John teases me relentlessly, but I do it anyway: before we go out to a party or any other place where I might find myself face-to-face with people I don’t know (PIDK), I make a list of things to talk about. I keep the list in my pocket and if I find myself at a loss for words, I pull it out and steal a peek. It’ a somewhat unctuous social lubricant that helps me get in the mood because I suck at small talk and I need all the help I can get.
Over the years, in order to protect myself from the mind-numbing agony of having absolutely nothing to say, I’ve perfected certain stories which I call my cocktail party stories, the crowd-pleasers I’ve told so many times I know where to pause for added drama and which gestures to use as accompaniment. Cocktail party stories are gender-neutral, harmlessly amusing, and completely impersonal, just the thing to pass the time with PIDK. They’re not too long or short, just enough to entertain without monopolizing the conversation. I have one about how John lured me away from vegetarianism at Mardi Gas in 1991 (it involved a kiosk hot dog and a rainbow-colored drink the length of my forearm) and another about the time we caught a 5 foot catfish with our bare hands (it took four of us to do it: one to hold the line it was tangled on, one to steer, one to fumble with a net, and one to augment the excitement by screaming hysterically at the back of the boat). These stories are the perfect combo of terror and humor but I’ve told them so many times they started to bore me so I had to find something else to say.
Each pre-event list is tailored to fit the PIDK. For events at my kids’ schools, it’s easy to find something kid-related to gab about but there’s the risk of boredom there and I’m not allowed to embarrass my children or myself so I usually try to bring one funny kid-friendly story. (Have you tried cookie butter yet? Oh, you have to try the cookie butter. When my daughter tasted it the first time, she said it was so good she wanted to make out with herself.) In a group of female acquaintances, I’m expected join the chorus of affable complaints so I come equipped with one or two (and if I don’t have one at the moment, I might make it up). When I go to social events with John’s co-workers, my small talk is structured to make him look good, so I make coy appreciative noises and bat my eyes in his direction.
It’s all an act, you might say. And that’s true, but it’s also not the whole truth, because cookie butter is good and I am an adoring wife and mother who has an occasional complaint. Sure, I’m a lot more than that and I’m never those things on cue but, in stiff social settings with PIDK, it’s easier to play the parts I’m expected to play. The most untrue thing I’m offering is the illusion that I’m comfortable talking to PIDK.
Okay, the truth is, it’s exhausting. Chatting is exhausting and small talk is such a drag I rarely want to go out any more. I’d much rather lounge at home in my holey sweater, muttering to the potted plants and petting the cat. The radio offers as much company as I need and the other day, This American Life aired a story called The Seven Things You’re Not Supposed to Talk About in which a daughter challenges her mother Mrs. Matthiessen’s hard rule that one should never, ever talk about…
- one’s period,
- how one got from point a to b,
- how one slept, or
- what one dreamed last night.
Mrs. Matthiessen’s reasoning is that these topics may be interesting to the speaker but are always tedious to everyone else so her daughter enlisted the help of the show’s producers to prove Mrs. Matthiessen wrong by digging up an interesting story on each topic. After each segment, Mrs. Matthiessen responds with a thumbs up or down. If she thinks the story is interesting, This American Life gets a point and if not, Mrs. Matthiessen does.
I was rooting for the daughter to win but in the end, it was Mrs. Matthiessen, 3.5 to 2.5. Although I agree with the result I wish she’d lost because Mrs. Matthiessen’s list puts up seven more mental barriers between me, the introvert, and the rest of the world.
Pretending to be interesting and interested all the time is exhausting. Social awkwardness often leads me to discuss things on this list (I’ll even talk about the weather— why isn’t the weather on the list, I wonder), and sometimes I’m stupid, cranky, argumentative, silly, shallow, uninformed and/or boring. My friends seem to like me anyway but the role I’m supposed to play with PIDK is not an easy fit. I want to know what I can talk about, not what I can’t. I don’t need another list of no-no’s, and that’s why I make my lists of conversation topics before I go out.
But what would my list look like if I wasn’t worried about exposing myself or being vulnerable? What if I treated PIDK like friends? What if we all felt more comfortable with difference and open to the possibility that other people might disagree, influence, and embarrass us or themselves? Not only would we have more things to talk about, but we’d live in a much nicer place.
