It should come as no surprise that I regard social get togethers as a form of state sanctioned torture. There’s multiple reasons but the main issue is small talk. There’s no polite way to say how much I suck at small talk. At first mention of the train wreck to be of the current Bachelor or the latest defeat of the Cowboys, I find myself trying to flee the scene of the crime before I find my IQ dropping.
Truly, I find it amazing that anyone could find these subjects interesting. Now, If you want to discuss the latest Intel processor or the newest version of Raspberry Pi, but no, such topics almost never come out at a social event. It’s that lack of interesting topics that makes it easy to spot me at a party. I’m the one by myself trying to look like I don’t care while desperately trying to discover my here to unknown teleportation skills.
I can’t say this is a purely engineering trait although most of the engineers I know are equally inept at small talk. If it’s not an engineering problem or something that affects my world, I can’t relate to it. I know, politics meets both criteria but the current political circus has become nothing but a sitcom with no redeeming features.
Having cellphones as self-contained entertainment centers has improved the plight for of many of us. We still hate the events but the cellphone offers an escape. It’s also allowed me to see just how many other people hate small talk. How often do you see people sitting side by side, self-absorbed in their cellphones?
Before I had a smartphone, I found myself an observer of humanity at these events. Not able to contribute but still wanting not to appear an outcast, I listened carefully to try and make sense of the discussions around me. Okay, I failed. I still don’t know why so much time and effort is wasted in discussing subjects that are meaningless next year. Admitting defeat in this quest, I find my dark corner and whip out my phone.
That was me six months ago. That’s when I started listening to “Writing Great Fiction, Storytelling Tips and Techniques” by Professor James Hynes in my continuing attempt to improve my writing skills. I’m still trying to decide how much I got out of the book but he made one very important point, our characters are reflections of ourselves. The truth of that statement is self-evident, if I’ve never understood mankind’s obsession with sports, none of my characters can express an believable obsession with sports.
The characters in my stories are always rational people trying to approach their problems on a logical basis. Great passion or obsession is missing from them. If you read my story, A Fascination With Flame, you would immediately recognize the main character as me. That wasn’t intentional but I’ve certainly stared at a lot of candles willing them to go out while waiting for the party to end.
Taking my logical approach to problem solving, I considered my options to remedy this glaring fault. I could accept this as your problem and continue writing with the firm knowledge that you’ll never know what you’re missing. I could watch a lot of movies and put together a picture of humanity from those movies but just as I cringe when I watch a lot of the swordwork in movies, I suspect my take away would be greatly flawed. I could quit my job and immerse myself in humanity around the world. It certainly seemed to work for Jack London but as my wife quickly reminded me, I have obligations at home.
Strange as it might seem, the best answer I came up with was small talk. It’s amazingly easy. Don’t get caught up in trying to prove you’re interesting, instead shift the conversation to something they find interesting and actually listen to their accomplishments and aspirations. It really doesn’t matter what the topics are because everything I hear helps me round out my own characters and make them multidimensional characters rather than self-images. The amazing part it that I find these people’s stories interesting.
So why have I forced you to read this? If you’re an engineer, I want you to see that small talk need not be painful. Get the other person talking and take the time to listen, actually pay attention to what they say rather than come up with a rapid way to calculate the number of holes in the ceiling tiles. Think of it as research into humanity. Believe it or not, it will probably improve the reports you write.
If you like social get togethers and a non-descript bespectacled engineer comes up to you asking about your life story, please remember this, what you consider boring is not boring to him. While I don’t care about endless pictures of your grandchildren, I really want to understand why you love them so much. Treat me nicely, with your help I might be a famous author someday.
Finally, if you’re a conspiracy nut, I have it on good authority that the isolated guy in the corner studying his cellphone has been hired by NSA to record your conversations. I strongly recommend avoiding him.
© 2016 – 2019, Byron Seastrunk. All rights reserved.
I don’t know any engineers with as developed a sense of humor as you. I love your blog. It helps me in countless ways.