Recently I’ve been avoiding the gas station I typically stop at because of an overly outgoing guy from Boston. Every interaction I’ve had with him, he’s been all smiles and stories of the day – with each customer – and I found it so endearing. Probably in his mid twenties and a new transplant to Colorado, his enthusiasm is contagious. Such a nice guy. And I can’t stand him.
Each time I stop in I know I’m going to have to endure small talk, and when I say endure I mean it literally. It became so exhausting that I would go an extra mile or two just to avoid his sweet blather. This sounds so cruel, I know. Small talk and banter comes natural to most. There’s absolutely nothing unusual about it all. Some people I’ve spoken to about this had never given small talk or chitchat another thought. I remember that feeling.
This is what small talk is like for me most of the time:
Introductions are said. I’ve already forgotten his/her name, and while they talk I talk but not to them to myself – in my head – thoughts swirling like an overloaded dryer. My inner dialog is,
“Shit I’ve already forgotten their name what is their name. Now I’ve missed the past minute of whatever has been said and I guess I’ll laugh and agree oh fuck this person probably thinks I’m so awkward wait has it even been a minute yet WHAT IS THIS PERSONS NAME!”
At this point I’m smiling and nodding my head, my go to move, and trying to focus on the person – not what the person could be thinking about me. Also screaming in my head for the elevator to go faster or our dogs to get untangled – for my brain to get untangled. My focus has been entirely on myself. So insecure that all I can think about is what that persons first impression might be.
This didn’t start until right before I turned 30. I used to be the planner, center of my social circle, going out most nights, meeting strangers, working with strangers, sleeping with strangers, and just extremely outgoing. I was never fake and genuinely loved interacting with anyone. I moved to Vail, CO after college solo and loved that. I immersed myself in social circles immediately and was a leader of those circles. It’s hard for me to even imagine that person now.
Self analysis began along with lots of reading. I wanted to know if this was a phase. The last few years of my twenties I was the outgoing guy, but it was all a mask. I didn’t want to be social or go out every weekend. I wanted to read and cook and watch Netflix and really, just be alone. Doing that was super unhealthy, because I slowly pushed close friends away overtime. It also lead me into a bit of depression. I had been “acting” outgoing for far too long. My energy was gone. My mask was off.
All this over small talk? I know right it’s silly really. That’s what I want to express here – is that our inner dialog is just silly for some, if not most of us. In these moments we are projecting, assuming, overthinking.
During that year I had a hard time even striking up a conversation with people I was close with, even family. I thought everything I was saying was being judged. Just like I’m worried I’ve been referencing myself too much in this piece but I’m at peace with that (wordplay!). I’m sharing all of this because many of you feel the same way. Or have anticipatory anxiety. Or just never know what to say. Or think you always saying the wrong thing.
Here’s the most important thing I’ve learned in this mental journey of mine: No one, and truly I mean that NO ONE is thinking about you when you’re in small talk with a stranger, briefly chatting with a neighbor or having any small interaction. They are not thinking about how you might feel awkward, or scared, or going through a hard time. Or that you just lost your job, ended a relationship, are going through a sad, hard phase, or even the pimple on your face only you can see.
I promise you, no one thinks about you or judges you more than you.
The second most important thing I learned? Embrace the fact that I might not have energy to give to someone else all the time. That I like people, but I’m just not able to “turn it on” sometimes. This person will probably never think of me again. They have forgotten my name. We all have our own problems we are all constantly dealing with. Do I have to love small talk? No! But can I try to slow down, listen and respond, always with a smile, with words that might come out wrong but show I’m engaged. Yes I can do that. Maybe each time we do that, that person was in need of the social interaction we can be so afraid of.
We all change as time goes by. An extrovert can turn into an introvert. A social butterfly can become more comfortable as just a butterfly. Depression can hit you out of nowhere. Anxiety can become a daily struggle. But then more time goes by. And you learn how to deal with these issues, how to face them. How to give no fucks about wearing headphones from the moment you board a plane until the moment you’re off, even if you aren’t listening to anything.
Life is not about me, or you. It’s about all of us, to each of us.
Embrace your social anxiety. Embrace the chit and the chat.
Believe me I know it’s easier typed than done. When you start to think how it can positively affect someone else though, it somehow makes it easier. The more I focused, slowed my mind down, and just listened, the more I realized it typically isn’t about the small talk, it’s about the interaction. If I can leave someone feeling positive after interacting with me, even for a moment, then that’s beautiful.
Smiling at people I pass by on the street or waving at cars passing by is something I’ll always do, and have always done, because why not. When someone waves at me for no reason, it tickles my heart.
Will I continue to avoid the kid from Boston who’s headlining the gas station closest to where I live? From time to time. When I do see him now though, I just say hi, and listen for a few minutes. He goes on and on. But I don’t care. Because maybe me, his customers, are the only people he has to engage with, and these exchanges have meaning to him.
You don’t have to beat yourself up over not liking small talk. Or wanting to spend more time alone or with your cat or dog and partner. You are growing. I don’t think of it as small talk anymore. I think of it as brief moments in time that affect everyone differently, even if there is not affect at all. Growing is good. Embracing change is good. Looking at something that scares you in a different way, is good. A wave and a smile, is good.