Small Talk

“I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

“Ha ha, yeah.”

And just like that, my fate is sealed.

I was getting my hair cut, see, and they run this TV in there on daytime crap all day long. I believe the choice du jour was Rachael Ray’s show, but I’m not sure. I do, for the record, remember noting that “Rachael” seemed to be gunning particularly for the ethnic crowd, or at least the ethnic crossover crowd, and by that I mean white women who wish they had a black girlfriend to gab with. And I’m not knocking those women. But I base this assertion on overhearing a segment in which a seemingly black woman (I was listening not watching) gave the host dance lessons, and then said, “You’re gonna need to go to rhythm class too,” and the host indignantly squeaked, “I do NOT need to go to rhythm class!” Ha ha ha black people have rhythm.

The man cutting my hair is a contemporary of mine. It’s a family-owned business I have patronized for a while, and he has cut my hair more than once. He is the young devil of the family, moonlighting as a dental student at NYU. He once gave me an impassioned argument against Obamacare, saying it would hike up prices for reasons I am not informed enough to fully understand or combat. I nodded and smiled, which is the crux of this entry.

Because here we are, over a year later. He said, “You know, you see the face of the customer, you do not maybe remember, but you start cutting the hair, and the stories come back.” He asked me about my degree, my dozens of girlfriends, and so on. I thought, well, what else do you see in that scalp up there, big boy? But this is when Shanaynay showed up to wedge us apart. Except she didn’t.

First, my man offered an inarguable bromide: “This is such a stupid show,” he said. Yes! I can agree with this! I immediately said, “Oh yeah!”

Because even if I do sometimes watch daytime shows because they offer me the escapist thrill of thinking the world is actually a well-managed three-camera affair, I can at least acknowledge that such a thrill is a stupid one.

To my credit, I did hint at some possible hypocrisy. Indicating that in fact this show was playing in his own place of business, I went ahead and offered him an out: “Do you just keep it on to have something in the background?”

He nodded and said, “But I am going to turn on the radio.” We both laughed the full-throated laugh of the small talker. It is NUTS how much funnier things are in small talk. Oh my GOD you can’t get your airplane seatbelt to click together?! Well I guess you get what you pay for! Hahahahahahaha I DON’T EVEN KNOW WHAT WE MEAN: ARE WE CHEAP OR ARE FLIGHTS TOO $$$$ EITHER WAY MODERN LIFE IS HARD hahahahahahaha.

I will add that my man did not switch to the radio, at least while I was there. How I wish he had. Tuned in to NPR. I would have had zero crises of conscience, I feel. Instead, he left it on, and during a banal segment about girlfriends who give you tough advice, he offered the aforementioned verdict: “I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

The casual racism wasted no time in smacking me across the face. I was instantly aware of the implications of his statement, and I instantly laughed and made cooing noises of agreement.

Why?

Given ten seconds to reflect, the researchers in my brain offered the thesis that really the most likely audience is little old ladies, not welfare queen boogiemen. Or the white retired couple who live above me and keep the TV blaring 24/7. Or the tired old cleaning ladies I met at a summer program who took plenty of breaks from scrubbing toilets (and finding the retainer I drunkenly puked out of my mouth one night) to catch up on stories. Or MY MOTHER for crying out loud. Or my self.

But I rejected the work of my researchers. I buried it. It would have been non-confrontational enough to say, and at least plant a seed to challenge his stereotype (even a seed based on other stereotypes), but I didn’t.

I recently read Shirley MacLaine’s I’m Over All That, and one of the things she is over is small talk. She calls it “smalk” which I find to be a completely superfluous abbreviation. She has no patience for it. I find that such a feeling is a luxury of a very few, and may have something to do with age as well as money and power. Anthony Hopkins is said to be a bit eccentric in the way he will just up and leave his own table if you’re boring him: his wife has to smooth things over.

