A Small Town Simplifies Small Talk

Those of you who are glib of tongue, with an apt remark always at the ready, can't truly understand the agonies of the conversationally deprived. We are thankful you exist, because while you are spinning out your endless, effortless stream of verbiage, we're straining to think of something, anything to say. (And by the time we think of it the conversation, or monologue, has moved through several topics.) The Sahara Desert is a veritable Garden of Eden compared with the vast, empty stretches of our conversational landscape.

But for me, things have been looking up recently, conversation-wise. I moved from the big city of Sacramento to a small town (pop. 2,000) in northern California, and I have been picking up lessons and encouragement in the art of small talk.

When I moved here, I promised myself I would adapt as best I could to small-town life. I would slow down and take time to actually talk to people. In the city, one seems to have very little time to chat. There is so much to do, so many things to accomplish. In my previous life as a city newspaper editor, people often seemed to be annoying impediments to getting the paper out every week. I mean, they often wanted to talk to me for no apparent reason, just to visit, for goodness' sake.

In a small town, visiting is central, not peripheral, to life. When you walk out of your house and encounter someone you know, which of course will occur on every block, you are naturally expected to stop and exchange a few words. The same is true when you go into a shop or the post office or the grocery store. A simple comment on the weather to the clerk behind the counter will not suffice. You know this person, after all, so your remarks should not be generic, but customized.

This leads me to the big advantage the small-town small talker has, especially those of us at the training-wheel stage. My mind may be a blank, but the fact that I know the other person means I can ask all sorts of questions about their spouse, kids, girlfriend/boyfriend, job, whatever. Start observing skilled small-talkers, and you'll find this is a common technique, both in the big city and in small towns.

Small-town people are practiced in the art of small talk, and there is a great deal to learn from them. Many have spent their lives standing on corners or in front of hardware stores chatting with one another. The ease, the naturalness with which they carry on these conversations is inspiring and instructive to a bumbler such as I.

In the city, the classic small-talk situation is the 10-to-15-second ride in the elevator. You are thrown together with another person, and the alternative to an awkward silence is to exchange three or four sentences. So you take the plunge: You must avoid false starts and be prepared to carry on a monologue in case your fellow traveler is unresponsive. The standard pattern here is an opening line, then a response from the other person (sometimes), and a final quip delivered over your shoulder as you exit. This is the kind of pressure a stand-up comic might feel on opening night, except at least he or she gets to keep going whether or not the first line bombs.

In the typical small-town encounter, seconds stretch to minutes. If there's a false start, a conversational ploy that leads nowhere, there's plenty of time to try another tack, and your experienced small-towner will be happy to jump in with the needed fresh topic.

In the fast-paced, big-city encounter, the pressure is on to dazzle and entertain. In the small-town variant, there is time to listen and to exchange information. The range of topics is broadened, because some topics, particularly those touching on human relationships, can't be skimmed over. And since you are much more likely to know each other, you have a wealth of topics not available to strangers.

But there is still a major hurdle: the conversation closer. Have you ever found yourself in a lively and interesting conversation that slowly slides toward the mundane and the boring because neither one of you can figure out how to end it?

The small-town folks I've encountered in my new home deal with this challenge simply by taking a more generous, accepting attitude than I usually encountered in the city. There, if by considered effort I summoned up a mildly witty remark as a closer, I would usually be greeted with a blank look and a "Yeah, if you say so" kind of response. Worse, my remark would be misinterpreted as an introduction to a whole new line of conversation.

Here, that same remark will cause my listener's face to brighten just a bit. A chuckle or two might slip out. I know from experience that my comment doesn't really merit that kind of response; the smile and the chuckle are really meant to convey an underlying message: I'm glad I ran into you, I value and respect you as a fellow human being, and I enjoy sharing a little time with you once in a while.

That message is the essence of good small talk and all the other gifts we give each other. It's not what is actually said that's important, but the thought behind it.

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