I LIKE TO CONSIDER MYSELF A “PEOPLE PERSON.” YOU KNOW, GOOD COMMUNICATION SKILLS, EMPATHETIC. KIND AND THOUGHTFUL. I’M SURE SOME WOULD EVEN DESCRIBE ME AS SELFLESS. AND BY VIRTUE OF SUCH AN ENVIABLE QUALITY, I LIKE A GOOD NATTER, WHETHER IT’S GOSSIP, A BIT OF EYELASH-BATTING FLIRTY-FLIRT OR A DRUNKEN BUT DEEP AND MEANINGFUL CONVERSATION. BUT THERE IS ONE TYPE OF INTERLOCUTION THAT IS HARD TO AVOID. SMALL TALK.
Sometimes, small talk is necessary. At the start of a date, for example, it’s a good idea to ascertain the name, job, sexual history and life goals of your dinner partner. Strictly speaking, I suppose the latter two might not be classified as small talk. But anyway, unnecessary small talk is far more common. Someone you don’t know very well charges up to you, whether you’re at a party or innocently walking down the street, and launches into conversation. When this person has an ounce of social awareness, after a blessedly brief round of how are yous and perhaps a follow up question about a mutual friend, they will make some excuse and depart with haste. On the other hand, your assailant might be a thick-skinned individual with no social sensibilities. They will express an inexplicable interest in the mundane, going on about the weather, shared history, or worst, their children or own lives, which they assume you will be interested in when in fact you would prefer to have your tongue hammered wafer thin with a meat tenderiser and stapled to the floor with a croquet hoop (#BlackadderQuotes).
Obviously, if you’re at a social function, small talk can be useful as a springboard into more entertaining conversations. But it’s the kind of awkward chit-chat that overstays its welcome which needs to be kept at bay.
Never fear, there are tactics you can use which might enhance these kinds of encounters. If you can extricate yourself, safer options are the classics: nature calling, drink refills, or the fake phone call. In the case of the former two, it’s best to say this excuse quickly and peg it, rather than wait for them to chime in with “me too!” and follow you like a stray dog delighted at finding a new owner. Another way of dealing with an overzealous space invader is to try and be as dull as possible. Do your best to shoot down any conversational gambit they attempt by giving neutral, dead-end answers. E.g. “Oh my GOD! How ARE you?” “Fine, yeah, fine.” “What’ve you been UP to?” “Ah, you know the usual, same old same old.” “Are you still working at, um…” “Yeah, that’s right.” Don’t volunteer information. Don’t respond with another question. In the case of old school friends, you could pretend not to remember them. Or call them by the wrong name. Or even pretend that you aren’t you. (This would be an ideal moment to employ a fake accent. I prefer French because my Welsh tends to go a bit Jamaican after a couple of sentences). The thing I really hate is that I end up showing a weird amount of interest in their chosen topic. E.g. Annoying Acquaintance: “Isn’t this awful weather we’ve been having?” Me: “Yes! I know! I’ve been measuring the amount of rain using my old udometer but obviously the wind has really caused some issues with that and it’s nowhere near as accurate as my parents’ optical rain gauge. Apparently it’s even worse than The Great Gale Season of 1923…” Yes, admittedly, sometimes the Annoying Acquaintance mumbles something in response and flees. But sometimes they come back with a similarly delighted and jargon-filled response. In this situation I find it best to invent a sudden migraine, lost child or similar.
Sometimes oversharing can repel unwanted small talkers. This will work if your assailant is a bit of a prude, or at least, not expecting such a truckload of personal information. Choose your victim carefully – if you’re inventing the overshare you want to make sure it doesn’t go too far and surprised friends suddenly start asking you about your nose job/clitoral piercing/erectile dysfunction. Delivery is key. If you underdo it, then your assailant may think you really want their advice on self esteem/allergic reactions/viagra. Do not allow them to think this is an option. Your goal is to make them feel freaked out, not welcome to pry in your life.
Then of course one can just be honest. Which may or may not be the same as being gratuitously offensive. A friend of mine who is the epitome of in vino veritas often anticipates such attacks and deals with it by just saying “No. Not today. I do not, repeat not, want to talk to you.” This nips it in the bud and has a guaranteed 100% success rate. But I’m not sure that it’s something I could get away with and not feel hideously guilty afterwards. After all, I’m a people person. I have to be kind and thoughtful when trying to get small talkers to bugger off.