The linguistics of small talk
How back-to-school conversations drive us all mad
To return to Grounds after a month-long recess is to return to the town of Charlottesville, classes and most importantly, your friends at the University. These reunions with peers, however, are often ad-hoc as we run across our fellow Hoos at any unexpected time or place around Grounds the past two weeks. While seeing a friend after a long absence typically brings one pleasure, the required small talk in an impromptu meeting with a mere acquaintance can bore one to death.
Generally, such an encounter begins with you in a rush back to your dorm after classes. Confused at the homework you must finish during the much hyped “syllabus week,” you intend on completing all your work before embarking on the night’s Monday Funday antics.
Unfortunately, on the way back, you spy a figure in the distance. Approaching at a glacial pace and with a huge smile on his face is that one kid we all know. Happy to see everyone, this particular student has a knack for lazing about daily, making idle chit chat as he sees fit and living life without a care in the world. With an unavoidable collision imminent, you prepare for the worst.
With your head bent down as you run down your mental checklist, you prepare for the inane small talk to which you will be subjected. Rehearsing, you remember his name and … that’s about it. Now, with only 50 yards separating you and your loquacious friend, you must decide when to engage.
If you look up now, you risk the possibility your eyes lock with his, forcing you to acknowledge his presence with a wave, despite the fact that you still remain so far away from him. You continue down this hypothetical course of action until you realize that it ends with him shouting salutations to you, resulting in a situation entirely too awkward for you to handle. Instead, you dig into your pants pocket and pull out your smartphone, pretending to be engrossed in an urgent text message.
Now, the real social calculus begins. As you tap away at your screen, counting the steps towards your conversational partner, you attempt to time the return of the phone to your pocket perfectly, so that you’ll look up right as you cross paths with this particular chatty Cathy. Too soon, and you will have given him too much time to initiate a full-on conversation; too late, and you will have already passed him, slightly hurting his feelings as you have denied him a friendly greeting. However, if you time it perfectly, you should manage to pop your head up right in time for an overly enthusiastic “Hello!” and be well on your way.
Time to act. Initiating plan: in a socially inept way to avoid conversation, you shove your phone away, tilt your head up and to your horror discover that you’re too early; with your acquaintance only a few feet away, he throws his arms outward and screams your name. Forcing your mouth to contort itself into a Joker-esque smile, you return his greeting, bemoaning the time lost to this forthcoming conversation.
Exuberantly, he interrogates you about your break. With your brain functioning as a tape recorder playing back a pre-recorded message, you decide your stock answers are most likely safe to stick with.
You respond with as much voice inflection as possible, “Oh, it was good.” “No, I actually didn’t go anywhere cool.” “Yeah, I just chilled at home.” “Oh, definitely, it was good to be home and see everyone.” “Yes, definitely well rested and happy to be back.”
Cordially returning all his questions and remarking on his absolutely fascinating trip to study the truly terrible fracking sites in his hometown of Who-Knows-Where, West Virginia, you inch slowly away from him, exhibiting the backwards walking and talking made famous by our very own rambunctious University Guides. Quickly fabricating an exit strategy, you declare how great it was to see him and set off in the opposite direction.
After checking your phone to see just how much time you wasted, you look up and your destination in sight. In between you and the finish line though, lies a familiar face, that slightly “off” girl from your chemistry lab last semester, the same one who has just made eye contact with you, and she appears ready to catch up with her favorite lab partner.
Aidan’s column runs biweekly. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.