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There is Nothing Small about Small Talk

Updated on May 24, 2012

Here at the marina where I live, many times the half-minute walk down the dock takes a half-hour because one person after another starts a conversation with you. Sometimes it is a real bother; most times it is great fun.

At the annoying low range of the conversations is talking (actually, just listening) about the other person’s personal problems (that I can’t do anything about: they don’t want – and won’t take - advice or help, so what do they want, a daily dose of sympathy for the common problems of life?) Only slightly better are the excessively, irreverently detailed accounts of their current boat projects (Umm, my friend, I’ve just had my morning coffee and I am now walking up the dock to the head (restroom) on a “mission from God,” so no, I don’t want a recital of your project measurements or your parts price list.) Rising above and out of the bothersome category are the neutral exchanges of information (do you know how to do this or that; can I borrow a tool, etc.) The best, at the top of my list, is the playful small talk. Sometimes it is just merely amusing, but sometimes it is great fun, so yes, there is an art to it.

Here’s an example:

There's a 72 year-old man here who has been working for the marina owner for decades, and recently he built a gazebo on the marina grounds. He did a fine job, with lots of fancy joints and details, and he did it all without any kind of blueprints. Like many carpenters, while working he kept a pencil handily slid up between his head and ball cap. He lost it one day and found it the next, in the gravel parking lot, broken in two. For the next three days, that little broken pencil supplied a lot of fun for many of us. Bits of the ensuing conversations went like this:

“Ms. Z.! When are you going to learn how to drive?”

“What are you talking about?”

L. held up the two pieces of pencil. “I found what used to be my favorite pencil where you usually park. Didn’t you see it?”

“Well, no, I did not. But why are you littering in the parking lot? That’s bad manners AND it’s against the law.”

“I wasn’t littering! That’s where I keep it. It’s YELLOW so you can see it! Learn to drive!”

“Did you hear that Ms. Z. maliciously destroyed L’s favorite pencil?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Oh, that’s right; I forgot. Where you come from a pencil is called a “writing stick.” She drove her car over L’s favorite writing stick.”

“A ‘writing stick’? Do you mean a ‘cypherin’ stick?”

L.: “Hey, J. Look what your friend did to my favorite pencil. My mother gave this to me in 1947. It was special to me, and look what she did!”

J.: “Wow. Y’know, you could fix it with a little duct tape. But you’ll need something stiff across the joint, like a splint. You know what would work is another pencil: you could use that for the splint.”

Every couple of hours, passing on the piers, someone would say, “Y’know, I was thinking about L.’s pencil . . .” After three days, one of us commented how much mileage we were all getting out of a broken pencil, and another replied, “Ya, isn’t that great?!”

Translation of all the pencil talk: “I enjoy you, and it’s worth my time to talk nonsense with you.”

When the student is ready . . .

I have to credit my father for helping me practice small talk. These days, 300 miles apart, most of our phone conversations go something like this:

Me (at 9:30 a.m.): Damn, Dad, it’s about time you answered: I’ve been calling all day!

Him: You lie like hell! If your mother were here she’d slap you silly. Whaddya want? Spit it out, boy, ‘cause I’m busy!

Me: Busy? You, busy?

Him: That’s right! This morning I wrote an opera, and now I’m getting ready to paint the house. Whaddya want?

Me: You sound like you’re horizontal. You haven’t even gotten out of bed yet.

Him: I saidddd, I’m getting ready to paint the house. I’m planning my work. I could start painting in the kitchen, and then do the living room, and then the bedrooms. Or, I could start with the bedrooms, and then . . .”

Me: Hey!

Him: Which bedroom do you think I should do first? The back one on the front side or . . .

Me: Hey!

Him: And I’m still deciding on the color. Whaddya think of “Australian Moonrise”? It’s an off-white. Do you know how many shades of white there are these days? Why, when I was a kid . . .

Me: Hey!

Him: What?

Me: I don’t want to talk you anymore.

Him: Who is this, anyway?

Me: Your son, Mik.

Him: Mik? No, no, no. I don’t know how many times I have to tell you: I am not Darth Vader, and I am not your father. Your real father is that guy down the street, y’know, the funny-looking guy with the 25 cats living in his house and the washing machine on the front porch? The one that tries to sing like Elvis all the time? You should call him in the morning, wake him up. I mean, interrupt his work. He’s not so bad. Y’know, years ago, he was a great guy before your mother broke his heart. Hold on, hold on: I gotta go to the bathroom. Talking with you always makes me want to go to the bathroom. Why, I don’t know; I’m just sayin’ . . .”

Me: Okay, okay, I’ll let you get off the phone. I called just to ask you one quick question.

Him: What is it? I’m getting up, going to the bathroom; gotta go!

Me: Well . . . y’know when . . . I mean, y’know how . . . the abc’s, the alphabet . . .

Him: You better hurry up!

Me: The abc’s: are they in that order because of the song?

Him: (Click)


Me: “Hey, old man, how you doing today?”

Him: “I’m feeling fine. Thanks for checking.”

Me: “Okay, ‘love ya.”

Him: “Ya, I love you, too.”

Oscar Wilde at the VFW

Once, when visiting my father, we went to the local VFW for a beer with his friends. Sitting at a table with several retired men, part of the conversation went like this:

Old man #1: I have a sport coat I can’t use. Anybody want it?

Old man #2: What size is it?

Old man #1: 38

Old man #3: He ain’t 38 years old! Look at him! He’s at least a hundred and ten!

Old man #4: No; he was born in ’38.

Old man #5: What? 38? It’s colder than 38 – it was snowing this morning, you dumb donkey!

Old man #2: No! He’s talking about a sport coat he wants to get rid of!

Old man #5: Sport coats? You have 38 sport coats? How can you use 38 sport coats? You should give some away.

Old man #3: What size are they?

If you didn’t know these guys, you’d think they were all just a little hard of hearing, but no, they say these things with almost straight faces.

When you’re an early adolescent, you tend to believe you appear “big” if you talk about serious things, or even talk about small things seriously. Well, after several decades, finally I think I’ve pretty much grown out of that phase. In a way, being able to talk about small stuff and silly things is evidence of emotional maturity, security, and maybe even emotional sophistication: you have enough of your life issues settled, freeing you to play. As Oscar Wilde said, “Seriousness is the last refuge of the shallow.” There is nothing small about small talk.


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