I have nothing new to say about the occasional inanities of small talk, of the embarrassment we may feel over using the weather as a conversational crutch, for instance, or the necessary evil of trading superficialities on a first date. But I have an exceptionally extreme terror of it. A friend of mine did a comedy bit about the people on the street who try to get you to Save the Children. She said not only did she start avoiding them, but that as she rode the train she would begin to get anxious just thinking about how she would soon have to deal with ignoring them.

I feel that way about everyone. I will cross to the opposite side of the street if I see you coming and I don’t want to do the plastic “how are you” thing. I will act like I don’t see you; I will deny you three times before the cock crows, and I apologize if it’s ever hurt your feelings.

I am, however, getting better, and also realizing the benefits. I went out with a combination of friends and strangers after a show, post-haircut, and I managed to start a little conversation. It’s a new skill, so it’s still a bit mechanical; my brain sends me messages like, “Now it’s your line. You should say, ‘What was weird about it?'”

But I listened to the person across from me, found something I could ask informed questions about (Yale Drama School), and then asked those questions, with follow-ups. When our chat spread to two other nearby diners, I took the kind of pleasure I imagine the cave man did who made fire: “I have done this!” “This was me!”

In addition to the pleasures of narcissism, I am finding that the more interested you are in other people the more interested you are in other people. It’s like having faith. The more you have it you have it but you have to have it to have it.

Of course, if you add alcohol to this interest in others, you can get all kinds of unpredictable results, like when at a large party I decided to lead a one man polling team to find out what everyone’s favorite cunnilingus technique was. If you are curious, I have sealed the results and put them in a vault to be opened six years after my death.

Then there are the times when you just have to suck it up and smalk it up. The times you’re in a social situation and you don’t agree with the person you’re talking to but, for the sake of harmony (maybe the person’s your significant other’s relative), you tuck your dick between your legs and prancercise in your airy kimono like a conversational Buffalo Bill. “I’m just like you,” you say. “I also believe Obamacare is the enemy of the people.”

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I suppose the fact that my barber holds sharp objects up to my head is a motive for harmonizing, but I’m not letting myself off the hook that easy. It’s not like I was trying to sleep with his sister.

I understand this all may not seem like a big deal, and certainly not something worth still thinking about twenty-four hours after the fact. But if I could so easily put aside one of my convictions (making racist comments about Shanaynays), what else could I put aside? Is there anything I won’t put aside? I began to see myself as a barbershop Zelig, the Woody Allen character who takes on the characteristics of whoever he’s with.

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He even turns different races.

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It’s Allen’s argument against mindless conformity (Zelig is easy bait for fascists), and I started to wonder if, at the right cocktail party, there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t agree to or say myself, for the sake of popularity.

If that’s not bad enough, there’s another kind of mortal sin you can commit while smalking (okay, Shirley, it has grown on me). And that’s faking it.

If my father only got to tell one story about me, he might talk about when I was a wee lad accompanying him on a Saturday morning trip to Sports Authority. It might have been the time we went to get me rollerblades. The point is, when we left the store, our masculine egos all puffed up by the smell of sneakers and balls, one man asked my father when the big basketball game was that day. My dad said, “Ummmm,” and then another man chimed in, “I think it’s at three,” the other man said. “Yeah! Yeah, it’s at three,” my dad said, nodding.

As we walked away, I said to my dad, “I don’t think you know what time the game is, because you don’t watch basketball.” I was, of course, right, and from then on my father decided I was a genius. And my dad and I now regularly compare notes about how we’re trying to be more honest about acknowledging what we don’t know. But it’s hard out here for a genius. At a recent Oscar party, we were all asked to make up fake awards for each other. A companion of mine handed me the “I Know Everything and I’m Always Right” trophy. Zing.

The Freakonomics guys, Steve Levitt and Stephen Dubner, have a new book out, and their recent podcast focused on a chapter of it: “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.”

The #notallmen (ugh) male ego is just one of the factors that can pressure us into false certainty, and those factors start early. When a teacher quizzes you, you don’t earn points for not knowing. Stephen Dubner interviews an English researcher whose work depicts how children are conditioned toward “having a go” at any question. Should teachers more positively reinforce “I don’t know”? Of course, a good teacher is generally asking a question that the student should know the answer to, and often wants the student to have a go regardless.

