Make_Small_Talk (aka: Interacting With Real Live Humans)

One of the hardest things about dealing with real, live humans is small talk.

Seriously. I mean, what is the deal with small talk? It’s like standing around nibbling cheap, store-bought appetizers instead of sitting down to a delicious, homemade main course.

Dilbert Small Talk Participate

You never know when you will be faced with this dreaded interaction. There you are, sitting in your cubicle, or riding in an elevator, or innocently heating up your leftovers in the break room, when bam! Another person shows up. This can be just about anybody – a stranger, a coworker, your boss, your boss’s boss. No matter who appears, you have little choice but to hit the F5 key and run the program, Make_Small_Talk.

It typically goes something like this:

Me:                        Hi, how was your weekend?

Person:                Pretty good. Yours?

Me:                        Not too bad. Busy with kids and stuff.

Person:                Yeah, me too. But I got a lot done.

Water Cooler Small Talk

Once in a while, I am tempted to mix things up a little, just to keep things interesting. Maybe something like:

Person:              How was your weekend?

Me:                        Great! I got a lot done, and left no evidence behind, so they’ll never catch me…

Or I could be like those people who give you waaaaay more information that you ever wanted to know, like:

Person:                How was your weekend?

Me:                        Well, it was fine until I started throwing up. I must have clogged the toilet six times! Then I had to go see the doctor, and he said I might have the Avian Flu or Ebola or something, so they had to draw blood and check my stool samples for parasites and bacteria. Then I developed this awful wet cough. I mean, listen – *hack hack!*

My two favorite alternatives to making small talk are:

  1. Wear earbuds 100% of the time and pretend that I don’t notice when others are talking to me.
  2. Avoid all places where people may be present, thus avoiding all unnecessary human interaction.

One problem with those alternatives, however, is that you may never get to know important details about other people, like what their favorite sports teams are, or how many kids they have, so that you can then inquire about those details the next time you make small talk. Also, no one will have any idea who you are, so then you’ll never win the popularity contest and earn a promotion at work.

(Make_Small_Talk = Brownie Points + 10).

I guess that making small talk is just one of those rules of being a grownup. Kind of like cleaning out the refrigerator or making medical appointments. No matter how cumbersome it may be, and no matter how much it irks your inner INTJ, you just have to grin and get through it. And if you’re lucky, maybe those appetizers will eventually lead to a main course.

 

 

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Viva la Vida Virtual (aka: Be There)

Our Wi-Fi stopped working yesterday for like, five whole minutes. In our house, that constitutes an emergency. “Fix it, Mo-oooom!” groaned my kids, who are convinced that I can now fix anything computer and network-related. “I was in the middle of a video game/homework research/Skyping with friends!”

tech addict kidsI’m pretty sure my household isn’t the only one like this. It’s a fact of life; we now live in a society that is oversaturated with tech. Wearable tech, smartphone tech, computer tech — it’s everywhere. And thanks to the IoT (Internet of Things), all of our millions and billions of tech devices can even connect to the internet and communicate with each other.

Ten years ago, when the internet had made the leap from a cool new trend to an everybody-has-to-have-it necessity, we all marveled and said, “We are more connected than we ever have been before.” Which was true. Only now, we are more connected than ever to the 100th power.

Or are we?

looking at cell phone

What does it mean to be “connected?” Is it really about the invisible streams of data — the googols of imperceptible bits flowing through the air, linking one computer to the next? Is connection the ability to trade emoji smiles and offer virtual {{{hugs}}} when someone is struggling? Are we more connected because of the speed with which we can post a pretty photo or meaningful quote, then click like on that of another fellow human being? It is amazing, isn’t it? We are now so connected, that we can share every bit of our lives without ever being in the same room. We can be there without being there.

And we forget.

staring at computer screen

We become so absorbed in our virtual worlds, that we lose sight of what it means to live a full and rich life. We’ve created a new kind of normal, in which we stare at silent photos of nature scenes and drool over plates of well-presented exotic foods. We huddle in groups, hunched over our phones, each chuckling at some private joke which doesn’t exist beyond the screen. We forget how he throws back his head as he laughs, eyes catching the light. We stop noticing the light and airy way she walks, as though dancing on tiptoe. The tiny details of the real world are faded, like an Instagram photo with a vintage filter.

We forget what it means to be there.

