Up Front by Emma Hart


Casual, Shallow and Meaningless

If there's one thing I'm not very good at (there are lots, I've said many times I'm only actually good at two things) it's talking. Particularly, talking to women. Now, I can tell already that this statement is straining the credulity of some in my audience. Some of you are thinking, "I've seen you talk. I've seen you and women talking and you could not be shut up, even when you very much should have been."

 That's different. Those women are my best friends: all both of them. And if you've seen me do Champion Talking, you've seen me Drink Alcohol.

 What I can't do is make conversation. I can have conversations, for hours. I can reliably be one of the last people to leave a venue because of all the conversing. But I completely suck at making small-talk. I can't do the contentless chit-chat that makes society function. This is not in any way to brag: it's something I often wish I could do.

 It's not just face-to-face, either. Once an email correspondence has passed all the important functional information it needs to, I tend to consider it over. If I don't reply, it doesn't mean I don't like you, I'm just done.

 One of my problems is that the things I enjoy talking about don't make for safe topics of conversation with strangers. Sex. Politics. Sexual politics. The evolution of the detective novel in the Victorian Period. Also, while I'm improving, I'm still not very good at spotting when a conversational thread is inappropriate. Let me give you an example.

 Taking a taxi home from a bar one night, I got chatting to my taxi driver. His doing: if they don't talk, neither will I. Turned out this guy was fascinating: he'd been a wedding dress designer in Malaysia. So I was all being compelled by his life story. He told me about this Japanese girl he'd known, then we were talking about staying in and falling out of touch with people, so laughingly I told him a story about Facebook's recent friend suggestions for me, and why they were so appalling. He nearly ran off the road. He was all, "Oh my God, this is like an episode of Shortland Street," and I was thinking, "Dude, that's just the kind of stuff that happens to me." At least he was shocked and amused. Sometimes people are shocked and appalled.

 While I'm okay dealing with individual women, mostly, put me in a group of women I don't know very well and I'm completely lost. Once I went to a Book Look (like a Tupperware party, but for children's books) a friend of mine was holding, which was all mothers from the school her kids attended. I'd spent pretty much the whole day watching American mid-term election results come in, and my partner was coaching me before I left.

 "What are you not going to talk about?"


 "And what are you going to talk about?"

 "Children. I don't want to go!"

 I was very quiet all night. Once, a very nice woman kindly asked me if my daughter read the Color Fairies books like all the other daughters, and I got to say no, actually, she prefers Captain Underpants. We never saw those people again.

 The other thing I'm really bad at in casual conversation is lying. I prefer people to believe I'm a terrible liar generally –and also that I can't keep a secret -  but I really struggle to tell the inclusive, inconsequential white lie. How bad is this? One of the questions I struggle to not tell the truth in reply to is, "How are you?" I've learned to say "Fine" largely because my partner is sick of seeing That Expression on the faces of checkout operators.

 So all things considered, you can imagine the state of mind in which I went to my hairdresser on Saturday. Now, my hairdresser herself is lovely, but I can only really deal with that kind of environment by viewing the experience as an anthropological field trip. Even then, when the conversation about ghosts (underlying universal assumption, ghosts are real) was punctuated by the phrase "Typical Libra", I quailed. This is, of course, because I'm such a typical Aquarius.

 So I am grateful to the earthquakes for providing Christchurch with a universal topic of casual conversation I can understand. I am also very grateful for smartphones. Though you can rest assured that the kind of text which has made me snorfle with laughter in the hairdressers has content which is Not Suitable for Casual Conversation.

     Emma Hart is the author of the book 'Not Safe For Work'.
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