The Fine Art of Small Talk

Home Writing Essays The Fine Art of Small Talk

I’m halfway down the aisle marked Household Products, trying to recall what I am doing there, when a clerk wearing a smile that mirrors his happy-face button interrupts me. “Finding everything you are looking for?” he asks.

This is one of those imponderable questions, like “Writing any good books lately?” that leaves me mentally shaken. It brings to mind a Zen riddle: coming up with any kind of answer doesn’t solve the problem of what the question really means.

I want to tell him, no, I haven’t found everything, I haven’t found inner peace yet, for example. But I don’t; I behave. “I found Cheer, but I can’t find Joy. You didn’t have Joy last time I looked for it, either.”

The clerk checks in the back and returns with the news that Joy may have been discontinued. “Enjoy the rest of your day,” he calls after me, as I trudge towards the check-out counter with my Cheer. “How are you today?” the checker asks, as I unload my cart.

How’s it going? What have you been up to? How’s life treating you?” “It’s almost universally understood that these questions are a form of greeting, not a sincere inquiry,” my psychiatrist counsels me. “Try not to take it personally.”

But, here’s the rub: I’m a person. How else am I to take it, if not personally? Furthermore, when someone asks me how am I doing they put me in the awkward position of having to lie, as in “Super, couldn’t be greater,” or the even more embarrassing position of burdening them with an honest reply.

“How am I today? I am not unwell,” I tell the checker at the grocery store.

“Awesome!” she replies. “Would you like plastic or paper?”

I want to wax original, say “Canadian French Gimp.” But I don’t. I behave, say, plastic’s fine. “Do you want your Cheer in a bag, also?” she perseveres. The truth is I don’t know what I want. The checker seems to be coming to the same conclusion. She pastes a happy face sticker on my box of laundry detergent, and says, “Have a nice day.”

I’ll do my best. Most people have very little control over the kind of day they are going to have, observes George Carlin in his latest book, “When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops.” Carlin says that when a person directs another to “Have a nice day,” the other may be thinking, ‘I’ve just been diagnosed with hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, and I’m also coughing up thick black stuff.’ “In this instance the well-wisher’s words will fall on deaf ears.”

It is also unrealistic to expect a person to have a “nice day” all day long, I think, as I proceed to my vehicle, parked in a spot where I have successfully parked for the last twenty years but which has recently, according to the amended print on the sign, been designated a “Tour Bus Zone.” My days usually start off okay, but any moments of niceness I might experience are difficult to sustain over extended periods. Something always comes along to spoil my chances of having an uninterruptedly nice day. Like arriving at my car just as the commissioner tucks the parking ticket under my windshield wiper. “I’m sorry,” he says. “Have a nice day.”

A simple “goodbye” without any dubious wishes for a specific type of day, in this case, would suffice. But lately I’ve noticed a tendency for strangers to get even more personal.

“How’s your day going so far?” is not the sort of question I should be obliged to answer at the pharmacy check-out counter. My day might get a whole lot nicer after I down my recommended dose but at this point the check-out girl’s polite inquiry seems ill-timed. Did she not notice that I am purchasing anti-psychotic medicine rather, than, say, balloons and confetti for a Thanksgiving fete?

My friends – those with whom I remain on speaking terms – accuse me of not being small talk savvy. I, too could become skilled in the fine art of small talk, with practice. So, I practice. Glimpsing a familiar face outside the liquor store, I call out, “Hi, Your Honour, how’s it hanging? When did they let you out of rehab?”

“Not bad. And yourself?” the former Supreme Court Judge fires back, before shifting his gaze everywhere but in my direction. I get the feeling he isn’t sincerely listening.

“So, what’s the rest of your day about?” a clerk at the liquor store probes when I go to pay for my commodity.

“Can’t complain, how’s tricks?” I reciprocate.

“You bet. Keeping busy?”

“I’m taking the rest of my life off,” I state.

Home Writing Essays The Fine Art of Small Talk