There, in the moment. When the dark clouds peel away, revealing a fiery red sunset. And the air smells so damp and rich with fresh rain that you breathe it in. And not for a moment do you think, “I must take a photo of this gorgeous sunset to post on Facebook!” Because you are too busy being there. Tasting that spicy shrimp, drizzled with garlic butter. Holding her hand as you stroll through the city, paying attention to the lines and curves that form each building. Listening to your daughter as she tells a funny story about what happened at school that day. Leaning forward, drinking in the details about the people who surround you. The fragrant smell of soap, mingled with minty toothpaste. The scuffed shoes, worn hands.

real connection puzzle piecesThe good parts of life that stoke your senses and settle in your memories don’t translate well across a fiber optic underground cable. They don’t always appear on screen. Ten years from now, you won’t remember the goofy cat video your brother-in-law’s cousin shared on your Facebook wall. Your text conversations and virtual adventures will be forgotten as quickly as PDAs. The things that will matter then are all around you now — live, and in 3D. Imagine! You can travel to countless new locations anywhere in the world. You can get up close and have face-to-face conversations with real, live people. You can be there. You can connect with the world at real-time speed, with no lags. What’s more, you won’t even need Wi-Fi.

real people talking over coffee

No Fishing Allowed (aka: My Anti-Flirting Weapons Cache)

I wish there were a battery-operated aura I could wear whenever I go out in public. I could change the color of the electric glow to communicate to other people if it is okay to approach me.

Green light: Hi! You seem cool. Let’s chat for a while.

Yellow light: Hmm…proceed with caution, but be ready to walk away on my signal.

Red light: STOP! Stay back! Do not approach. I repeat, DO NOT APPROACH!

red light stop

I’m pretty sure that, when it comes to strange men, my red light would be on like, all the time. Nothing sets off my panic alarm like some man I don’t know approaching me for any reason whatsoever. So whenever I go out and about, I try to make sure that I have two handy weapons – a book in which I can bury my nose and a pair of earbuds so that I can pretend not to hear. This does not always work, however. Maybe I need to hire a fake boyfriend to accompany me whenever I need to leave the house. Or maybe just buy one of those electric NO buttons to add to my weapons cache. Then, whenever some guy tries to talk to me, all I have to do is click the button and let it speak for me.

The NO ButtonDude: Hey, what’s your name?

Button: NO!!

Dude: Where are you headed?

Button: NO!!

Dude: Can I get your phone number?

Button: NO!! NO!! NO!!

not dating

Tonight, I am going out dancing at a club with a bunch of other single people – something that I have not done since I was eighteen years old. (Yes, seriously). I adore dancing, but my anxiety level is very high, because:

  1. I don’t know this group of people I’m going dancing with. They are just a group of mostly strangers from a Meetup group. I am worried that I won’t be able to relax and be myself and really get into dancing with a bunch of strangers. Especially if they are going to be drinking, because I am not a social drinker – especially if I have to drive myself home. Which I do.
  1. Because I have no clue what women my age wear out to dance at a nightclub, and it’s not like I have a friend to call and ask for tips. Am I supposed to buy a special kind of purse I can dance with? Shoes? Help!
  1. No Fishing AllowedThat whole problem with men. Because I have no idea if that whole thing where strange men hit on single women in night clubs is just overblown in my imagination thanks to TV shows, or if that is actually how the single adult world works. The very idea makes me feel sick with fear. I don’t want to be flirted with. I just want to dance.

I know — maybe I should bring along my book and ear buds. Just in case. Better yet, maybe I should just stay home, where I can relax, and be myself, and there is no need for NO buttons or red lights.    unavailable 2

Marginal (aka: Cultural Nuances and Frustration )

I recently threw a birthday party for one of my kids. It was great fun – a house filled with the noisy, gleeful laughter of little boys, floating balloons made to look like owls, and a punch bowl of frothing, bubbling green “potion” to drink. And candy. Lots and lots of candy.

“Why didn’t you invite me?” one of my older sisters asked in a hurt tone.

I was stunned. “Invite you? But it was a children’s birthday party!”

Apparently, this is a thing in some families; a cultural expectation which eluded me, as cultural expectations often do. And so, I hurt the feelings of my sister by not inviting her to a birthday party full of candy and noisy kids whom she doesn’t even know. Just as I hurt the feelings of my mother by having my child send a lovely, written thank-you card instead of calling her on the telephone.

Black family culture churchYou see, that is what culture is. Many people think that it is about the big things – the language, the foods, and the music shared by a cultural group. But really, culture is a patchwork quilt of hundreds of tiny nuances that can translate into huge misunderstandings.

