Monday 19 August 2019

Katie Byrne: the meet market

Escape any uncomfortable social situation with my small-talk rules

Features writer Katie Byrne
Features writer Katie Byrne
Katie Byrne

Katie Byrne

I was flicking through a catalogue of executive training programmes the other day when I came across one that sparked my interest. 'Mastering the Art of Small Talk' is an intensive two-day course that promises to "take your conversation skills to the next level".

According to the marketing literature, it can help students "banish awkwardness", "approach unapproachables" and "never be afraid again".

At first glance, it looks like this course is aimed squarely at introverts and their socially awkward brethren, but reading further, there is the suggestion that we could all benefit from brushing up on our "conversation starters".

Well, most of us. In my experience, there are generally two groups of people at a social gathering. The first group remember names, breeze through conversation lulls and never come across as tipsy, let alone drunk. In other words, they are the consummate small-talkers and as they congregate in the middle, my kind of people scatter around the periphery.

That man pretending to read the brochure with great interest? He's with me. The woman in the corner purporting to check her phone? She's one of our own.

We are the social introverts and we live in constant fear of conga lines.

Yes, we've read about the importance of finding common ground. However, we believe that a mutual appreciation of cocktail sausages is enough to establish rapport.

Yes, we've heard that it's clever to mirror the person we're talking to. However, our attempts at fake laughter sound like someone getting winded.

Ultimately, we'd rather chain-eat Bombay mix and perspire profusely than engage in a conversation that feels stilted and insincere. Most of the time, anyway.

Unfortunately, small talk is essential for some social interactions - and even those who pride themselves on their authenticity occasionally have to rely on it.

Henceforth, should the following situations occur, we'll happily take tedious small talk and a solid exit strategy:

1 The post-chat-up let-down occurs when you meet the man of your dreams, only for him to casually refer to his girlfriend/wife 10 minutes into the conversation. The challenge here is to look nonchalant and continue smiling, even if your mouth is threatening to collapse and the light has left your eyes. The smallest of small talk in your arsenal should now be used to bring this conversation to a neat conclusion.

2 Small talk is also the preferred approach should you bump into someone you know only vaguely on the Luas.

Here, you should experiment with variants of "working away" and "same-old, same-old" before mumbling something about having to get off at Beechwood. An exaggerated yawn is also quite helpful...

3 As a general rule, small talk should be observed at all times in pharmacies. Preparation H and deep-and- meaningful conversations are simply not compatible, while authentic conversation around the issue of over-the-counter codeine is unlikely.

4 Elsewhere, small talk is the preferred mode of communication when dealing with hairdressers that wish to know if you've "any holidays planned"; taxi drivers that want to know if you're "heading into work"; and drunk people who are halfway through the second portrayal of the same story.

5 Small talk is often a necessary evil in the workplace. In the event of ending up on your own in the lift with your boss, it is considered good practice to stutter something that even you can't understand before feigning an acute interest in the ascending numbers that light up above the door.

6 Once seated at your desk, you may receive a phone call from a client or business associate whose telephone voice sounds like it is modelled on a news reader. She will elongate her vowels and say things like "we're playing telephone tag".

This is not a conversation; it's a performance. And you have no option but to play along, even if your colleagues are wondering why you suddenly sound like Anne Doyle.

7 Many small-talk manuals touch on the subject of customs and etiquette. Handshake or hand clasp? One kiss or two? These are trifling matters in the grand scheme of things. The real social minefield here is what to say when you miss the cheek and inadvertently go for the full snog.

8 Small talk is also your ally should you say goodbye to somebody only to discover that they are walking in the same direction. Just pretend not to know them if it transpires that they are taking the same bus home. It's for the best...

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