“How brittle and fugitive is all life, how meagrely and fearfully living things carry their spark of warmth through the icy universe.” – Hermann Hesse
I moved many times in my life. I have never felt more at home than being back in Europe and in Vienna. I also started my new job and could not be happier. I am very fortunate to be able to live in a great apartment building in Vienna where everybody is super friendly, too. My neighbor, an elderly lady, comes over for tea and cookies sometimes. So sweet. 2020 started out great for me.
Throughout my life, I encountered many peculiar characters, many in small doses and some in this-it is-a-huge-mistake-dose. In New York, for example, there was the queen of my apartment building who never failed to slip me the side-eye and refused to touch the elevator buttons with her bare hands because they are not sterile. There was the building super, who strutted around in a white ribbed tank top and silver chain, chain-smoking while fixing a water leak in my apartment. But the person I remember most vividly, and with the most affection, was the doorman.
Whether I walked into the lobby at 10 p.m., giddy from a goodnight kiss, or drunk at 1 a.m., he would greet me with a warm and welcome and polite chit-chat. He had the distinct ability to engage people past the superficial: He remembered birthdays and referred to pets by name. Although the conversations never lasted too long, they always stayed with me, lingering in my mind like a catchy refrain.
“The moment one gives close attention to anything, even a blade of grass it becomes a mysterious, awesome, indescribably magnificent world in itself.” – Henry Miller
I have been reminded of his talent when I walked the long maze-looking hallways at my workplace. A place where small-talk demands grow taller than the Rockefeller tree. Or the random chit-chat when my son found a tampon on the street on the way to work. “What’s this?”, he asked. “It is a tampon,” I replied. “What is it for?” Initial silence because it seems like a loaded question. To understand tampons means first understanding menstruation, which means understanding the whole life cycle. Not in the mood for a Friday morning chit-chat about all that. “Well, you know how babies are made, right?” “Not really, mom. Cameron told me that two people have to be naked and rub against each other.” It is not even 7.30 a.m yet. How should I respond? I begin to talk around the edges but could gladly pause because he saw two squirrels chasing each other.
I love words. I love to talk to people or to myself but not in public. I am not a chit-chat-pro but I know how to talk. To anyone, really. In order to glean some wisdome in chit-chatting, I will share some tips that help me keep my chit-chat in tip-top shape. This way I can walk into any situation with my head held high and comfortable. In my experience, it is not always the choice of words that matter, but how you say them.
Start the conversation with a compliment. If I feel you wear something nice, I am going to tell you just that. The same goes for nail polish, hair, make-up etc. This usually always opens up a conversation even if it is a superficial one about a product the person uses.
Be willing to veer into unexpected topics. The trick to making small talk is letting myself be surprised by the conversation. I try not to have a rehearsed conversation outline in my head because it closes me off to make an actually organic connection. I think a lot of people enter these types of interactions with an idea of how it’s going to go, and that ends up limiting the conversation. If I truly just enter with an open mind, people will usually really surprise me (for better or for worse).
Ease other people’s anxiety with a warm smile. I realized that when entering an unfamiliar space, some people can be very withdrawn or nervous. So, I smile. Not a fake smile. A smile and a kind greeting have the power to immediately make someone feel welcomed and comfortable.
I use each exchange as an opportunity to learn something new. I enhance their experience and walk away having learned something new. I treat everyone as my teacher. Because they are. For example, I ask people what they read, watch, or listen to. What inspires them, what makes them happy. I usually do myself a favor and skip the weather. Most boring topic. Ever. For me, it works to stay in-tune with current events, media, books, movies, travels, etc. I am also highly observant of people around me, but casual. I pay attention to how they react, the sound of their voice, how they dress, what they read. How they react toward me. Anything can slowly engage or spark small talk. I love to look people in the eye while they are talking and listen. No matter how little they have to say, I just never know how lending a listening ear can impact someone’s day.
I remind myself that this is about them. I don’t take anything personally. Usually, small talk is inherently brief, so most of the time a person’s reaction is not about me. And last, I tailor my topics to the person I am talking to. I am not talking about my divorce if someone just got married. I don’t bring up death to someone who just had a baby. Well, maybe I do. And I absolutely do not forget to listen. My goal is to have an impact or influence on someone with just a few memorable words. And to make some happy because I am interested in their stories.