Seven Things You Should Talk About But Don’t
1. Race. When I was in first grade I had a friend named Karen who was black. We both hated dolls but loved trolls, those wizened little Danish creatures made of plastic with long wool hair, and I remember how one day onthe playground we were using wood chips and leaves to build tiny houses when a group of boys started teasing her, saying she looked just like a troll. I don’t remember what I said to them or what I did, only their words and the way her face closed up like a fist. In middle school, I remember getting into flirtatious fist fights with a boy named Troy and how it felt as if violence was only acceptable way for us to interact. Once I went to visit my grandmother at her retirement home because she wasn’t feeling well. I brought her a stack of magazines and she was leafing through a Vogue and chatting about what outfits she liked when she came across a picture of a black woman in a Chanel suit. She threw the magazine across the room where hit the wall and fluttered down like a bird that had brained itself to death on a window.
2. Being gay or curious. Once, when the men we were dating went to the store, I found myself kissing Sylvie, a lovely French girl. I remember how shockingly soft she was in my arms, how even her eloquent, breathy kisses felt French and her eyelashes beat against my cheek like butterfly wings and as soon as the guys came back, we pretended it never happened. Later when I told the story to a gay friend she rolled her eyes and changed the subject and I still feel mildly embarrassed about that— not the kissing Sylvie part but because for a second I thought it meant I might have something in common with a lesbian.
3. Abortion. If I didn’t have an abortion when I was 23 years old, I would have had to raise that child alone. I probably wouldn’t have gone to school or if I somehow found a way, I would’ve needed to study something more pragmatic. I wouldn’t have met the man I love and my two daughters wouldn’t have happened. That abortion was one of the weakest, strongest, hardest, simplest, most selfish, selfless, saddest, smartest things I’ve ever done.
4. Money. Money money money. If you loved me, you’d buy me dinner. Sorry, I can’t afford to be your friend any more. Some blather on about investments and dividends but I can’t tell the real billionaire from the one who drives their BMW home to the garage where they sleep, because nobody’s telling the truth. Compared to some, I have nothing to complain about and compared to others, I live in a dingy little hole and my clothes belong in the trash. When the topic of money comes up in casual conversation, everyone gets cagey and shifty-eyed, as if just by engaging the topic you’ve pulled out your wallet, opened it up, and held it out like a grab bag. If you yearn for a world where a person’s value isn’t based on the contents of their bank account, the first step to getting there is sharing the truth, if nothing else.
5. Drugs. How many people out there have smoked pot? How many have used some substance— a pill, puff, swig, shot, or swallow— to help you relax or perform a task? I’m not asking what or why or how long ago or if you had a prescription or if it worked or if you liked it or if you kept doing it, just saying that if you ever did, raise your hand. Now, how many of you know someone with a substance abuse problem? Raise your hand and look around. See? We’re in good company. And until we fess up and get it out in the open so we can see what’s happening, we all have a problem.
6. Mistakes in general. Some people are perfect. They pay their bills on time, never raise their voice, never cry in public, and their teeth are as straight and white as the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery. Their lives are structured like grand, triumphal arches and their pasts are as immaculate and flawless as golf courses. Not only are those people lying through their freaky teeth but they’re just annoying. Perfect People: we’d all be happier if you occasionally misplaced your children or ate a whole round of cheese or laughed so hard you peed yourself. The world would be a much better place if you’d just loosen up a little.
7. Death. Roz Chast, one of my favorite cartoonists, has a new book out called Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? In it, she includes a series of deathbed sketches she made, unabashed close-ups of her dying mother’s face. “Maybe that says something really horrible about me that I’m not aware of,” Roz says. “But I think drawing is what I do, and it was a way of being with her and of paying attention. (…) I wanted to look at her.” When I saw those sketches I remembered visiting both my grandmothers just before and after they died. Because I felt that same desire to pay close attention, to witness their lives and thoroughly study who my grandmothers were when they (for the first time ever) weren’t looking, I pulled out my camera. Those were guilty photos taken quickly before someone came in and found me standing there with my irreverent camera in my hand and every time I stumble across those photographs– hair spiderwebbing across the pillow, a lovely marbled hand holding nothing, breasts floating like soft clouds of flesh and eyes not only closed but completely receded as far as possible from the world, I stare long and hard, hoping to discern a heat wave or some spiritual warp to prove why my grandmothers’ souls sit so heavily on my chest.
There’s no way to know if talking about real things would make the world a better place. Maybe talk is cheap, as they say. I guess it comes down to a simple question of which party you’d rather go to: the one where everyone acts rich and powerful and perfect or the one where everyone’s laughing with mouths full of food, asking juicy questions, and dancing like fools?
On the other hand, you should never, never talk about religion or politics.
Hey– do you have any great cocktail party stories?
What’s on your list of topics to avoid?