Friday, June 06, 2014

A Professional Communicator's Confession About Small Talk

As a professional communicator, I'm supposed to be good at all types of communication. I've been a writer since I was 20, I'm completely at ease meeting new people, and I'm one of those weirdos who loves speaking in public. You could stick me in a room full of complete strangers, and within an hour, I'll meet five of them, arrange coffee meetings with three more, and introduce two people who can help each other with a new project.

I'm good at almost any kind of communication, but to my great embarrassment, I have one glaring deficiency, one weakness that keeps me from being an all-around player.

I suck at small talk.

Not the "get to know you" chit-chat between two people who have just met, or the catching up talk between two friends who haven't seen each other for a while. I'm awesome at that. Just ask my kids. "Daddy can't go anywhere without talking to strangers." I've done that since I was three.

No, I'm terrible at the unexpected small talk that happens when someone says something more complicated than Hello.

I mean, I can handle Hello just fine. I kill at Hello, Hi, and Howdy. And I crush it on 
How the Hell Are You? I'm even a pretty dab hand at Good-bye. I know them all: See You Later. Ciao. Spater, Gator. All the classics.

But trying to make idle small talk is about as difficult as spatial geometry. At least with spatial geometry, I've got a slight chance of saying something right if I just holler "SEVEN!"

A couple weeks ago, as I was leaving for work, some of the moms on our street were gathered after seeing their kids off to school. One of their very young children hollered to me, "Hi, good morning!"

I called "Hi" back, because as I said, I'm an expert at Hello.

Then one of the moms said, "you got your own morning welcoming committee."

"Oh crap," shrieked my brain. "She said something that wasn't Hello. What do I do? Say something! What are you doing? They're all looking at you. SAY SOMETHING SO THEY DON'T THINK YOU'RE CREEPY!"

"Yeah!" I said, and waved. As I drove away, I started yelling at myself.

"'Yeah?' 'YEAH?!' What is your problem? Someone says something nice, and you respond with 'yeah'?" Great, now I can talk and it's to myself.

"I didn't see you throwing out any great responses, Captain Brainfart."

"You were stumped by a four-year-old and his mom! You could have shouted 'I like potato' for all the good it did. At least that's a complete sentence."

"Oh yeah? Well. . . you have. . . eyebrows. . . are stupid."

And now my day is complete. I can't even argue with myself without sounding like an idiot. Sheldon Cooper is better at small talk than me.

Where I get into real trouble is when someone hits me with something harder than Hello.

Working Hard or Hardly Working? puts me in a panic. How do I answer that? "Yes?" "The first one?" I struggle to find the funny answer versus what I should say when my boss is nearby.

"Who wants to know?" I once said back. My brain screamed, "I thought you were clever!"

The problem is, I try to avoid clich├ęs when I write or talk, so I never know how to deal with them or what to say. Based on my observations of other people, I believe the correct response to this one is to guffaw as if I've never heard it before, and say, "Boy, they'll let anyone in here these days. How you doin', you old so-and-so?"

At least that's how the old men who gather at McDonald's every morning do it. I'll never be in their league.

Hot Enough For You? is another puzzler. When I'm outside in July, my hair is soaked, and my shirt looks like Mickey Mouse hugged me with a wet head, and I'm asked, "hot enough for you," I stare blankly, wondering if they're really that stupid, or if I'm on a new episode of Punk'd.

All I can muster is "it's not the heat, it's the humidity." Just once, I'd like to say something clever like "it's not the heat, it's the stupidity," but my wife says that's rude, so I keep it to myself.

This has been an ongoing problem, and one that I'm not going to solve anytime soon, if ever. If you meet me, just start slowly, and be patient with me. I'm still learning. Stick with the basics. Hello and How Are You are both good.

Just don't ask me where I've been keeping myself. I haven't worked that out yet.

The second edition of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself (affiliate link), and No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing are both available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Books-A-Million, or for the Kindle or Nook. My latest book, The Owned Media Doctrine is now available on

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