My Pitiful Small Talk Skills Pale


I’ve always considered my education to be an ongoing experience and not something left off when I stopped going to school. I want to learn more about people, about sports certainly, about the arts and politics, but I have discovered that no matter how much I move forward in my quest, I can always manage to find someone who is way ahead of me. It’s like a game board where I move three or four places ahead only to be bumped off the board by the very next player.

Each time I get bumped off the virtual board, it feels like I’ve been trying to use the inflight business class bathroom and the flight attendant points me back to the economy seats and I start the walk of shame to the back of the plane.

Bottom line? I suck at small talk.

We can try the arts first.

Me: “I saw that so-and-so died last week. You know, I loved her singing.”

Other Guy: “I know. Tragic. I remember the first time I sang with her in . . . “

(Door slams shut, cymbals crash.)

Let’s stay on singing for a minute.

Me: “I’m a singer, too. I just love Mozart’s early works.”

Other Guy: “Singer, really? Do you sing at the Met, clubs, with a band?”

Me: “Well, no, but I sing at church and I once sang in an opera chorus in Iowa one summer in the 80s.”

(Slam. No cymbals necessary, please.)

Oh, there’s more.

Me: “I sang in Beethoven’s Ninth once when I was in college. It was tremendous, sitting in the alto section of the chorus, waiting for the chance to stand up and join in that great music making.”

Other Guy: “Oh, I know. I conducted the Ninth when I was in college.”


How about sports?

Me: “I love watching men’s tennis. Did you see the Federer-Murray match with John McEnroe doing the commentating?”

Other Guy: “I know! Such great tennis. I used to play McEnroe on Long Island years ago and spent Christmas with his family.”

(Grand slam.)

Travel? I like to travel.

Me: “I was in Morocco two years ago. I spent a long weekend in Tangier with my daughter and just loved it. The shopping, the Casbah, the tagine.”

Other Guy: “You’re so right. I lived in Morocco for years and just took Anthony Bourdain on a private tour of Moroccan cuisine. Did you get to see it when it aired on CNN?”


More travel.

Me: “I love Paris. When I go, I really love to sit in front of Notre Dame Cathedral and watch the tourists line up to get in.”

Other Guy: “That’s quite a spot. You know, there’s a great view of Paris from the top of the flying buttresses. Next time you go, be sure to remind me to give you the name of the priest with the keys to the bell room. He’s got a real natural sense of humor, but just don’t ask him about Quasimodo, OK?”


I think you can see where this is going. I do not want to impress people. I know that’s always going to be a losing proposition. But I want to stay in the game and I keep getting tossed out.

Me: “I like to write. I’ve written poems, short stories, some personal essays, even a few travelogues.”

Other Guy: “Terrific. Which publisher are you with?”

(Slam. End quote.)

So, the pattern is clear. Maybe I start with asking the Other Guy about what he does. I could do that, hell, I have done that, lots of times. But then it just ends up coming back to me and I still get bounced. All this feels like I am trying to join a private club for which I never have enough of whatever it takes to get in. I know there’s really no such thing as a private club because everything can be yours at a price, but much in the way poor people are kept out of expensive restaurants, poor me can’t get arrested in life’s small talk. I keep looking for common ground and ways to connect with people by sharing little bits of what I know. But I keep finding my little bits get smaller and smaller the more of them I acquire.

Imagine the scene from the ’90s sitcom Friends, where Joey teaches Ross a foolproof way to get a girl by telling her a story about hiking in Barcelona. Ross tried the story on a girl who, unfortunately for his plans, knew way more about hiking in Barcelona than he did and he failed miserably.

I’ve been to Barcelona but let’s keep that to ourselves. For the moment, I think I’ll stick to episodes of Mad Men. I can’t quote the past seasons, but I did watch Peggy stab Abe, so I’m good.

Contributor Anne Born has been an editor and writer all her life.  She writes poems, short stories, and personal essays on family history and her view of living in a big city after growing up in a small one.  She likes an audience or she would keep her writing in her personal notebook.  This embarrasses her children.  She lives in the South Bronx and writes on and about the MTA – the New York City system of buses and subways. You also find her at Open Salon and Red Room, and you can follow her on Twitter at @nilesite.

Image via iStockphoto/Catherine Yeulet

  • Amy McVay Abbott

    Oh,. Anne, this is hilarious and sooooo relevant. I wish you could come to Indiana where you would be the Queen of Everything!!!! However, even Hoosiers get on a high horse now and then. My husband is a college professor and 25 years ago when we came here, the university gave us a welcome party.

    At the party, another professor siddled up to me and said, “So when traveling in Russia, do you buy your rubles here or when you get there?”

    Having cashed in my limited retirement funds at the age of 29 to move us from Florida to Indiana when husband completed graduate school, going to Red Square WAS NOT at the top of my list.

    For me, class is when someone underplays their hand in these kinds of conversations, and makes the other person feel better about herself. You are the classy one here, lady.

    • Anne Born

      Thanks, Amy! I think it’s better to ruble up before you go, but that’s only because I do not speak or read Russian!

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