Thursday, September 11, 2008

Nice, But Not Friendly

It's a friendly workplace I'm in this term. And it's kind of freaking me out.

Most of my teaching this year is at a small college that prides itself on exceptional personal commitment to students. Perhaps "incestuous" is too negative a term to describe the atmosphere - let's go with "close-knit." When class ends and I'm busy packing away my textbooks, the prof for the next class invariably comes bounding in with a cheerful greeting of, "How are your classes going so far?"

I'm not good in these situations. Clearly, the appropriate response would be to reciprocate the friendly inquiry, but instead I freeze. I say "Fine" and then stand there silently for a minute or two searching for something else to add before giving up and exiting in haste.

At the faculty meeting last week a colleague expressed surprise that we had never spoken before. Both of us have been teaching there for several years - her face is very familiar to me - but we've never been formally introduced. "I'm just an antisocial person," I explained. "I arrive late for meetings and then skulk out as fast as I can."

"Your face is deceptive, then," she replied. "You look friendly!"

I shook my head. "I'm not friendly. I'm nice, but I'm not friendly."

My problem - and it's not an uncommon one, I realize - is that I have no small talk. If I arrive ten minutes before class and find my students milling about in the hallway, I'll duck into the photocopy room just to avoid the awkwardness of either making conversation or standing silently wondering if I should START making conversation. This behaviour, which I thought was so subtle as to be undetectable, attracted a certain amount of unfavourable comment in my student evaluations last year. The word "hiding" was used (not without some justification).

One of the more lasting side effects of motherhood for me is the freedom it provides from my usual tongue-tied demeanour. Though completely unable to engage in casual repartee about the weekend or the weather, I am never at a loss for words when confronted with a baby. One of my summer students this year became a grandmother midway through our course: her sixteen-year-old daughter had a baby girl after twelve hours of labour with no epidural. As standoffish as I can be in most situations, I have no problem hitting a pregnant woman or a new mother with a barrage of nosy questions. I've read enough blog posts to know that many women find these questions intrusive, but it's almost as if the presence of a baby (in or ex utero) turns my personality inside out.

The secretary at Friendly College is a woman whose father was the pastor of the church I grew up in: I used to babysit her and her siblings when I was in Grade Seven, and her mother taught me Sunday School all through high school. This is exactly the kind of person I have the most difficulty interacting with: a distant acquaintance with whom I don't share any current circumstances that might provide conversation fodder. Most of last year, I jumped guiltily every time I saw her, knowing that I ought to make friendly conversation yet wholly unable to do so. This year, however, it's different: she's due in November, only a few days before Bub's birthday. When I saw her the other day in the faculty lounge, I pounced. "Do you know if it's a boy or a girl?" "Do you have a midwife or an OB?" "Will this be the first grandbaby for your parents?" "Which hospital are you delivering at?" At least I didn't ask to touch her belly. Even I have some boundaries.

I don't know if the poor woman really welcomed my interrogation, but I think I know why I can ask these questions even though I can never bring myself to ask my students how their weekend went. It's because I really want to know the answer.

31 comments:

Swistle said...

Loved this post. Really, really good. I'm sorry this is such a dull comment, but you kind of blew my circuits with the goodness of the post.

Sue said...

I'm horrible at small talk. I like discussions, and I like talking about THINGS, and I like talking to people I know, but I hate making small talk with people I don't know well. I never know where to look, or how much to say, or if i should try to interject something, or what. So I usually just kind of stand there vaguely smiling.

Mad said...

I, on the other hand, am friendly but not nice. I have no trouble making small talk but I will cower in my office away from co-workers because, ultimately, I rarely like other people as much as I like my solitude. ... Except, of course, in exceptional circumstances when I am with people I really do like and feel at home around.

I wonder if you are good with baby small talk in part because it has a language and semantics of understanding that appeals to you. Women with babes in or out are not unlike Myers_Briggs types or paint chips. They each operate within a code of predicable albeit wide-ranging behaviours. Just a thought.

One more thing: I was good at baby small talk for a while there but now I feel a little awkward. Most of the people I know who are having babes also know about the year that I've had. As much as I try to come to others in a space that is apart from that emotional fog, I find that others either doubt my sincere good wishes or feel a need to carry me emotionally. Not sure how I feel about all of that, really.

nomotherearth said...

I have a really annoying habit of talking to complete strangers like I know them, but not being able to think of a (smalltalk) thing to say to people I know and like. I've done the hiding thing too because I'm embarassed that I can't come up with conversation.

www.antiquemommy.com said...

Oh man, I am so relating to this post. It's comforting to know there are others like me out there.

Kate said...

I'm not a small talker either. Hiding definitely applies here. Thank goodness for the cover of the blog. And I'm wondering, did you and Antique Mommy coordinate your posts today?

Kate

Gwendolyn said...

This is so much like me, it's scary. I am chatty with a few close friends, but that's it...and I have been known to hide many, many times in my life to avoid making small talk. I'm a people-watcher, though...just don't let them speak to me. LOL

June said...

Oh - I hate small talk too! If you're a good friend I'm likely to talk your ear off, but if you're a stranger or just an acquaintance, you'd better be prepared for an uncomfortable silence! And I'm not a mom so I can't even fall back on the baby/kid talk.

Jodie said...

"My problem - and it's not an uncommon one, I realize - is that I have no small talk."

Not uncommon indeed. I have the same dread disease. Nice, but not friendly. Being a mother has worked for me in other ways... having the kids allows me SOMETHING to talk about or a reason to leave. My personal fave, as small talk makes me extremely twitchy and socially inept.

I can so relate to what

PS- I added you to my blogroll. Antique Mommy loves you and b/c I love her, that was all the introduction I needed. :)

cinnamon gurl said...

