Don Rogers: Are you hearing me?
Master small talk and you’ll rule your world.
OK, maybe I’m overstating. But small talk is not small. And it’s not about what is said, at least not precisely.
I don’t think it’s about being clever, funny, wise, topical, networky or dear God, “interesting,” either. It is as much about listening and picking up on what is left unspoken.
To not like small talk is to miss the point. Means you are paying attention to the wrong part.
No one really cares about the weather, those kids today, the cold going around (in simpler times), the Giants (well, maybe the Giants), that show, what we do for a living or all the innumerable, mind-numbing things we might talk about if we don’t know each other.
We’re really trading clues, exploring where there might be connection, raising stakes in each round of reciprocity, our most basic gambit to see if we can build trust. How far can this go?
I don’t mind breaking those taboos against discussing politics or religion. The talk that follows still fits in the “small” box for me, though filled with potential, fraught as opinions may turn out to be.
Agree with each other and here’s another safe round of right on, light still green. Signal differences and yellow flashes, the conversation gets more guarded. So, steer back to familiar avenues? Plunge forward if disagreement won’t scorch your soul?
Beyond this guardrail lies new territory, fresh lessons, a jungle of discovery if we can manage it. I see here as the beginning of the end of the small talk, where we risk no talk at all or enter those deeper depths.
It doesn’t have to be politics or faith. Matters of love, The One, that future spouse — these affairs start small nearly always.
Just think, our most profound relationships depend on small talk. This is the gateway.
Had a conversation in the car with my wife long ago, before kids. A bird on a country road out of Redding caught my eye. She’d noticed, too. Something in the way it flitted, maybe. A flash of red on a wing.
Me: “What’s that?”
Her: “The red-winged blackbird?”
“Yeah, what is it.”
“You mean the red-winged blackbird?”
“Yes, that’s what I mean. What kind of bird?”
“Yes, I can see that. What is it?”
“Are you talking about the red-winged blackbird?” Not really a question.
“Yes, gawd… it. What is it?”
“It’s. A. #$%#. Red. Winged. Blackbird.”
“Well, you don’t have to get all huffy about it.”
We sit in our lawn chairs, relaxing, light golden. We’ll see the grandsons from New York this summer.
“Oliver had T-ball today,” she says.
“How’d it go?”
“Ben pitched, and he hit it pretty good.”
“Wow, cool.” I remember Ben in T-ball with me dad-pitching, and Rachel, calling “Hi Daddy!” and waving from the outfield, sitting in her muumuu of a yellow team shirt and tucking her arm back inside so the skeeters couldn’t get her, yellow ball cap askew. Her brother was more serious, as serious as a 5-year-old got about baseball, anyway.
“Just like Ben,” I add.
She nods. We sit, take in the sunset, both remembering. Remembering way more than T-ball. For me, a lifetime compressed to that moment repeating. Father and son, the national pastime, me and my dad, how many generations?
“Remember the red-winged blackbird?”
“What? Oh,” I say. “I remember being ridiculous. What an idiot.”
She looks over, a trace of a smirk. “No argument there.”
“When are they coming out?” I ask after a moment.
She has the dates and itinerary. Fly to Reno, stay near the airport, visit one of Ollie’s friends from when he lived in Truckee, hike, a week with us while the boys’ parents go to Mexico, then road trip to San Diego — along the way visit other family we haven’t seen since … before. Maybe friends on the way back after the grandsons and their parents catch their plane in San Diego.
“I’m so excited,” she says. “I can’t wait. I’ve missed them so much.”
I wonder, tugging on a beer. Is this a form of small talk, too? If so, it’s not only gateway, but glue.
Don Rogers is the publisher of the Sierra Sun and The Union, based in Grass Valley. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 530-477-4299
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