How is it that you can tuck yourself into bed one night with a self-assured personality and a morning show anchor’s ability to make small talk only to wake up the next morning feeling like your foot is permanently inserted in your piehole?
Okay, I exaggerate. It wasn’t exactly overnight, but something has definitely happened to me, dedicated readers, something disconcerting. For fifteen years I’ve made a career out of chatter. From coffee dates to business lunches to cocktail parties to book fairs and conferences and the occasional interminable business trip by train or plane seated next to a colleague, I’ve chatted with the best and the worst of them. With a slight discomfort creeping under my skin masked by an open smile and an inquisitive nature, I’ve navigated the world of getting to know you conversation seemingly with confidence and ease.
Until now. Chalk it up to having removed myself from that cocktail party rotation, to having taken several months off during which time I only really conversed with family and close friends, the latter mostly by phone or email. Or point to the fact that I’m now in a new city and the people I’m meeting have absolutely no background on me, no context to draw on that might make the dance that is small talk more graceful and fluid. Both of these are solid explanations and probably have much to do with it, but it doesn’t make the bitter pill go down any easier. I’m in a new town, I really don’t know many people, and I’ve suddenly lost the ability to speak in complete – not to mention compelling — sentences. Seriously, I’m not kidding: I often find myself not speaking in complete sentences.
This is all to say that I used to be really good at conversation. And now I suck at it.
“You’re rusty, Beck.” That’s what Patty told me on the phone the other day when I shared with her my concerns. “You’re in a new place and you have to meet people from scratch, something you haven’t done in a long time. They don’t know anything about you and you have to tell them who you are.”
God, do I have to?
Here’s the other wrinkle. I don’t really like very many people. In fact, it’s one of my favorite things to say: “I don’t like people.” Or, “people suck.” Of course, this isn’t entirely true. I can think of at least ten people I really really like. And, if pressed, I could come up with probably a dozen more. I guess I’m just not super interested in spending lots of time with most people. I hate crowds and crowded places. Don’t get me started on going to the movies or the mall or amusement parks. But I do often enjoy talking one on one with someone new and I’m not someone who thinks she’s met as many people as she needs to, that her friend roster is full up, no openings until there’s an opening. Especially now that I’m in this new place, no friends in sight. I’m definitely open to meeting people right now. It’s just that that desire is not being successfully transmitted from my brain to my mouth. So when I open said piehole, some really stupid stuff comes out.
I could give you some examples. Like the afternoon I spent getting my hair cut at the hip neighborhood spot Maya recommended. My stylist was adorable and chatty and someone I could definitely see myself hanging out with. I, on the other hand, couldn’t seem to say one intelligent or intelligible thing during the hour I sat in her chair. She complimented my gingham shirt to which I replied “I like green.” Seriously? I like green? Or there’s the story from the book signing I went to when a female comedian and commentator I admire came to town. She’s represented by my pal Kirby and I haltingly mentioned the connection to her when she was signing my book. Followed by “He named his baby after me.” Really? (And no, he didn’t.)
Dedicated readers, I can’t go on like this. This has got to stop. So I hereby resolve to remedy this unfortunate development as quickly and as lastingly as I can with some good old fashioned practice. Starting right now, I’m going to seek out situations that take me into the unpredictable terrain of conversation for conversation’s sake. I’m going to sit next to the sweet elderly couple at the local theater and engage them in easy chatter (as I did last night before the play began). I’m going to invite people I’m just getting to know to dinner or for a game of tennis and I’ll volley talking points to them over the net as assuredly as I do the tennis ball, albeit with more hits that actually land in their court if we’re lucky. I’m going to show up to the weekly Austin Film Festival meeting and speak up when we’re critiquing the films, offering my opinion in a clear and steady voice (at last week’s meeting I barely made a peep and kicked myself all the way home.)
I’m going to do whatever it takes, just watch me. I’m going to beat this affliction and get back into fighting shape. And I’m not going to do it because I see business lunches or cocktail parties or book fairs on the horizon. Dear God, I hope I’m done with most of those for the foreseeable future. I’m going to do it because, despite my aversion to most people and my reluctance to spend too many more of my precious hours talking about only small things (that’s what small talk is after all, right?), I like the confident person I am when I’m conversing like a pro. I like being someone who listens well and responds with the right balance of insight and humor, someone who gives as good as she gets. Sure, I may have lost my footing a bit of late. But I know, with practice, it’s only a matter of time before I’m back on solid ground.