Sometimes, I am frustrated when people from other ethnic groups expect me to fit into some narrow mold which, in their minds, defines Black American culture. I am equally frustrated when people within my own family hold the same expectation. “But this is how black people think. This is what black people do,” they say.

individualism-vs-collectivismI just grit my teeth. I have never subscribed to the idea that, just because one’s ancestors originated from a particularly geographical location, one is obliged to identify with the subculture of that ethnic group. Of course, voicing such thoughts aloud among those of my family’s ethnic group has the tendency to spark wildfires.

It is not an easy thing when you only identify marginally with your family’s subculture. No matter how hard you try to be kind and accepting of their ideas, lifestyles, and worldview, the differences always separate you. My relatives see me as an outsider. A snob. “Whitewashed.”

I only see me as being who I am.

I wonder sometimes how my own culture diverged so much from my culture of origin.  Perhaps it was due to my constant diet of books from a very young age – the never-ending exposure to new ideas, and new ways of thinking. Through literature, I learned the history behind many of the customs and practices of various American ethnic subculture groups, including that of my family. And in learning the history, I also learned to evaluate the need to continue such a custom.

And maybe that is the problem. I have never been able to simply sit back and accept. There is always that urge to analyze, evaluate, and throw out that which seems unnecessary or unfruitful. Perhaps for most people who fit comfortably within the cultural norms of their family’s demographic group, that urge doesn’t exist. Or the volume is turned down low. In a way, I envy that. I imagine that with simple acceptance comes a certain sense of peace and safety among the herd. And a lot fewer misunderstandings.

But still, there are a few things which perhaps transcend cultural construct, such as consideration, tolerance, and family   . Regardless of how silly and pointless the expectations may appear to me, the fact is that I inadvertently hurt my family members’ feelings. And really, it would not take much to avoid such a thing in the future. Offer an invitation. Make a phone call instead of putting the sentiment in writing. I guess it is no different than in a business environment, where one cultural group creates stronger goodwill by respecting the other group’s foreign cultural practices. Bow instead of shaking hands. Avoid or make direct eye contact. Use formal or informal language.  cross-cultural-communication

Cultural nuances can be a tricky, tricky thing. Especially within a family, where emotions can be heightened and judgments can be sharp and punishing. But when it comes to maintaining relationships, one must practice tolerance and strive for common ground in order to construct those large bridges made up of “little things.”

practice tolerance quote

Clueless (aka: Verbal Communication With Real Live Humans)

real live conversations with peopleIt happens nearly every time I am speaking with other real, live human beings. “What’s your favorite color?” someone will ask.

“My favorite color?” I will repeat, blinking in bewilderment. Wait…what’s a color? Think, brain! But my uncooperative brain will begin to spin in panicked circles, unable to pick a single color from an apparently infinite spectrum. “Um…blue?” I will blurt out, the first color to leap out of the void.

Green and brown, you idiot! I will mentally scream at myself moments later. Because duhhh – green and brown have been my clear favorite colors for years. So why on earth couldn’t I remember when put on the spot? Duh Facepalm

It happens more often than I care to admit. Someone will ask me a question – a simple question, even, but suddenly, my mind will go completely, utterly blank. My outstanding vocabulary, which flows so easily when I write my thoughts, shrinks to the size of a fourth-grader’s.

It is not as simple as poor memory, nor is it a lack of intelligence. The truth is that I have always had (and still have) a very strong memory. I can easily memorize and recite long speeches or poems or important historical facts. I can then dissect said speeches and poems and historical events, analyze them deeply, and write impressive essays regarding theme, inference, and cause and effect. However, should the topic of said speech, poem, or historical event come up in a real, live conversation, then all will be lost, as though someone has reached into my head and clicked off the light switch.

Person: What do you think is the theme of Robert Frost’s Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening?

Me (heart racing, panic): Um…

Person: Do you think that he was referring to death?

Me (blinking rapidly): Um…I don’t know.

Of course, an hour later, when I am feeling overwhelmed with the responsibilities of caring for children, and work, and school, I will glance in longing at my comfortable bed and pile of books for pleasure reading, and I will remember how much I identified with Frost’s character, and recite to myself:

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,

But I have promises to keep,

And miles to go before I sleep,

And miles to go before I sleep.

 

It is strange, I know. Though perhaps it is a common occurrence among shy people. One quick Google search for “My mind goes blank when talking to people,”    and one will stumble upon a myriad of sites and forums for the socially anxious, filled with other people who experience this. And perhaps it is made worse by my long periods of isolation, during which I barely speak at all to anyone besides my own kids. It’s almost as though, when I am finally presented with a real, honest-to-goodness grownup to talk to, my mind freaks out. What? Are we live? Now? Wait! I’m not ready! I forgot my lines!

Sigh. Well, I guess I could always try answering questions in writing.

put it in writing