Small Talk

I was force-fed shyness as a kid. It was ground into imperceptible powder and smuggled into my introductions, peppered on my attempts at conversation. I was slow to speak, so this was the reason and the remedy. Because I took a long time to figure out what I wanted to say to strangers and how to sequence the words, my mother would confess hastily, sheepishly: “Sorry, she is shy.” I did not think I was. I wanted to talk to people and find out what they liked and how they felt—I just couldn’t get the words out right. I was prone to stuttering and skipping entire words, as if they were assorted jellies and some stuck my teeth together while others I swallowed whole.

When you don’t know yet what appeals to your taste buds but everyone else says your mother is a wonderful cook, you eat whatever she puts in front of you. Bloated on these truths, you no longer remember if things were or should have been different. You assume everyone else eats similarly in their respective homes. When your mother seems to know everything about the world and says something about you, you believe it, same as you would in gravity or photosynthesis.

My rebel teenage years were less about drugs and piercings, more about purging these claims that sat heavy and toxic in my body like stones. When my stutter dissolved and my speech slowed enough to smooth out the tangles of sentences, I wanted to be louder than everyone else. I always had a quip, riposte, fun fact, or one-upper: toppings I threw on everywhere, without discrimination or taste. I was talkative and weird and damn proud of it. It let me take up so much space for a change, and it felt good. Better than being shy.

When I went to college, everyone seemed so much smarter in ways I had never conceptualized. My school was full of social activists who asked each other every day if they were doing enough to combat the patriarchy, hegemony, heteronormativity, and neo-colonialism. All such big, important ideas I had never heard of before. I began starving myself of my newfound confidence, partly to make room for listening and learning, and partly because I didn’t believe I deserved it.

I had to re-learn the art of conversation, train myself on a new diet. It helped to work part-time in shops and cafes, where I was forced to make small talk with one stranger after another. Eventually, I felt the most balanced and likable I’d ever been in my life. I kept this up for several years, trying a lot of new experiences and making many new, diverse friends. The key ingredients: curiosity, genuine interest, thoughtfulness, no longer caring how others might judge me, and a generous pour of liquor.

In the past few months, I have felt myself sinking back into reticence. That “new” diet no longer seems to work, and I have been shrinking again to take up minimal space. I can’t be bothered to put myself out there anymore. When I meet new people, I am unable to pique or maintain their interest, much less befriend them. I can’t tell if it is because I have simply gotten older and more straightforward with my wants and interests, or if this is an inexorable return to my original state. Perhaps shyness is in my nature, and the latter half of my life was spent battling futilely against it. Perhaps it’s high time to accept this.

I do not hesitate to approach strangers or lead a group if the situation calls for it. I still like the idea of getting to know people. But if they answer in monosyllables or seem closed-off in any way, I automatically shut down, too. It may sound like a practical selectivity in where and when to invest my energies, but it’s nothing so sophisticated. Even among friends, I’ve been quieter. To my own disappointment, nowadays, I just can’t seem to think of anything to say. Yet still I hunger.