I am not good with small talk.
See, I am Austrian. We are grumpy people. Not only am I Austrian, I am also from the Western part of Austria. Here is what the CIA World Factbook has to say about this:
[…] population is concentrated on eastern lowlands because of steep slopes, poor soils, and low temperatures elsewhere.
No wonder than that we are not often in the mood for idle chit-chat.
In addition, I am a scientist, and like many other scientists deeply suspicious about small talk. We like novel insights and interesting thoughts. We don’t always understand what small talk is for. So, traffic this morning was horrible, you say? The weather has been lovely this June? Thank you, but I don’t need to be informed about the bloody obvious.
It was only in my late 20s, when I read Watching the English by Kate Fox that I discovered the true purpose of small talk. It’s not actually to exchange information about the weather or the traffic situation. It is to establish a bond with the person you are talking to. To negotiate a potentially tricky social situation and make all participants feel at ease. Now, this is probably self-evident to most people, but for me, it was an epiphany (and so much for not needing to be informed about the bloody obvious.)
Now that I understand what small talk is for, I have been making an effort. But I’m still not good at it.
Here is something that happens quite a bit: I am at a party or in a dentist’s waiting room or a similar social gathering, and talking to some other person. “Where are you from?” they ask. “Austria,” I say.
And then it happens.
“Oh, Australia,” they say, “how fascinating!” At this point, I have only a very small window of time to interrupt my interlocutor and point out the mistake. If I don’t act quickly, it is too late. But then again, I feel awkward interrupting. In the meantime, the stranger has already gone on to tell me about their cousin in Canberra and their lifelong ambition to see the Great Barrier Reef, and how kangaroos are their favourite animals and so on. Soon, the conversation is too far gone to pedal back. Worse still, we are talking about Australia.
Here is the problem with Australia: Everybody loves Australia. It’s sunny and full of great natural beauty. It has interesting animals, and there is surfing and barbecues and friendly, beautiful people. If countries were animals, surely Australia would be the dolphin.
I would have to come in and say. “No, erm, sorry. I am not actually from that awesome country. I am from Austria. Have you heard of it? Grumpy people? Poor soils and cold weather? Where Hitler came from? Yes, exactly, that’s the one.”
I sort of don’t want to have to say that, and it’s probably too late anyway. All that is left is damage control. I nod and smile and maybe interject that I, too, have heard great things about Perth, but never been there. (Not entirely wrong either.) Meanwhile, I grow nervous.
How long can I keep this lie up? What if the woman from the dentist waiting room and I, by some weird twist of fate, end up becoming close friends? I will have to tell her eventually, won’t I? Or maybe I can just apply for Australian citizenship …
And what if there is an actual Australian at the party? What if he finds me out and exposes me for the liar that I am? If you have seen the Bar Scene from Inglourious Basterds, you will know what I’m talking about.
So, I grow increasingly tense and nervous. Is this the way small talk is supposed to make you feel? Because I don’t like it at all. I start to realise that my only way out of this is to change the topic and quick, before my interlocutor asks me what airline is best for trips to Sydney.
“Soooo …” I say. “Traffic was horrible this morning, wasn’t it? But at least the weather has been nice this month.”
some proven solutions to your problems:
Tell people you are from Austria, actually from Salzburg, where Sound of Music was filmed.
Pro: Most people now have a slight idea where you come from.
Con: They will be babbling on the whole time about Schnitzel and Noddles and Crisp Appelstrudels, Edelweiss and other terrible misconceptions about Austria.
Tell them you are from Southern Germany, close to Munich.
Pro: They will be babbling on about how they like the Octoberfest, Neuschwanstein, etc pp. (Who cares anyway.)
Con: None. You will be able to answer their questions and you will probably never see them again anyway, so they will never find out. And if you keep in contact… well no one will be mad about that white lie.
As too small talk:
Most Austrians would probably rather be taken for Australians than for Germans 🙂 And now back to singing songs and making dresses from curtains …
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