On Conversation and Small Talk

“A friend of mine once said that you can never trust a person who doesn’t talk much, because how else do you know what they’re thinking? Just by the act of being willing to talk about oneself, the person is revealing something about who they are.”

— Chuck Klosterman, Eating the Dinosaur

Almost everyone I knew in high school observed two main modes of speaking from me: Snide comments and occasional insights. This did not count raising my hand if I had the correct answers to teachers’ questions. I made friends slowly at that time, and those patient enough to stick around discovered that I was also capable of thinking deeply, even though I didn’t often verbalize my thoughts.

How did I process reality back then, that version of life trapped inside a high school bubble? I listened. I observed. This is how I found out about THE shocking moment of the Crying Game during trigonometry. One of my classmates saw the movie at the theater, and she could not wait to talk about it at school the next day.

Observing is also how I found out that band members M (girl, drum major) and T (boy, trumpet player, OF COURSE) may have had a thing for each other. M was a senior and T was a junior. I was a sophomore. After school one day, the band waited for our band director to return from somewhere and start rehearsal. I was practicing my part in one of the instrument rooms. Minding my own business. Then M and T ran in, oblivious to everything. T closed the door and had M pressed against it with his body. Then they started making out.

I watched for a few seconds, and I wondered if I should keep playing my clarinet. I decided that was better than watching. When I played the first few notes, T and M stopped what they were doing. I tried not to look at them but to keep playing. After a few seconds, one of them opened the door and they both left the room.

Beyond high school and into college and the real world, I continued the habits of listening and observing. I liked talking about myself, but I would only do it when people asked me questions. But I also loved asking other people questions and getting to know them better.

This was fun to do in college and especially New York City. I found myself in several settings with complete strangers. After a few questions, some laughs, and some observations about how we ended up in New York, we discovered valuable commonalities that became the foundation for friendship.

I never liked small talk, and because of this, friendshipping in the big wide world pushed me out of my comfort zone. While I always did better if people were willing to jump into deeper subjects more quickly, I also observed that small talk was some people’s starting point for meatier conversation. In some cases, if I couldn’t stick around past small talk, bonds would only form at that level.

Not everyone was like me; not everyone would work the same way my high school friends and I did to maintain our relationship. I would have to manipulate a paradox and give interpersonal space at the same time as internalizing the world around me, bringing different perspectives within my grasp.

Over time, I practiced and became good at small talk. Because I had worked on my observation skills for so long, I could read a person, initiate a conversation and make subtle adjustments to keep the discussion going. It felt great.

More time passed and maybe I fell out of practice or took it for granted, because suddenly it seems now that I suck at talking to people. Wires crossed somewhere and created a short and my conversation skills are no longer where they used to be. Although I can still listen and observe, it’s harder for me sustain my side of the conversation with actual spoken words. I’ll occasionally interject a question or a snide remark, but while I listen I also close up. Or go back to the safe space of small talk. Which I hate. But it’s safe. Defense mechanism, definitely. But why? and how can I get past it?

Part of it is that I can sym-/empathize, but sometimes I don’t know how to express that. Or I don’t know what’s appropriate. Or that if I try to relate, I’d be saying and revealing too much about myself when the conversation isn’t about me. I think that goes beyond introverted tendencies.

Obviously, I have no trouble writing about myself.

In general, people have been so willing to let me know more about them. I need to reciprocate. I have been selfish for so long, and I have to be better.

So, how about this weather?

Algebra is “X” Rated

Calculus w Mr. Kroft

This is my AP Calculus class from high school.
Notice all the open yearbooks on the desks: it’s the end of the year.
I’m not sure what to say about this photo.
Boys outnumber girls.
Senior sweatshirts were cool even in the heat of the end of May.
Those I’ve managed to keep in touch with are married with children.
Those guys I’ve managed to keep in touch with have considerably less hair.
Mr. Kroft has been forced into early retirement because of the recession.
The top three graduates were in this class.
The football team’s quarterback, a wide receiver, the cheerleading captain, and a National Merit Scholar were all in this class.
Five people were in band.
Mullets were cool back then.
That was 15 years ago.
I can’t believe it.
Nearly seven of those 15 years were spent here in New York City.
I really miss high school sometimes.

