Friday, February 1, 2008

"'s the family?"

i've never been one for too much conversation
but now i choose my words so carefully

"Hey Jennifer"
"Oh, Hey Maya! How're you?"

And that's where my conversation skills end.

The above (beginning of a) conversation took place at the Wal-Mart last weekend. I ran into an old friend from high school who I actually see fairly often when I'm out and about. It seems like I would know how to talk to her since I've known her pretty much my entire life. But when I started updating her on things, I realized that I had absolutely no idea of what I was saying. Still, I did pretty well when she updated me. I told her I was proud of a new project she was starting and I offered to volunteer when her non-profit takes off. But then I didn't know what to add - so I kind of repeated myself. And I said goodbye feeling like I had shown up at a black tie party wearing flannel and hiking boots.

I have NEVER been very good at talking to people. I HATE crowded parties and I HATE trying to come up with pleasantries when I unexpectedly run into a person. It's not that I don't enjoy seeing these folks or people-watching at the party. It's just that you're always expected to make small talk at these things. I have no idea of how to do it - or rather, I have no natural gift for it. If I try, I usually end up making a complete fool of myself and I reflect back on the attempt and feel every bit as embarassed and mortified as I did at the time when it happened.

On the other hand, I'm very good just one on one, talking "non" small talk, and people are always coming to me for advice on their problems - probably because I listen more than I talk. And of course, I have no problem with my friends. That, and for some reason, there are some strangers I can just talk to. I have no idea of what the difference is. Maybe my intuition is telling me, "Hey, here's your chance to prove that you're not a social leper." I'm brilliant with these people.

It's just the other 99.9% of the population I need to work on.

I've been making attempts to improve my social skills the past few years since I realized exactly how snooty I must appear if I don't talk to people. In the past, I didn't need to talk to people because my mother usually took the burdon of small talk. But now that I'm an adult and (for all intents and purposes) a key representative of my family, I have to step up.

In addition to the family need to learn how to make small talk, there's a horribly unfair pressure for Southern female office workers to gossip and know everything that's going on with coworkers, their kids, and their families. I really really try, but they can sense that I'm not really interested in their mother's horrible case of gout. Yes, I'm sorry that your mother is suffering, but I don't know how to have a whole conversation about it. And yes, it's wonderful that your kid is doing well in Math, but I don't have any kids to trade stories about. Same thing goes for husbands and in-laws. And all this makes me look anti-social, snooty, selfish, or just plain mean.

But that's never the case. I love people. I love to people-watch. I'm a novelist, and I get ideas from people - characters even. I'm constantly amazed (but never shocked) by the things that people can come up with and the things they do. I'm fascinated by any new personality type or idiosyncracy that I haven't encountered before. I love it when people surprise me. I can even forgive and understand people I don't like, and I appreciate the experience in dealing with difficult people.

I just don't quite know how to show it.

So this is one of my "self-improvement" topics for the coming year. I'll practice a little, and maybe learn how don't to be so nervous-talky when I see people.

So if you see me out and about somewhere, and you leave the conversation thinking, "Is she okay?" - just remember: I'm learning.

And you can learn about Cory Branan doing "Miss Ferguson"


  1. Poor Jennifer. I do know how you feel though. There's nothing worse than small talk. I always give those random meetings 5 minutes before I make a break for it.

  2. So, how is Maya's family? :D

    I bumped into her somewhere in C-town a few years ago. She was a hollerin' my name before I even figured out who was yelling at me.

    I hate feeling pressured to respond to someone that's talking about things I don't care much about. I try to keep the comments short, simple and smile occasionally. Ask Sarah how that's working out (just kidding!). Why do you need to step up and be a productive member of the family? What happened to your brother? Make him be responsible! ;)


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