culture & community sisterhood

The Big Deal About Small Talk

by Cheney — December 12, 2013

small talk people sitting silhouette Zeller

I am the kind of person who sometimes talks to strangers, despite all the warnings.

I’ve been thinking about Jo-Anna’s piece these last few days, in particular the ways in which I interact in public spaces and how it has changed as a result of the experiences I’ve had.

As a well-behaved child, who listened to her parents and watched cautionary tales of kidnapping on afternoon TV shows, I knew about “bad” strangers,  particularly anyone offering candy or purporting to have a lost puppy. The problem was that my imagination was too specific. I figured bad people would be obvious – ominous music playing when they approached, or dressed all in black with a hook for a hand. Which is why I was so confused at the sheer panic on my mother’s face when I was six and my brother was seven, and I explained to her that my brother had left a gated playground while she was shopping nearby, to go and help a man get his keys out of a locked car.

The man was friendly, and he’d explained to my brother and I that there was a gap in his car window and his grown-up arm was too big to reach through and unlock the door. This made sense to both of us, and my brother had gone with him cheerfully. I watched, puzzled, as my mother ran over to where I had pointed and grabbed hold of my brother’s skinny elbow as he stood on tiptoes to reach through the car window. There was yelling (mostly from my mother), my brother began to cry, and the man looked mortified.

Afterwards, when we were halfway home and my brother’s tears had dried, my mother explained this was the kind of thing we had to be careful about. That any grown-up, no matter how friendly, could be a threat. As it turned out, the man really had just been trying to open a locked car, but since he was a stranger, there was no way for us to have known that. I remember thinking at the time that this meant I couldn’t talk to any adults anymore, not even the nice ones, and how confusing this seemed.

I was a talkative teenager (the result of a curious mind, and the kind of extroversion one gets from a lot of theatre classes). Which meant I struck up conversations in ticket queues, at cafes, or anywhere I happened to be standing around. As I was no longer a child, I figured I was fine to talk to whomever I liked. This meant I had varied and interesting friends, but also my fair share of misunderstandings. When I was 15, I struck up a conversation with a man at a bus stop. He was newly arrived from overseas and wanted to know where to get a particular type of food. We talked about where he was from, and his family, and how he liked Australia. When my bus arrived, he asked for my phone number so we could talk more, and I gave it to him without a second thought.

Until I got on the bus and thought about what had just happened. A man, who looked to be in at least his 40’s, had just asked a random teenage girl for her home phone number. He called that night, and I answered and pretended to be my older sister, feeling thoroughly awkward. He continued to phone my house every night, sometimes two or three times, for the next two weeks, each time growing more insistent until my mother demanded to know what was going on. The next time he phoned, my mother took the phone from me, told him he had the wrong number and that he wasn’t to call again. She didn’t bother to lecture me – she knew that I knew I’d made a mistake.

These days, I still enjoy the occasional random conversation, but it’s more fraught now I’m a grown woman and people have different expectations. I find it especially frustrating when men often mistake my simple willingness to respond to them as a kind of romantic interest, and I find myself becoming more reserved and putting up a front to be left alone, though I’ve never stopped being curious about other people. I always continue to hope that the negative experiences will be outweighed by the good ones and feel lucky I live in a place where, generally, a friendly chat with someone you don’t know is considered a good thing.

Oh, and I still make friends on the bus, but I’m smarter about it now. My friend James, who I met because we have the same commute every morning, had to go out and eat pizza with me on two separate occasions before he even got my office email. My mum, I’m sure, would think that was very sensible.


Image by Samuel Zeller

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