Quote of the Day: “Conversation should be pleasant without scurrility, witty without affectation, free without indecency, learned without conceitedness, novel without falsehood.” –William Shakespeare
TB just got back from a whirlwind 1500 mile round trip drive to Folly Beach, South Carolina, to attend a special birthday celebration. It was a lot of fun. I just wish we could’ve spent a few more days on the beach watchin the world go by in slow motion. But we were there to help put on and enjoy a birthday party attended by the honoree’s friends, all strangers to TB. There is a word for my personality type but I don’t know what it is. Actually, there are probably several words, but for purposes of party conversation there is one. It’s a word that describes someone who likes to go to parties where there are new people, but would prefer to be left to his own devices to have his own kind of good time watching everybody else have a good time.
It is not in my nature to make small talk at such events, but through a lifetime of experience and occasional necessity, and to avoid looking like a prick, I’ve learned how to get by. My technique is to say absolutely nothing all the while appearing to say a lot. Here are some common conversational situations with stock, meaningless answers and TB’s more interesting sounding, but identically meaningless substitutions:
Party going stranger–“Hey there, I’m Bob Smith. I saw you sitting over here by yourself and wanted to come over and introduce myself. How are you?”
Instinctive response–“Fine. How’re you?” This will get you a blank stare, a quick, though merciful end to the conversation and a party buzz that a probable prick is in the room. There’s really nothing wrong with it, but it conveys nothing, and it connotes that you don’t give a damn who Bob Smith is and are wondering why in the hell he’s bothering you. The fact that is exactly what you are thinking is not germane here.
TB’s equally meaningless, but socially successful response–“Welllllllll…..” (sip drink) “I’m gettin better and better all the time.” Ok, the drawl tells your assailant you are carefully considering his fascinating query. The drink tells him you’ve taken a moment and decided you can trust him with the truth. And the “gettin better all the time”–you should look across the room and grin when you say this–tells him you’ve got something in mind that is a lot cooler than what his night is looking like. But he assumes you are assuming he’s hip to your hidden meaning and he feels like he’s in on the caper with you. Because you’ve been so good as to let him in on your deep thoughts, he feels man-code bound to scamper off and leave you to your plotting. Nine times out of ten, you’ll get the response, “I hear you man” followed by a knowing nod of the head, raised eyebrows and a quick, friendly departure.
But sometimes the approach is more complex. What if Bob follows up with something like, “so what do you do?” The natural response here is, as usual, the boring, conversationally painful truth. For me, “I’m a lawyer.” I often am so surprised Bob didn’t leave after letting him in on my scheme that I’ll fall prey to this trap. When that happens, it leads to a slow party death exchange of inane responses to questions like, “oh yeah? what kind of law” and “do you know anything about DUI’s” and “have you ever met my brother-in-law’s nephew Smitty? I think he does corporate law.” TB’s tried and true response can prevent this, if only you are alert enough to avoid the trap of answering candidly. Instead of “I’m a lawyer” (or doctor, banker, plumber, etc), say “I piddle.” Sounds stupid right? Try it, it works. Bob will laugh, accepting your gentle unspoken rebuke that shop talk really isn’t appropriate at a party, particularly one at which you are currently scheming.
One final scenario for the truly persistent Bob. He drops the career talk and goes for the jugular. “How do you know (the honoree)?” By now, I’ve realized the perilous position I’ve put myself in by virtue of answering without using the TB guidelines. I know that if I say “my wife is her sister” I’ve blown the whole thing to kingdom come. Not only will it result in Bob calling over some other guy we’ll call Fred to tell him about how you’re a corporate lawyer who can clue him in on DUI law; not only will it result in a long discussion with no response listed in TB’s guidelines about where you are from and who you know two towns over; not only will your night of peaceful introversion be outed; but your original cocky scheming will be exposed as the hollow bluff that it is. This is party armageddon for my type. To avoid this you just keep it simple. “We go back a ways.” This can mean anything and a lot of the possible meanings are clearly inappropriate for public discourse. Unless Bob is a complete dimwit, he’ll accept this answer, attribute your vagueness to gentlemanly discretion and finally, move on down the line.
Of course, there’s always one other option. You can try from the start to respond to Bob truthfully, ask him the same dumb questions back and pass the time until he gets all your boring details and finds someone else to quiz. That’s what I ended up doing this weekend although it was against my every instinct. The Bob that mistakenly thought I looked bored and alone over in my corner turned out to be an alright guy. He even laughed at a couple of my one-liners. Truth be told, I liked him a lot and we’d probably become friends if we met on turf a little more in my comfort zone. But if you see me (or one of my readers) at the next small talk event and hear one of the TB Guideline responses, cut me some slack. I’m really not a prick, maybe just still a little weary from going against the grain on Saturday. And if somebody there isn’t clued in on the guide, keep it quiet for me. I’d prefer they think I have something up my sleeve.