One of my colleagues is a woman in her late thirties. She’s intelligent and seems to have a good sense of humour but has the worst conversation skills I’ve encountered in a long time. It’s got to the point that when I sense I’m about to get sucked into one of her conversational vortexes, I’ll do anything to avoid it; pretend to make a phone call, shuffle paperwork, go to the loo or fashion a rope out of my stock of spare tights and abseil out the window.
It’s not just that her topics of conversation are tedious or that she has a fairly chronic case of verbal diarrhoea; it’s that she seems to miss conversational cues that most people get immediately. She finishes speaking and I have nothing to say so I’ll do the usual ‘Well, anyway…’ and turn back to my desk but she doesn’t turn away. She sits there, looking at me. Now, I hate that kind of heavy, expectant silence and I have to fill it; it’s like a tic. “Well what can you do, eh? Anyway…” I go to turn away again but she’s still looking at me. At this point I want to hold up a placard saying ‘CONVERSATION OVER. PLEASE GO ABOUT YOUR BUSINESS’.
Small talk is hard enough without having to engage in it with people who have the sensitivity of a lump hammer. I loathe small talk and the worst kind is definitely with work colleagues. At least at work there are distractions and props to help you cope with the inevitable inanity but the mere mention of the words ‘work do’ make me want to feed myself into the shredder, face first. At a work do, you are flung together with people who are not friends or family and with whom you probably have very little in common except the fact you share a bin, but you’re expected to behave as though they’re scintillating company. This is despite the fact that when they eat a falafel wrap for the nineteenth lunch in a row you want to strangle them with the phone cord.
Despite finding forced social situations excruciating, I often leave them feeling as though I should have been paid for services to social interaction, having kept a table of ten people entertained from the smoked salmon to the petit fours. I dread Christmas work events. I have faked phone calls, smoked outside incessantly and on one occasion simply got my coat and left because of the sheer pressure of making small talk. I can’t bear the mindless chatter about the weather/cars/mortgages/X Factor and in the run up to any work event I check my eyes hourly for signs of jaundice that might indicate a ‘get out of jail free…with liver failure’ card.
I’m not sure what the alternative is, though. We can’t all stand around stiffly, having VERY IMPORTANT DISCUSSIONS ABOUT SOCIETY, because then life would resemble the Tory Party Conference. In a way I suppose small talk is essential; it fills silences, bridges gaps, relaxes people and creates the kind of hub-bub at a work do that reassures the organiser (usually a PA) that it’s going well as she slings back another large gin and wishes she hadn’t spent the stationery budget on an ice sculpture. If only it wasn’t such hard work. So, anyway…