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Charlie Hatton
Brookline, MA

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Howdy, friendly reading person!
I'm on a bit of a hiatus right now, but only to work on other projects -- one incredibly exciting example being the newly-released kids' science book series Things That Make You Go Yuck!
If you're a science and/or silliness fan, give it a gander! See you soon!

Small Problem, Big Solution

I’m no fan of small talk. Partly, I don’t like small talk for the same reason I don’t like tennis or karaoke or applied physics: I’m no good at it, it doesn’t come naturally, and I look and feel stupid for even attempting it.

But there’s more to it. Life is too short, and words too precious, to waste copious amounts of both in predictable fashion.

(Yes, I realize the irony of saying words are precious, when I’ve blatted a million or more of the poor things onto these pages over the last several years — some of them wastefully, no doubt, and most against their will.

Still, there’s nothing ‘predictable’ about the words I lay down here. Apricot. Monkey denture pollinators. Abigail Van Buren. Hydroponic rutabaga stalks. I’m just saying.)

“Apricot. Monkey denture pollinators. Abigail Van Buren. Hydroponic rutabaga stalks. I’m just saying.”

At best, small talk is pointless. “The weather” is not a productive conversation starter; it’s what happens overhead when you walk outside. We can’t control it. We can’t predict it. So why talk about it? You don’t greet acquaintances in the street and muse, “Have you heard what Gary Busey’s going to be like this afternoon?” Stop talking about the weather.

Most other small talk is simply lies, wrapped in thin smiles and innocent-sounding questions. But come on. You don’t really want to know “how’s it going?” or “how was your weekend?” or “are you choking on a piece of cheese?” It’s just what people ask, when people are too lazy or dim or busy not choking to ask something meaningful. For a while, I tried to cut through the sham by preempting the whole shebang. I’d meet a friend on the street and simply tell them:

Say ‘fine’.

What?” was the usual reaction, indicating I have a lot of friends with hearing problems, issues with taking directions, or a tenuous grasp on the English language. I’d try again:

Say ‘fine‘.

Uh… fine.

Great — me, too. Now let’s talk about something actually meaningful.

Sadly, this never worked. For one thing, it wigged people out. It’s impossible, apparently, for many people to just have a conversation. They have to work up to it, to stretch the lips with some inane chatter first — the better not to blow a larynx, I suppose. For these people, small talk is communicational foreplay, and they seem to require the metaphorical heavy petting to proceed.

Well, not me. I’d rather put on the wetsuit, agree on a safeword and dive right in. Conversationally speaking, of course. Cut the crap and make a connection, or move it along, chummo. I don’t have time for “looks like rain” and “hey, you got a haircut”. You see how freaking old I’m getting over here? That shit ain’t reversing itself or slowing down any. Stop wasting the few moments of breath I have left with idle chitchat.

Of course, small talk is impossible to avoid. There are just too many people doing it to skirt entirely, and you can’t dunk your head in the sand and pretend it doesn’t exist at all. It’s like income taxes or prostate exams or Ashton Kutcher — you acknowledge it as a necessary-if-unpleasant consequence of modern society, and deal with it as best you can.

Lately, I’ve found a new way of dealing with small talk. I’ve maintained for a long time that it’s purely ritual, that no one actually listens to the fluff-and-nothing conversations they’re having. It’s just “what people do”, so people do it. To prove to myself that I’m right — and to get some shred of entertainment out of these ordeals — I’ve decided to respond to small talk inquiries using nothing but U.S. state names.

I started this three weeks ago. Nobody has noticed.

The key is in the delivery. If you match the inflection and tone you’d normally use to respond to these non-question questions, people generally hear what they expect to hear, no matter what you actually say. For instance:

Coworker: So, how was your weekend?

Me: Vermont.

Coworker: Yeah, me too. How ’bout that snow, huh? Enough white stuff for ya?

Me: Ohio.

Coworker: I hear that! Sounds like we’re supposed to get some more. You see that?

Me: California. Utah Idaho Maine.

Coworker: Yeah, that weather girl’s a real hottie. Hey, I gotta run. Good talkin’ to ya!

Me: Oregon!

I keep expecting someone to pause, or to slap me, or tell me to go Virginia Wyoming myself. But no one does. They just play out the usual script, and never notice they’re talking to a lunatic spouting place names at them. Meanwhile, I don’t have to engage in any small talk — and I’m getting better at U.S. Geography, to boot.

Maybe I’ll mix it up and throw in state capitols or country names or top ten Brazilian manufacturing exports. It’s not like anyone’s paying actual attention. I’ve been tuned out before I even open my mouth.

I just wish I’d thought of this years ago; I could have had so many more productive — and educational — non-conversations with all kinds of random people. I’m telling you, this South Carolina Pennsylvania Montana Arizona Mississippi!

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