Sunday Mail South Australia column for Sunday 29th May 2011: the one about small talk

I suck at small talk. I do. In fact faced with a choice on a Friday night between giving a speech to 1000 people or going to your neighbour’s birthday BBQ where I know no-one and have to “mingle” – well, mic me up baby because I’ll take the speech every time.  (Actually if the third option was to be sitting on the couch, in my pyjamas and slippers, eating Thai takeaway while I watched Roman Holiday – well let’s just say Ding! Ding! Ding! We have a winner. I relish my inner-Nanna. )

So back to my whole “me no speaky small talk” dilemma.  So how can I prefer speaking to 1000 people over having a tete a tete with one?  Easy. Public speaking is really just a one-sided conversation. Nobody is actually talking back. This, according to my husband Brad, works well for me. Like when it’s just me – at home – talking at him.  Or his back.  Or at, say, the space where he was sitting until he moved to the bedroom to get away. From me.  I also tend to leave ridiculously long phone messages for my girlfriends. Messages which are so long that Brad has been known to assume my friend was actually home, on the other end of the phone, you know, listening or something.  I give good monologue.

Then there’s the fact I struggle from STPA (small talk performance anxiety).  My general knowledge is a bit crap, really. It’s not that I don’t read the papers. I do. I’m on news websites all day. And I’m clickety-clicking on stories other than the ones about Arnold Schwarzenegger swinging his pork sword (too much? How about pecker?) around. I just seem to have difficulty retaining the information.  This is possibly because I have dedicated all my brain space to remembering things like the words to every 1980s sitcom theme song.  And quotes from The West Wing (“Education is the silver bullet. Education is everything. We don’t need little changes. We need gigantic monumental changes. Schools should be palaces. The competition for the best teachers should be fierce …”). See? That quote takes up the space that really should be filled with climate change info. Or, maybe, I don’t know algebra. Or something.

For a long time my small talk strategy was to go with the standard, “So how do you know Dave?” line of questioning.  A conversation that lasts all of thirty seconds.  At which time I excuse myself to get a drink and end up hiding in our car and texting Brad from the back seat of our Subaru to say (a) can we go home now? And (b) could he bring me a dim sim on his way out?

This strategy clearly doesn’t always work. Sometimes we get a cab. This is why I decided to approach some worldly friends of mine (the type who like to leave the house) to give me tips on how to fake my way through different conversations when you have absolutely no clue what to say.  At an art gallery? Queensland artist Brett Lethbridge tells me the trick is mastering the “intellectual gaze”. He says, those really in-the-know never talk about the art but rather stare at the piece for at least 45 seconds longer than one would think appropriate, give a little snort through the nostrils indicating a vague sign of impressed indifference and then move on to the next painting for another prolonged stare. A bit like wine tasting.

Politics? Former political media advisor Rick Morton reckons all you need to do is say you celebrate ‘fiscal conservatism’ even if you don’t really know what that means. Even better, just say the word ‘fiscal’ a whole bunch of times in the space of five minutes.

As for books, my friend and fellow author Nick Earls says that if you’re trying to survive a conversation about literary tomes, just hone in on adverbs. Apparently adverbs are out. (Who knew?). So when the name of a book comes up in conversation make a harrumphing noise and follow it with, ‘Sure, but what was with all those adverbs?’

Of course where to take the conversation from there is anyone’s guess. My advice? Grab a dim sim and run.

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About Bec

Over the past 25 years Rebecca Sparrow has earned a living as a travel writer, a television publicist, a marketing executive, a magazine editor, a TV scriptwriter, a radio producer, a newspaper columnist and as an author.

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