Sometimes I forget my words.
My mouth is moving but the sound is inaudible. The straightforward answer to, “How are you?” is whittled down to an indecipherable murmur when, really, I should just automatically go, “Grand, thanks” – even if I’m not.
My brain and my mouth don’t always meet eye-to-eye, or at whatever point in my head they converge. Like most people, I am prone to speaking absolute gibberish when a drink or two is taken, but this loss of words is a bizarre anxiety thing that I’ve always had and mostly concealed.
I was out walking my dog recently when I ran into an acquaintance outside Tesco. We have a huge number of mutual friends, I’ve been in his house and we’ve hung out at parties and festivals. We have a wealth of topics to talk about. “Hey! What are you up to?” he asks. “Oh, nothing interesting. You know yourself” was what I meant to say. But just a series of grunts came out, words stumbling on top of each, hoping to string a sentence together.
This bumbling baboon I presented is probably how most people react when they meet Oprah, not some guy who’s known for being a bit of a madman at parties. I’m not a shy person by nature, in fact, I can be quite ballsy at times. But when faced with small talk, I panic. When I’m in the butchers and he tries to talk about the weather or the rugby at the weekend, my reply is “Eh…heh….yeah.” My mind goes blank and any trace of personality is locked up tight in an airtight room. My eyes dart madly, so as not to make any eye contact that would appear as an invitation to continue this conversation.
About six years ago, I was hanging out with one of my oldest friends. We were catching up and having a cup of tea when I was delivering my strange dose of splutterings. “Why are you making everything so awkward?” she said in a high-pitched jokey voice.
I think highly of my friends, and I think I was afraid of disappointing her or seeming uncool. We both went to school together but we went to different colleges. She was naturally just one of those people who has it sussed and was very, very cool. I overthought what I was going to say to her, so whatever diversion my brainwaves took to getting to my mouth, I was terribly uncouth.
“What’s the craic?”
“How’s it going?”
These are questions that I stumble over. The answer can say so much and in the panic of choosing the right thing to say, a clusterfuck of words, grunts and whines come out.
I am no shy wallflower. There are times when you can’t shut me up. I’m not lacking in confidence either. Some might say I have too much.
It’s easy to rehearse social situations. You can build up stories so that you have something to talk about at a scheduled social appointment. Or you can line up the right sort of questions so you can distract from yourself. Or you might be landed with someone who doesn’t need to be prompted to talk about themselves for hours on end (those people are exhausting, but at least you’re off the hook).
You can plan and you can act. I’ve learned to pretend that I’m at ease in some situations. I’m not pretending to be someone else – all the traits are mine – but I pretend that the words flow easily. I can use this in a work environment and I can use it when I’m with close friends, before I settle into my groove. The danger is when I bump into people. That’s when my body goes into shock mode.
On nights out, you can be an exaggerated version of yourself or conceal who you are by singing loudly or dancing or just nodding your head along to the music. You can’t do that in Tesco. Or the butchers. You can’t scream, “AGH, I LOVE THIS SONG!” and bounce off into the sunset. You’d be locked up.
In a way, I blame small talk. Small talk was created by the devil himself. Small talk contains your inner madness. Who wants to excel at small talk? Who do you know that’s an expert small talker? “Oh, that Mary. Awful cook but the way she crafts her small talk is spectacular.”
Small talk presents itself everywhere. One shimmering example was when I was buying a burrito. I went into the shop with my dog and when the guy behind the till asked if the pooch would like some water, I replied with “Oh, no. We’re getting a takeaway, thanks.” We. I implied that I was in a relationship with my dog.
Small talk is what first introductions are made of. Small talk is what first dates are built on. I am terrible at those two very things. I really come to shine when I’m on my third, fourth introduction. That’s when you can let your inner madness flow loosely instead of focusing on the niceties and asking about their job that you don’t really care about or understand.
The words are all in there and they know what they should be doing, but it’s their stubbornness, fear of failure and dislike of conformity that are slowing me down. I’m working on my acting skills.
Soon you will be singing high praises of my small talk and you’ll introduce me to your friends (only the one time mind, so that they don’t find out the truth) and I’ll go on first dates (only first dates because beyond that is just showing off).
I’ll be all chat about the weather, your weekend, the incredible game, your cousin’s wedding, your baby’s first haircut, your boyfriend who won’t clean the dishes properly, the guy in work who never shuts up.
Oh, my word. I’ll be there for it.
Louise Bruton is a writer living and working in Dublin She tweets at @luberachi and blogs at Legless in Dublin. You can see her latest TED talk here.