing up, I was taught not to talk socially about religion or politics. In the accepted dinner table conversation of the time, those subjects were taboo. Given today’s small talk, those rules feel like a thousand years ago. Only the most polite conversationalists muzzle themselves today.

Now it seems that politics is THE dinner table conversation. Religion seems to be involved only as a sub-topic of politics. Think abortion and same-sex marriage, not theology.

In my teens, I learned there were a few other subjects to avoid: Never ask someone’s income, never ask how much they weigh, how old they are, or how much they paid for something. The rules have certainly changed a bit… but not completely. We Golden Oldies do sometimes ask about age – but only with other Wrinklies, and just to make sure we are keeping up.

I once read a quip on how to handle the rude question. I was even able to use it once when someone asked me, “So what are they paying you for that?” Initially stunned, I somehow remembered the clever quote and tossed back, “If you’ll forgive me for not answering that question, I’ll forgive you for asking it.” Done. The inquisitor just stared at me, then turned and walked away. I think I spotted a tail between his legs as he exited.

People don’t seem to skip political discussions out of politeness. They are either very interested in politics or they aren’t at all. If they are, let’s have at it. “What do you really think Whats-his-name’s chances are this year? Oh really? Why you think so?” That’s the polite version.

We are so divided now, discussions sometimes turn into arguments, and arguments sometimes get out of hand. Politics are straining friendships.

Even families. Manners are going out the window when the subject is the latest inflammatory candidate remark or the current hot button issue. Tempers seem to flash quicker … and louder.

With some people, hitting their hot button changes the conversation completely. The two-way discussion gets smothered, descending into a monologue. I hate it when someone interrupts my response just to continue their diatribe. More than once, I have said, “I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to talk while you were interrupting.” Sometimes it stops them, but not always. I read that little goodie years ago. I deposited it in my shrinking memory bank, and it has come in handy.

Small talk can be hard and for some it is even terrifying. I, however, was born with the “gift of gab.” As a girl, I was quiet among my mother’s friends. But my report cards often mentioned “talkative.” Mom occasionally commented that I was vaccinated with a phonograph needle. I probably have some friends and acquaintances who think, “Is she ever going to shut up?”

I’ve occasionally sat at a wedding dinner table with eight or nine complete strangers. The occasion, however, makes it easy to ask them how they know the bride and groom. That conversation takes off immediately, recalling fun and fond memories. And you always learn a bit about each other.

Years ago, I was at a cocktail party meeting many new people in the town I had just moved to. As usual, I was trying to remember names, but also have pleasant conversations. At the end of the evening, I was offered a part-time job in the business school at nearby Alfred State College in Alfred, NY! The gentleman said, “We need someone to teach the many “soft skills” of business to our students. Would you be interested?” Would I? Oh my, yes! “Office and Personal Commnications was part of the syllabus. And I stayed four years.

Some of my students taught me that being shy and uncomfortable really inhibits conversation. Small talk for them was a nightmare. We explored all the ways to be comfortable in new situations both professionally and personally. I shared my quiver of everyday questions, “Where are you from?” and “What is it like there?” or “Tell me about your job?” or “What do you do for fun?” When all else fails, “Tell me about your family …” big smile required.

They all learned in meeting and greeting, the importance of good eye contact and a genuine smile. Merely finding some common ground is the most comfortable place to begin the chat. Many people need to be warmed up before they’ll open up. Often the chat grows up, becomes real conversation. Sometimes that conversation grows into a fond likeability. And a new friend is born.

Not such small talk after all.

Marcy O’Brien can be contacted at moby.32@hotmail.com

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