Abstract Academic: Making small talk

My wife and I recently moved into a new neighborhood in Layton, and were subsequently invited to a neighborhood barbecue. I’m not usually very good at these kinds of things, because my idea of small talk is to take the Forrest Gump route, staring into the distance and telling winding stories about life lessons from my childhood until the person opposite from me slowly walks away to get more potato salad.

I promise that my intention is not to create awkward moments. It’s not fun for me, either. It’s just that, when someone shakes my hand and asks me questions, I suddenly become monosyllabic. “Ugh,” I mutter. “Yes. Me study English. Two year till graduate. Me go get hot dog now.”

I’ve always felt like, when people are born, the doctor takes the new baby to a separate room, hands it a script and says, “Here you go, baby. This is the script to life. Follow this, and you’ll be set.” This is the script that allows people to maintain a steady conversational flow at neighborhood barbecues, transitioning smoothly into topics like weather, health, dog breeds and Charlie Sheen. My problem is that my doctor, who was probably distracted by the space shuttle Challenger explosion, or maybe an episode of M*A*S*H, forgot to give me my script, and instead accidentally gave me a 1986 issue of People magazine (“the cast of Aliens talks about love, life and their favorite summer desserts!”) that was sitting in the hospital lobby. Apart from being the cause of my awkward attempts at small talk, this would also explain my weird crush on Sigourney Weaver.

Small talk is one of my wife’s great talents. Thirty seconds after meeting someone new, she will have found a common acquaintance, exchanged contact information and made a casual dinner appointment with them, whereas I will have started a conversation with a question like, “Who do you think was the most influential band of the last 60 years?” (hint: The Beatles) or maybe “What is your political affiliation and/or pant size?”

The barbecue went fairly well, though. I had my wife to lean on the whole time, and I gave it my best for quite a while, but I eventually gave up my attempts at small talk and played volleyball with a bunch of little kids.

I find kids a lot easier to talk to than adults. How many times have you run into a neighbor at the grocery store and said, “Hi, Carol! Do you want to see this cool new scab I got?” The answer is zero times. But with kids, nothing is off-topic. Here is an excerpt of the conversation between myself and two 9-year-olds at the barbecue, whom I will call “Tyler” and “Preston,” because those are their names.

Me: How old are you guys?

Tyler: Nine. Have you ever ridden a four-wheeler?

Preston: I have! In Idaho! We were out at night and we saw a mountain lion.

Me: A mountain lion?

Preston: Yep. Or it might have been Sasquatch. Or a deer.

Me: Oh. Still pretty cool.

Preston: Yeah.

Me: Yeah.

Tyler: Yeah. My dad got in a fight with Sasquatch.