Last night we hosted a little social gathering. Nothing too out of the ordinary, just 3 couples eating, drinking, chatting and then a bit of music. If you follow my social media feeds you probably already know that I love to entertain. And I do. I love bringing people together, creating a delicious evening, cooking up a storm and bringing on the ambiance. I even curate playlists so that the (recorded) music is just right.
Here’s what I don’t do. Small talk. Cocktail conversations. Weather, politics, gossip, your work, my work, the price of tea in China.
Okay, perhaps I’m exaggerating. Of course I do some small talk. Pretty much all social discourse begins with some small talk. But if we can’t get to a deeper place a few glasses in (or by dessert) I can tell you I am bored. On those rare nights when I can’t steer the dialogue to something deeper I must either sing a song, play the piano while you sing a song or go to bed.
The two couples involved in last night’s soiree were only vaguely acquainted so yes, we small-talked it up during dinner. But by the time the plates had been cleared and we had retired to the parlour we three women found ourselves at the piano, yes noodling on the keys and yes singing some songs but mostly just talking. About life, men, love, getting older, Botox, men and love. I found this conversation to be exhilarating.
Why? Because I simply cannot be a surface-dweller. I cannot just skim the outskirts of deep and meaningful interaction for fear of a) offending someone (yeah, never done that before) or b) putting my foot in my mouth (yes, there is room) or c) bringing up a taboo subject (no such thing) or d) shocking the party crowd with my candor (don’t care). At the end of the evening I truly need to feel that a connection has been made – with someone – about something that is real. Yes, even the hard stuff.
This past summer we attended a party where I was delighted to see an acquaintance I had not encountered for many years. In the interim I had learned this dear woman had lost her only child to a drug overdose. We sat together at the end of a table on the deck, commented on how wonderful it was to reconnect and how marvelous we both looked for our advanced age (yay small talk!) and then I said “Holy shit. Tell me. How are you dealing with this? I cannot even imagine.”
Well, because we do reside primarily in a land of surface-dwellers and that is what most people are used to, I wasn’t exactly sure how my forthright approach was going to fly. Would she hate me for bringing it up? Have relished a night off from her anguish? Preferred to discuss the beautiful gardens surrounding us?
No. She dove right in and off we went. We had an incredible conversation. We got deep, down, dirty and felt a thousand times better for it. I would like to believe she felt seen and understood. And I would also like to believe that she was grateful. I mean she said she was grateful. And I was grateful that she had felt safe enough to share her pain. Man, did we hug it out.
At that same party was my darling ex-husband. A lovely man raised in the land of surface-dwellers. We had a bit of catch-up chat and when he mentioned that his parents would be visiting in a few weeks I offered that it “wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world” for him (and his new wife) to invite me over for a glass of wine. After all I have stayed in cordial touch with his folks, visited them at their home across the pond, and my ex and his new partner have socialized with both me and my family more than once.
My answer was a nervous chuckle and then silence. And then I’m pretty sure a change of subject. Or maybe it was an “I’m off to get another beer” moment. I don’t remember. What I do remember is the blinding (re)realization that any type of meaningful dialogue (and really we’re talking tip of the iceberg here) was never going to happen with this man at a party. Nope.
A few years back, at a Christmas party in another town, I met a woman for the first time. Somehow, in a room full of people I did know, she and I ended up on the sofa by the fireplace talking about everything from divorce (she was freshly going through one) to amicable relationships with ex-husbands to our kids handling divorce to finding personal fulfillment and are we really entitled. It was a fine conversation and when it was over, man did we hug it out.
And then this past Christmas, at yet another party, and after I had made about as much small talk I could handle (and most of it with the bartender) I sat down with a woman who again I know only socially but who I also knew had just endured an unimaginable tragedy. And I really should say “was still enduring” because do unimaginable tragedies ever abate completely? I had just lost my mother – sad yes, tragic no – so we had some common ground to start with. But after mutual condolences were offered we too marched stoically into the muck. We just went there and talked it out. And when we were done, man did we hug it out.
My guess is this beautiful (and sad) woman had spent the entire evening of festive frivolity accepting sympathy (heartfelt, I’m sure) and maintaining her own stiff upper lip, as we are (weirdly) expected to do – especially at a Christmas party! When she could finally shed that veneer and just BE REAL, in all its not-so-socially-acceptable permutations, she was relieved. And I was again grateful. Not only for the new and stronger connection that she and I had forged but because I don’t do small talk. And a party is pointless to me if that is all that is on offer.
You may notice that in all these encounters (save last night’s, which was beautifully organic), I am the one who instigates discussion. You may also have noticed that all of these encounters – the “successful” ones – were with women. Yep, I know. Not lost on me either.
Apparently men are conditioned to be small-talk super heroes. Whether it’s sports or work or Scotch or the latest episode of Big Bang, most men have an uncanny ability to talk about nothing (my blog, my opinion) ad nauseum. My own beloved is quite capable of rehashing an entire movie plot in detail, dialogue included, while I listen to the clock tick tock tick tock into the next millennium. I do know men who embrace the non-surface-dwelling mentality and I am eternally grateful for them. Even more so grateful for the women who are not afraid to enter into these uncharted waters with me. Regularly. Sometimes even without wine.
My friend T tells me this: You are never boring, Vickie. Conversations with you are not always easy but they are always interesting.
And that is truly one of the best compliments I have ever received.
I know people who hum constantly. As in all the fucking time. Why? My guess is they don’t want to be alone with their own thoughts. Any noise is better than facing your inner sanctum so geez, hum up a storm!
I also know people who are ALWAYS busy. Work, sports, charitable endeavors, music and dance lessons, committees, projects and more work. Why? My guess is they don’t want to be alone with their own thoughts. Any activity is better than facing your inner sanctum so geez, busy up a storm!
I get it. If you make enough noise and stay busy enough, you’ll never have to face your own truth.
I choose to live in a land where deep is the norm and surface-dwelling is unacceptable. I choose to step out of my comfort zone at parties and talk about “that which shall not be said”. I choose to risk scorn, ridicule and a whole lot of eye-rolling to go to sleep content, knowing that I helped someone else share their burden and be seen. And heard. Also, knowing that I have shared my burden and have been seen and heard.
I urge you to try it. You never know … you just might like it. And even more so, who knows whose life you just might impact?