The Pleasantries

We debate incessantly about what children should know and be able to do, but maybe a starting point should be to consider undesirable traits in the adults we know, and try to chop these traits off at their childish roots.

Pleasantries, and the art of casual easy small talk, are vital life skills. As a form of social literacy, being able to chat away comfortably to strangers is like the grammar of interaction. It structures your content.

In my new role next year, which I am sort of starting now, I am constantly going to be meeting new people, introducing myself and having pleasant small talk. I say pleasant… Whilst I am reliably told that I do not look anything like as awkward as I feel – perhaps because of my inscrutably placid resting face – I am not somebody to whom small talk is instinctive.

Given spontaneous interaction with strangers, if the mood catches me wrong, I find myself having to navigate my tongue around a maelstrom of improper, controversial and bluntly unnecessary statements. The desire to make people laugh should be an empowering fuzzy sort of attribute – with me. It is like a sharp clawed little Orc that sits on my back, shouting ‘Make em laugh, you scum!’ Into my ear. Sometimes I can satisfy it. Sometimes, I alienate myself from normal people.

Yesterday at a training session, we began with a getting to know you game of Globingo. We needed to go around the room answering little questions and writing names down. It was things like ‘a Find someone who volunteered abroad.’ When I got in, somebody asked me

Are you wearing anything from another country?

My reply was

‘Sweatshops probably’, which I sort of grunted. Then, with no prompting, I took both of my shoes off looking for a label. There was no label. The other people noticed my mismatched socks, one of which was a novelty sock in the design of a clownfish and the other being white stars on a red background.

I put my shoe back on and asked whether my now-nervous tablemate could speak another language. She said yes, I forgot her name so couldn’t write it down and just kind of scribbled. Then I went for the biscuits.

Now I admit that the lions share of my awkwardness is internal. Most of the weirdness stays pulsating below the surface, as I am sure is the case for most of us (please say yes). Nonetheless, the social skills of small talk are vital to get on in society. Like everything, I feel it can be trained, though some have an early lead.

When I think of my kids, there are some who are so naturally conversational, the issue is curbing them. Small talk it ain’t. Any idle comment about the weather on my part can engender a flurry of observations, complaints and questions.

Other kids though are clearly lacking in the social nous. One of my chaps amuses me with his face of utter distaste when I spontaneously engage with him on a purely social rather than academic level. If I ask him how Neptune stays in orbit, he can gladly tell me. If I ask him how he is today, he looks at me as if I have just emerged from behind his family sofa and replies, with a suspicious and slow utterance, ‘…Fine…’

What have you been up to?
‘Nothing.’
Looking forward to swimming this afternoon.
‘Yes.’

I know how he feels. Sometimes I wish the social world functioned as a multiple choice test, kid. But the art of small talk is key to building up your social group, and when this awkwardness spreads to your friends as well as your invasively interrogatory teacher, it becomes an issue.

Let’s teach the art of conversation.

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4 thoughts on “The Pleasantries

  1. Controversially, I disagree with you, Jonny. I don’t think it social literacy – I think pleasantries and small talk are an active part of socialisation. Part of your life as northerner. Absent from your life as southerner. Yes, these are sweeping generalsations, but I have had a long and tiring day and there is no need to dress it up.

    When I worked in Liverpool the banter with the pupils, as I sat at the back of the class observing a trainee, was eye wateringly funny and spontaneous and memorable and engaging. It was pacey, skipped from mature to immature and was a ritual of welcome, to an extent, to me as a visitor in their classroom. Most crucially, it was initiated by the pupils – with confidence.

    Here is London, that also happens. But when it does, its an event. There is a fanfare and fireworks and comments about how chatty pupil A is, how he takes after his Mum who never stops, how he is always staying behind to chat to adults. Its unusual, in other words.

    Finally, I did a survey with people we both know (Rocky) and we talked about how superconfident (new word I just invented) we found you to be.
    You have an aura. A good one. And it draws people in. I wonder if you see somthing different to what we see?

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