When I become interested in something, or learn something new for the first time, I get enthusiastic bordering on obsessive. After learning new things and gaining new insights about having an introverted personality, I’m probably going to be blogging about it a lot for a while.
Now, I’ve known I was introverted for a looong time. But I’ve begun to explore it more thoroughly and learn how it connects to a lot of issues I’ve been having. One of those issues I’ve written about before: not feeling like an adult because I didn’t have “adult” things to talk about. After reading more about the general tendencies of introverts, I realized that the problem may not be a lack of maturity so much as my dislike of small talk.
For ages now, I’ve known that I hated small talk. I was not aware, until the last couple of days, that it was associated with introversion, and my personality type in particular. I thought that not wanting to talk about things other people talked about—kids, essential oils, or furniture arranging—only meant that I was weird, or immature, or selfish. (I still am, but perhaps not in this context.)
For the record: I know you can’t always get down to deep, nitty-gritty topics, especially early on in an acquaintance, and I realize that maturity involves listening to or asking other people about things that matter to them, even if those particular things make no difference to me. I’ve been on both sides of the discomfort–bringing up a deep topic too soon in an acquaintance, and being expected to divulge personal information too soon–so I get it.
Part of the small-talk issue is exquisitely expressed in a Hyperbole and a Half post:
“She’s extremely passionate about a variety of things that you have no real interest in, like veganism and the healing properties of soy. She can talk about these things for hours without pause. While you don’t mind that she feels that way, you don’t particularly want to hear about it in such great detail.”
This is how I am when people talk about their kids*, a new sofa, their use of essential oils, or the restaurant they went to for their birthday three years ago. I don’t have a problem with their kids, new sofa, essential oils, or restaurant. I care about people—their health, well-being, futures, etc.—but I may not care about those particular details. I will try to listen politely and, if given the chance, I might even ask questions. But I cannot feign more interest than I have, and I am uncomfortable when I am obligated to listen to, and participate in, this kind of conversation for an extended length of time. To do so is to exert my limited social energy that is better spent elsewhere. (I speak for myself here; I cannot speak for other introverts.) I know that fairness, politeness, and social “rules” do not allow me to have my own way all the time, and I do try to work with that. That does not change the fact that it is difficult and often frustrating for me.
*(Referring to kids as “small talk” is a tricky thing, because they’re not always, but here’s where I draw the line: I don’t care about most people I haven’t met. Not that I wish ill upon them, or am not sorry to hear something unfortunate about them, but I simply cannot exert energy and interest for them. So if someone I don’t know well is telling me about their kids that I’ve never met, I call that small talk. If I know a person and their kids, I am far more interested, especially if I have known them for quite a while.)
If you plop me down in the middle of a group of women talking about a recipe they found on Pinterest, their new curtains, or bridesmaids dresses, I will be bored to tears. This does not mean I don’t like those women or am not interested in their lives. But to me, those things are small talk.
Now, there’s a place for small talk, even I will say. It’s for when you pass someone you know in the grocery store, or when you say hi to a new acquaintance for five minutes after church. Of course that is not the time to bring up major issues or to be too truthful in answering “So how are you doing?” because there isn’t time for that. But when I am going to be with people for a while (an hour at a party, or a two-hour meeting of my church group), or with someone I have known for a long time, I don’t want to spend that time in idle chit-chat.
If you took the same group of women and got them talking about a significant change coming up in their lives, an issue they are having at work, formative events in their childhood, a goal they are trying to meet, or frustrating miscommunications with their husbands, I will not only listen gladly but I will be invested in the conversation because I see those topics as important. (Heck, most of the time I don’t even mind hearing details about a person’s medical conditions, even total strangers.)
But for some people, a particular recipe or new curtains may hold importance that I cannot comprehend. If that is the case, I’m eager to hear why: Why is this important to them? Since when? What do they get out of it? But that takes things like recipes and curtains and bridesmaid dresses and restaurants out of the realm of small talk and into a more intense realm of ideas and significance. Those are the types of conversations that I crave. As I said before, I realize this is not possible in every social encounter. I’m still trying to figure out a balance.
I’ve just had a thought. I wonder if this is one reason why I tell stories: it attaches significance to something that I might otherwise find tedious.
Hypothetically, let’s say I go to a coffee shop with a couple other women, and I decide to try something new, just because. In my experience with females, after everyone has placed their orders, and early in the beverages’ consumption, there may be a length of time in which everyone will have to tell the rest of the group what they ordered, tell them what they usually order if not that, compare the menu with those of other places, talk about their favorite seasonal varieties, how you can replicate the experience at home, and discuss whether the version you can get at the grocery store is as good. This is small talk.
Oh boy, is it ever.
I, on the other hand, will get my order, taste it, and, after the inevitable “What do you think?” I will give an extremely short answer—partly because I may need more time to develop my opinion, but mostly because it’s a f*cking cup of coffee.
If we alter the scenario, and I order my favorite drink (well, not my favorite drink—you can’t get gin & tonic at Starbucks), it is very likely that I will say “You know, there’s a story about this…” and then go on to share some anecdote about my very first experience with this drink, or why I started to choose it in the first place. In a desperate attempt to add significance to an otherwise tedious conversation, I lavish my companions with details and meaning far beyond anything they wanted to know. I’m finally mildly invested in a conversation about coffee, but in yanking the topic out of the hands of small talk, I slaughter it in the process. My companions did not actually want to know the wacky hijinks associated with this coffee or how I stopped drinking another kind because of a childhood trauma—and so they move on to another light, comfortable, and mundane topic. And I am left not only where I started, but worse off, because now I feel awkward on top of already feeling bored and excluded.
This is one reason why it’s hard for me to be social in a group. One-on-one, it is easier to find a common interest to talk about. In groups, the topic usually stays in a more mundane place, much to my helpless annoyance.
(To be clear: I’m not writing these things to ask the world to comply with my demands. I’m just exploring ideas and explaining my perspective.)
And so I ask my readers, especially my new introvert readers: What’s your experience with this? Do you find small talk difficult, or annoying? Why or why not? How do you deal with it?