I spent my first 26 years in the UK, so I always thought I was pretty good at meeting new people. Easy entry points included the weather (past, present and future), the journey to the event (roads, Tube, parking) and of course, if desperate, hope that the Rugby or Big Brother is underway. Sure, I was a bit clunky, but by time we reached the bottom of the glass or cup, I could breathe out and cruise along nicely.
Then I moved to the US.
Here small talk is an art. Something Americans seem to acquire at birth along with self confidence, perfect teeth and a love of crap beer. And therefore a complete and utter mystery to me. 24 hours in the US and I moved from ‘slightly awkward but warms up quick’, to a nervous, twitchy weirdo who needed to find the restroom every 30 seconds.
I tried. Oh boy I tried. I asked my friends for topics, questions, entry points and guidelines for small talk. I watched and listened. I even YouTubed it. I’ve feigned interest in all manner of idiocy (the price of diapers at Target vs. Costco, how the local sports team’s manager sucks) and asked every banal question I can think of (how do you know so and so, home location, career, family trees, whether it will be a good ski season, parking restrictions, the price of milk), but still… crickets.
I don’t think its all on me though. I also think that the people I meet bear some of the blame. Once they’ve gotten through their small talk standards, ‘are you married?’ ‘ how old are your kids?’ ‘where go to school?’ ‘what do you do?’ seem to result in a vacuum in almost every conversation. Once people have asked me ‘do you like America?’ and established that without a husband, family or a familiar background they have nothing in common with me, I can guarantee my ‘new friend’ will need to find a drink/his or her partner/ the Tardis within 37 seconds.
But since I am an adult and small talk is a requirement for survival (and on a date ESSENTIAL), I’ve developed a few strategies to avoid being left staring at my shoes while trying climb inside my own intestines:
- Ask about ‘the team’. I’ve never watched an American football game but asking ’bout the local team seems to have a 99% hit rate with men. I’ve found a lot of smiling, head shaking and ‘for sure’ comments can get us through the first few minutes of awkwardness. If asked about a specific game or player, I always bounce the question back immediately. Men love sharing their knowledge of the intricacies of a sport. And they assume that their opinion is valued.. so I value it. A lot. Just don’t be too enthusiastic or you might wind up roped into a viewing party. Which is basically small talk x 1000 with a specialist vocabulary.
- Find his hobby or ‘used to be his hobby before the kids/house’. Ask about it. Express awe. You might luck out and find an overlap (men seem to manage to maintain hobbies after kids)… and who knows.. you could wind up with a activity buddy. Don’t be too enthusiastic though or you might wind up with angry and suspicious woman stalking you.
- Weekend plans. Grown ups don’t just wake up on Saturday and wonder ‘what should I do with my day’, they have plans. Things already on the calendar. Ask about them. Just don’t admit that your weekend plans typically consist of ‘walk dog’ and then winging it. That doesn’t seem to go down well.
- Ask about the family. 99.99% of women have families and love to share so it’s a surefire winner. Sure, hearing about how stressed she is about whether Jimmy is going to get into a specific daycare/kindergarten/school isn’t as scintillating to you as to her, but hey.. stress is stress. Joy is joy. Her husband/ partner is probably sick to death of the conversation, but women need to process… so be there for her. No woman has ever complained about someone expressing interest in her worries. EVER.
- Complement her hair/makeup/shoes. I’m a sucker for this one so I KNOW it works. And if I luck out and its shoes.. the branches are endless. Foot pain. What to wear on a night out after 40. How you’re considering opting out of heels. Remember that women don’t like to make each other uncomfortable, so likely she’s trying as much as you are to find a connection point. And everyone wears shoes… the rest.. well you can wing it.
If all else fails…
- Play the foreigner card. Turn up the accent. Laugh at your homeland. Applaud their version of your accent. Tell stories of your incompetence in the US. Your bad dates. Mention a blog…. hang on… is this just a very extended bout of small talk???????
…..Um. Do you happen to know where the bathroom is? I really do need to get a refill. Actually I think I need to go feed the meter. I’ll be right back.