Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Small talk: a valuable process

This is a continuation of the previous few posts. When I talked about small talk and being forgotten, I ruminated on why I should bother engaging in small talk, networking, mingling. The end of the post's takeaway made the point that sometimes deep friendships are formed though the individuals had to go through small talk, shyness, or awkward introductions. Certainly that has been a huge benefit. There may be something of a numbers game here too. Every meeting and introduction is not going to end in a close relationship being formed. But some will.

Friendships are not the only goal and perk of awkward initial interactions though. I stand facing another person, coming up with ways to remember the name they just told me while trying to hear about their job, what they did over the holiday, or whatever we have moved onto. I look for commonalities and ways to relate. Sometimes I mostly find differences, which leads to robust conversations and greater understanding of another perspective. Occasionally people seem to find me as someone they can trust or confide in, and I get to offer an ear, a head nod, and a pat on the shoulder. Conversations grow the necessary quality of empathy.

The awkward chatting shapes me. A former roommate said the following to me as I left for my first date with my now husband:

It was and is such a wise statement. It gave me confidence to not worry as much about who I showed him I was. I was free to be myself, enjoy getting to know another person, and learn something about myself in the process. When I mingle, meet people for the first time, or engage in small talk, I learn to be more clear and communicate better. I increasingly assert myself. I pause, practice listening, being present, and focusing on another person. I learn more about what makes me laugh, what makes me uncomfortable, what impresses me. I learn more about the image I am trying to project and areas where I need to grow. I get to practice what I say is important to me--others feeling they are important and worth hearing and pausing for. In mingling and engaging, I get to practice presence. As much as small talk feels awkward and hard, it stretches me beyond my comfort zone, the people I already know, and my own company. Like exercise, writing a dissertation, or doing a lot of other activities, we learn more in the process and through the difficulties than by achieving an end goal. My most valuable lessons and connections were so because of the journey and the work. Don't overlook the process.

Monday, May 23, 2016

The small talk journey

I am not fond of mingling and small talk, which is probably not a surprise to my loyal readers. Likewise, I have realized I do not rock networking. It is basically small talk and mingling in a professional arena or with those intents. In reflections over the past few months, several reasons and implications have occurred to me, which I would like to share here.
  • As an adult, my name is a little more common, but as a kid, hardly anyone was named Andrea. It is just not a popular name. I could never find personalized coin purses and keychains at amusement parks and random kitschy shops. I first met another Andrea in college, but she pronounced it the "other" way--Awn-drE-ah. Teachers had a hard time pronouncing it. Other kids had a hard time pronouncing it. For a long time, I was pretty insistent in correcting people or making my name known because gosh darn it, my mom and dad gave me that name. I was (and still do) make effort to get people's name spellings and pronunciations correct, likely because of my own issues.

    As an adult, I relaxed insisting people get my name right. People in work settings were as bad as random strangers on the street, so then, I started being called Amanda, Angela, Angel, Angie, Anna, and basically any other A name. Early on in my former job, I was addressed as Andre by someone I never saw much but from a misspelling on a package. My co-workers morphed it into Drea and then Dre so for about 7 years, I was called Dre. They still do when they see me or email. Never bothered me and was actually amusing. Otherwise, people I meet at work, church, around town, etc still have a hard time remembering my name or pronouncing it correctly so I laugh it off and say I'll answer to anything or anything beginning with A.
  • However, I worked with a lot of faculty and emailed them often with either information about the program with grad students and postdocs or seminars and events emails that went out at least weekly. Many came to me for information and help navigating various processes. It seemed I was respected and known. It took leaving to realize a lot of them could not be bothered to remember my name or acknowledge me in passing. I have dealt with several since leaving that job in my new, different context, and they honestly have looked at me and have no idea who I am. No idea.

    Similarly, I met people at church so often or ran into friends of friends and a lot of people never remember me. Some I met twelve or so times and not only do not they not remember my name, but they do not recall ever meeting me though we had decent length conversations. Once or twice is excusable, but after 10 times, that seems unexplainable. 
I used to get down when people did not remember me. I think this is actually one of the reasons I do not like small talk and mingling. It seemed so pointless. If I am so forgettable, why bother sharing about myself to have someone always forget? Why have the awkward exchanges and bother getting to know them, if I am going to get invested, remember, think we are going to be friends or at least be able to wave when we see one another at events and locations in the future? I would be down because I thought that not being remembered said something about me. It took me a long time to realize it has a lot more to do with the other person than me. Some people's inability or indifference to meeting me, and I assume others, does not determine my value. Realizing this has actually helped me be more confident in meeting others, more assertive in introducing myself and shaking hands.

And the awkward conversations and small talk when meeting people, sometimes is amazing. Sometimes you make friends with the other shy girl in homeroom the first day of high school. Sometimes you squeak out a, "Hi" to the girl you see every day at the bus stop also reading while she waits and you become dear friends. Sometimes small talk is the journey you must take to realize you are loved and known.

PS A great valadiction address to UVA grads by Sarah Drew on not seeking recognition, being present, and finding your tribe. It seemed fitting to share with this post.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

I am not good at small talk.

Outside of meeting people in my usual life, I changed jobs and churches in the last year and have met more new people than typical. This means a lot of small talk. I actually am getting an amusing "phone voice" at work. At church or around town when I meet people, they always want to ask what I do (for work) or what I do in town (for work) or where I work. So, I answer their question and the follow-ups, but I do not usually bring up that I am in grad school. It just does not feel relevant based on the questions and seemed too braggy, too "look at me and all I'm doing!" Eventually in the conversation or another day, I get asked to help with this and help with that and why don't I join the choir and a committee on such-and-such. Or if it comes up that Matt is out an evening for his singing group and another evening for choir and seasonally another evening for softball, I've been asked what I do with all my free time? (I guess I should be tending to my husband, cooking, fluffing pillows, prettying up the place.) I used to be able to say I had a group on Wednesdays too, but I don't have that anymore. Saying that I am in grad school usually gets an "Oh, how nice" or "I always wanted to get my Master's too" or "How long is your Master's program?" or "I know a lot of faculty at UVA. Which program are you in?" or something of the sort.

While I had avoided saying I am in grad school when people ask what I do has now turned into me often saying I work at _________________ and am also in grad school, which seems to have helped. Then people can ask follow-up questions about whichever they are interested in. Like avoiding saying that I am grad school because it felt too braggy in conversation, I also avoided saying what I am in grad school for, unless someone asks. This means that I often end up having people talk about Master's programs, whether my program is 2 years, etc, so at this point, it feels like correcting people and a brag to tell them I'm actually working on my doctorate. Ugh.

So I'm just going to keep practicing my replies to answer people's questions appropriately and not braggily but also try to find a way to answer so it doesn't lead me down a path where I feel uncomfortable answering further questions or make the other person feel uncomfortable they made assumptions. People, help me have good conversations. Help me be humble but truthful and gracious. Small talk is hard and draining and I feel awkward the whole time which just amplifies the discomfort, weird answers, and overthinking.