Yes! So that's why I hate the once a year family reunion but have good conversation with a random mom at the park (or work).

Moriah @ Please Pass the Salt said...

Antique Mommy sent me.

I can go either way on the small talk issue. However, with another mom, I can always find an endless source of conversation. Interesting, I think.

Florinda said...

I'm the same way...that type of casual conversation feels like WORK for me much of the time. I've read that asking questions is good when you're not sure what to say, but as a youngster I was discouraged from asking questions and being "nosy" - it's been hard to get past that sometimes.

I'm also antisocial in a similar way - but I'll arrive early so I can at least start out sitting alone, and not have to wade through a crowd.

But what loosens me up isn't babies - it's dogs.

Janet said...

I used to really, really suck at small talk. Really. I find I'm better at it as I age. Curiously, my mother is an intensive introvert but she rocks the small talk. She simply asks a lot of questions of people and always appears interested in their answers. It works; people like her.

Omaha Mama said...

I have found myself becoming more of an introvert as I get older. It is glaringly obvious at church. Everyone is seeking out people to catch up with every week...and I've got nothing besides a smile and head nod. I used to be way better at it, I thought.
In a work or learning setting, where there is discussion going on about a topic, you can't shut me up. So go figure. I also like to blab about myself on the internet. My behavior makes no sense and I'm sure can be found in the DSM-IV somewhere.

Beck said...

I am nightmarishly unpredictable at small talk - some times, it's easy and at other times it's almost impossible and I can't predict when it'll happen. Yahoo.

wheelsonthebus said...

I was just thinking today how I am in a society of women most of the time. I have become more comfortable talking to them than to men -- mothers in particular.

k and c's mom said...

Hi! Got here from Antique Mommy and I'll be back. Love your blogs!

Emmie (Better Make It A Double) said...

Awesome. I too am a non-small-talker and a hider. And thank you for acknowledging that it's not just about shyness, but also interest. I hate insipid, shallow small talk that falls apart anytime anyone is real or honest. It's common, and my dread of it is not entirely based upon presumed awkwardness. Some people really like to hear themselves talk, and all of us are their victims.

jadine said...

You wrote about me!

I mean, when you were writing about you. Not the pregnant secretary lady.

The Other Elle said...

If you sit next to me, we could talk about DES and her books. That is a topic of which I never tire...but, alas, there are so few who share my interest here in the States.

I came to visit via Antique Mommy and have found a kindred spirit. I shall return!

gretchen from lifenut said...

Very interesting and challenging post.

Small talk isn't so small

Without it, we wouldn't have friends, spouses, or any other relationship deeper than a saucer.

You have to start somewhere, and that is often with, "That's a beautiful bracelet." or "I just finished that book. Are you enjoying it?"

A job interview is basically small talk, dressed uncomfortably. The very first conversation you had with your spouse probably began with a classic small talk question or observation. For my husband and me, it was a shared opinion on a book we were reading in class, stated as we walked out the classroom door.

You are probably better at it than you think.

Anonymous said...

This was me until I learned to crack the code. Learning the tools of HOW to make small talk is a huge help. Kind of like an acting class.

It was difficult for me to "go there" with people I don't know, but after learning the script of small talk I am okay with not really caring about the conversation. Freeing!

(Your) Anon

Cyndi said...

Gosh, I feel like that a lot. I have really had to learn to do better. Usually, though, I walk away feeling like an idiot for whatever I said.

Patois said...

Oh, I'm with you on all counts, but one. Even having the common ground of children with someone doesn't help my ability to chit-chat. It's one of the reasons I'll do "traffic circle" duty. At least I'll have something to say, albeit something rude.

Cole said...

That's me too. I notice from the comments how many of us have this particular social stumbling block and I wonder if it might be what draws us to blogging? I also wonder if those of us who struggle the most lurk the most, unsure of even the unique form of small talk that sometimes exists in comments?

the dragonfly said...

Ahh, I'm not really good at small talk either...except with moms. I'm good at talking to moms.

Nora Bee said...

I can do small talk, but it exhausts me. Jeff is as you describe, he just can't do it. So either he has long in-depth TMI conversations or none at all. I guess some people must actually like small talk?

mom2spiritedboy said...

I have never been able to explain myself - "nice but not friendly" sums it up! I have a horrible time with small talk, hate standing there feeling all awkward. Many people take it as being stuck up or disinterested. I honestly don't know what to say (and often times don't want to say anything). I hate cocktail parties and I used to avoid all celebrations/gatherings at my workplace

Mac and Cheese said...

I think I'm quite good at small talk but I hate it. People asking each other questions that they don't care about the answers to makes so little sense to me.

natalie said...

Yippee--a cornucopia of posts this week! You've been missed!

I like the fine distinctions you've made in this post. I think I generally manage to seem friendly (if sometimes awkward), despite my introversion, because I like one on one small talk. But parties kill me. And, oh my, I sympathize with you hiding in the copy room before class. That ten minutes can be horrendous. Might I offer a suggestion? If I am accidentally early, I take a stroll through the halls. If I see a student on the way to class, I give them a bright hello, which I think makes clear that I'm not avoiding them, just taking some time for myself or on my way to the washroom, or whatever.

Susanne said...

I learned how to do small talk. One of the secrets is to remember that you don't have to remember everything people tell you. They don't remember anything either (and since you're a teacher you already know that but it applies to small talk too).

I find myself often talking about either things I'm very interested in right now (while the other person's eyes are glazing over), or starting somewhere fashion related. Complimenting people on their clothes. And I actually do talk about the weather these days.

I have accepted that small talk is something people do merely to not feel so uncomfortable. Mouth-noises.

But I refuse to do it longer than ten minutes in a row.