I am an introvert. I am an introvert among introverts, and as such, I want to assure you this is NOT a blog about how to conquer fear and become an expert at small talk. I wish, but no. This is just a little anecdote to assure you that if you are an introvert who is lousy at small talk, you are not alone. If you are an extrovert who’s awesome at small talk, this is a gentle plea to be good to those of us without your superpower. And yes, I truly believe the ability to make small talk is a superpower. And I don’t have it.
Case in point. A few weeks ago I cornered a young woman at church. I’m a late middle-aged mom, and she’s young, just out of college. We’ve talked a couple times briefly, and I’d like to get to know her better. So, I put aside the introvert which was screaming We can just go home now. You remember what happens when you try small talk. It’s never pretty.
Posh. I can do this. Approach, ask a couple questions, get a couple answers. So far so good. But I’m not great at tone or dialogue. I’m a writer, so I can write the perfect dialogue. Out loud, though, I’m a wreck. My husband has expressed a disbelief that someone who can write conversations can’t actually have them, and he’s right. But in books, I control both sides of every conversation, and I can take my time to figure out my next move. Makes a difference.
Back to the girl I’ve cornered. I ask a question, and even to me it just sounds wrong. I asked this girl where she works, and it sounds like a challenge, like maybe I’m daring her to lie to me. I take a deep breath. Surely I didn’t say it that way. But maybe I did. Maybe I should let her move on and talk to someone who’s good at this.
I say a couple more inane things, because I am now certain I’ve done this wrong. Tone of voice is wrong, questions are wrong, and I’m pretty sure the look in her eyes is something akin to How can I escape this lady who is asking me these dumb questions? What I want to say to her is something brutally honest. I want to say, Sweetheart, it’s okay. You can go talk to your friends now. You’re dismissed. You get spiritual brownie points for listening to me this long. But who says that? That’s even a worse fail.
So I ask another question or two. Say something silly, laugh it off, and watch her eyes. I mentioned being a writer. It means I’m not bad at reading people. And this person was tired of me asking her questions. Also, I realized I didn’t offer much of myself. I’m feeling old lately, a little out of touch, and I don’t know if I have anything to offer a young person. Isn’t it better to be interested in someone else? Does anyone really want to hear me go on and on about myself?
Finally, this girl says I think I need to get home now. I need to clean house. Yep. I’m less exciting than cleaning house. And yet I’m pretty happy about this, because I knew I had overstayed my small talk quota. Like I said, I’ve never figured out the rules. When do you ask questions? How do you dissolve one conversation and move to the next? How do you know if someone gives a darn about what you’re saying or is just being polite? If I’m sick of hearing my own voice, does that mean the person I’m with is, too?
So. This girl probably doesn’t even remember our conversation. It was five minutes of her life and likely meant nothing at all. But to an introvert who can’t do small talk, the end of every church service is the same. It can feel traumatic and like a personal failure, that I’ve let down God and my church family.
I’m not a bad friend. Sometimes I’m clever and even make sense. I tell jokes with actual humor and hold conversations with both give and take. And I’m a sweet person who feels incredible love toward the people in my church. Honest. But wow, most people never see that. Only the inner circle, those who were able to get past those first few awkward, painful small talk conversations. I know, it’s amazing, but a few do. I’m thankful for those people, because that small talk wreck? That’s not me. I promise. And I say that for the rest of my introvert sisters and brothers out there–please ignore those first ridiculous moments.We may hide silently in the corners (if you’re lucky!!) or we may strike up awkward conversations, but if you give us a chance, you’ll find that in other situations, we might be worth the effort.
And, by the way, the young lady I cornered–we’ve spoken again. So maybe I didn’t ruin things after all.