It works both ways, too. I had a mentor, a saint, who told me that if a student ever asked her a question to which she did not know the answer, she would say, “I don’t know, but I will look that up and we can talk about it tomorrow.” She hated when teachers threw students’ curiosity back on them: “I don’t know; why don’t you look it up?” From experience I know how tempting it is for a teacher to never admit he doesn’t know. I’ve BSed plenty of times, and only called myself out on it for a portion of them. I don’t think I would have lost much face if I had been more honest about my occasional ignorance, and certainly the relief over not having misinformed my students would have counterbalanced it.

But in job settings where you have bosses who aren’t teenage children, it can be even harder. It starts with the job interview itself, one situation where Levitt and Dubner admit that “never say I don’t know” can be a helpful maxim. In this post-recession recession world, that kind of can-do can-know spirit can easily seep into the rest of our lives. But imagine how easy it could have been:

“I think the only people who watch this show are Shanaynay and Shaniqua.”

“Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe.”

BAM.

“Obamacare is the enemy of the people.”

“Is it, sir? I don’t know. Say more.”

BOOM.

And I don’t really know the ins and outs of small businesses and healthcare anymore than I know if there is or is not truth behind the Shanaynay stereotype. More importantly, I don’t know what personal experience is causing my conversational partner to espouse such beliefs, but with a little gentle polite prodding I’m sure I could find out, and then I’d be in a whole new world of understanding. It’s predetermined certainty, isn’t it, that keeps us all from actually listening to each other? Even if it’s certainty that what we’re hearing is just smalk.

Steven Levitt admits the occasional benefit of “I don’t know,” but asks, what’s the fun in life of constantly faking it? “The goal is to be good,” he says, and while I know he means “competent,” when I heard that I couldn’t help but jump first to the moral dimension. Because when I got back from my haircut, I saw a friend had sent me a link to a Maya Angelou interview. I read Caged Bird in high school, and blew through it to get it done. I’ve never been a big fan, though I enjoyed listening to her talk about her mancatching banana pudding on Oprah. Well. After listening to this (part of her Oprah Master Class), I sat on my kitchen floor, like a child, and clicked link after link, listening spellbound to this woman speak seemingly right into me.

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You must listen, but here are the words:

And I think now what would Grandma do? What would she say? And I can almost hear her voice, say “Now Sister. You know what’s right. Just do right.” You don’t really have to ask anybody the truth is right may not be expedient, it may not be profitable, but it will satisfy your soul. It brings you the kind of protection that bodyguards can’t give you. Try to be all you can be, to be the best human being you can be. Try to be that in your church, in your temple. Try to be that in your classroom. Do it because it is right to do. You see. People will know you. And they will add their prayers to your life. They’ll wish you well.

I think, if your name is mentioned and people say, Oh hell, Oh damn, hahaha! You’re doing something wrong. But if your name is mentioned and people say oh she’s so sweet oh he’s so nice oh I love, god bless her! There you are.

So try to live your life in a way that you will not regret years of useless virtue and inertia and timidity. Take up the battle. Take it up. It’s yours. This is your life. This is your world. I’ll be leaving it long before you under the ordinary circumstances. 

You make your own choices. You can decide life isn’t worth living. That would be the worst thing you can do: how do you know? So far.

Try it. See. So pick it up. Pick up the battle. And make it a better world. Just where you are. Yes. And it can be better. And it must be better. But it is up to us.

This might seem a bit heavy to add to a discussion of small talk, but it feels right. And sharing her words is certainly right.

I do know what’s right, in this case. I should have said something about Shanaynay. Small talk offers us some quite large opportunities to be honest to our self, even if (hopefully if) that self is not rigid or fully formed. Being honest and un-Zelig must be how self is built in the first place, the kind that sticks out from the crowd like Dr. Angelou’s.

I’ll do better next time.