I’m going to be waxing nostalgic for the next little while. Please bear with me.

Middleburg High School Band in 1991 Is Better than Yo-Yo Ma at the 2009 Inauguration

It must have been 30 degrees outside, maybe colder. The wind was blowing, the ground was muddy from a freezing rain the night before and earlier in the day. We cut the tips off our white gloves so we could cover the fingerholes properly on our instruments.

The air was cold. It was dense and soundwaves traveled a little more quickly. The air was humid, and maybe it was like tapping on a full glass of water as opposed to an empty or half-full glass. Our sound was thuddy, but so was everyone else’s. Our goal was to make thuddy sound good.

We had preliminaries in the early afternoon. It was almost a joke, preliminaries. We were still kind of coasting on our victory at the Azalea Festival in Palatka a couple of months before, and we’d pretty much won every other contest since. We needed to score in the top 10 to make the finals. Or something like that. For our other contests, we placed first in prelims and only had to defend the position in the finals. For the Kingdom of the Sun festival, we placed second or third in the prelims. It wasn’t first, that’s all I remember. We had real competition. I was a little scared.

I chuckled that day, Kingdom of the Sun. It was overcast and cold and completely miserable. Sometimes we sat on the bleachers to watch some of the other bands. Some school marched to the Simpons theme. The dance team carried around huge cardboard cutouts that looked like clouds. The bleachers were cold.

Our marching band uniforms were red jackets that fastened at the neck, white pants, white shoes, white gloves and white Aussie hats. We also wore ruffled dickies. Mr. Ball, our band director, emphasized white shirts and white underwear for the uniforms. I saw occasional stripes and print patterns while standing in various formations.

Mr. Ball was against black pants and shoes. White was a huge risk: it was easier to detect missteps and not-so-sharp marching, but when everyone marched on point, stepping exactly at the same time to the beat, it looked fantastic. Marching band was a visual as well as an aural experience.

We waited for the evening for the finals to begin. It had begun drizzling. We warmed up in the parking lot, marking time, playing scales. Whole notes, B-flat concert. Played the big hits in “Georgia” and “Tennessee Waltz” and “Precious Lord.” Whenever we didn’t play, we kept blowing warm air through our instruments.

We marched and played our hearts out. We were known more for our musicality than our marching, so we knew we had to step up our playing. Plus, we had an advantage being at around 130 members, where the The Big Red Machine (or whatever the heck they were called) were around 180, or even bigger. More people to keep in tune. They didn’t sound nearly as warm and rich and full during their warmups.

During our show, I marched right by a field judge. He talked into his handheld recorder. We kicked up some mud, and we kneeled with confidence onto that soft football field at the right time during “Precious Lord.” Our show had kind of a patriotic theme, and maybe it was the Gulf war, and maybe we were good ol’ Southern kids, but our music really, really pleased the crowd.

Our sound was crisp and musically appealing and nostalgic and religious. I just about cried when the drum majors cued our last note, which I marveled was in perfect tune. After horns-down, we held our instruments and stood at attention and breathed hard, exhausted from the past ten minutes. We waited for our drumline to cadence our exit.

We left everything on the field.

We were the underdogs that day, the Broncos. We were used to winning and didn’t know how we would fight our way back to first place. The Big Red Machine (they had gross, cream-colored pants and white shoes, but they also had red jackets) had a pretty long history of being a great marching band. They were the favorites; they led going into the finals. They were definitely bigger. They were better marchers.

But we were better musicians. Our music cut right through the cold, humid, floppy air, in tune, on beat, the way a concert band would sound in an insulated and controlled environment. Except we slammed the audience with a massive wall of sound. We pushed back the bleachers with our fortissimos, and we surprised everyone with our pianissimos, and the audience, with even our competition’s band parents, went wild.

We, at a modest 130 members, stood at attention next to the massive and pretty obnoxious Machine of flirbity-7 googolplex on the field as they announced the results. We won. Our drumline played as we marched off with smiles that would not quit. We got to the buses and went wild. We hugged and hooted and congratulated the other bands. Joel Agcon asked me to homecoming.

There was no way I would be sleeping on the ride back to Middleburg.