About SmallTalk in 3000 Words

I don’t think I react well to disappointments. When it comes to people, that is.
I give everyone a chance from the start, usually. Any person can be nice until it turns out not to be. Sometimes it happens.

I work with this older lady that everybody seem to like at the office. That is rather unusual because they are not a loving bunch entirely, the same way they are not all lovable. Some don’t want to be, some cannot and others do not know how. Amongst the last ones, some do not know because they haven’t been taught/shown that; whilst others have learned how, but they cannot be bothered to make the effort.

Anyway, this lady (let’s call her Rhonda for the sake of discretion) seems to be generally accepted and loved. I liked her too.
Still, the other day I felt something that other people might not feel like I do. I questioned her niceness, but kept that to myself. I never shared that impression with anyone at work and never will.

The lady in question is the type that smiles to everyone and nods and approves of you when passing by. She seems to be equally friendly to all. She also apologizes a lot for the most insignificant things,like she wants to show you that if she did something wrong she’s aware of it. That, I think, might be the secret of her popularity.
She also seems to listen intently to everyone when they talk to her. Unless, of course, she interrupts. Then she starts talking very fast for about a minute, pointing out that she understood it all. Then, she sort of wakes up from that little “trance” of fast-fast-talking and apologizes 4-5 times in a row for interrupting you. It’s hard to describe it, but this is how she is.

My ‘disappointment’ was when I discovered something that other people did not seem to notice about her.
Once that happened, instead of feeling disappointed by her, I felt disappointed in myself, because I was such a bad person. I behaved badly towards a nice co-worker, right? How could I be disappointed in someone when everybody likes that person? How could I go against the general consent/opinion/approval/trend?And this is what makes me say that I do not react well to disappointment. The guilt. My bloody conscience. I must be bad somewhere at the core. And so on.

Rhonda spends much time on the phone. It’s the nature of her job. Whenever you have to ask her a question or interact with her – work-related – she is busy, very-very busy. She is on the phone with a customer and she really goes apparently out of her way to help them. This is the general consensus in the office. Up till here, it is fine by me.

Being a customer myself everywhere in this world, whenever I have a problem to sort out, or a public service to go to, or simply organize a trip or buy a fridge or god-knows-what-else, I believe that I have a good understanding of what a customer wants. I know their needs and how they should be dealt with.
I think I’m a professional customer by birth.
When I call somewhere and they put me on hold and keep me on for a very long time I, the customer, become angry with “them”. But if, let’s say somebody – a human and not a machine – tells me to hang on a minute, because they have someone else on the other line, or somebody showed up at the counter, I understand.
Why should I not? I’m not the only one in this world and I’m quite sure that other people have things to sort out just like me. Chances are that someone called 1 minute before me. Understandable. Not 100% pleasant, but understandable.

Maybe this is why after a while, having a couple of experiences with Rhonda, I started doubting her just a tad.
Sometimes I must talk with her, not necessarily to socialize, but to resolve work related problems. After few months working here,I begun to grow tired of standing for 5 minutes around Rhonda’s desk, waiting for her to notice me discreetly. It goes like this: she looks at me and she continues to talk on the phone like I’m not there. At the beginning I thought that in between two calls, she’d have a second for me too. But, the sooner she finishes with a customer, she is taking another call or she shuffles some papers on her desk or takes some notes or checks the fax-machine. Until eventually the phone rings again.
If I try to get her attention during that shuffling and notes taking, she just lifts her arm, showing me the palm of her hand, a well-known sign of “be quiet”.
She never says to a caller ‘Excuse me one single moment please, I have a co-worker here with a work related problem, won’t take more than a second.’ She could, and I’m quite sure, most people would understand the same way I understand when I am a customer myself.

After a while, I started to believe that this was a bit of a habit: look at me, I am the most customer-service oriented person; I am dedicated; I am zealous; I am brave; I am perfect; I am busy; I am here for them; I work hard; I dunno-what-this-office-would-do-without-me. kind of thing.

I have work to do too. I work hard as well. I have things to finish too, and although I do not have to spend time on the phone as much as she does, I still feel compelled to finish my share daily. Waiting and waiting for somebody else to get off the phone just for 5 seconds, so I can go on with my job, would be greatly appreciated.

Having to deal with Rhonda, became for me after a while, a very unpleasant task – like having to call my telephone company or my Internet provider and then having to wait for thirty minutes, listening to music that I would not listen to otherwise.

I tried all sorts of methods. I tried phoning her first – but that did not work because her extension was always busy. When it wasn’t, she told me she had another call coming right then.
I wrote her e-mails – but that was not practical, because the amount of time wasted on explaining what I needed from her, took almost as long as waiting behind her chair for my presence to be noticed.
In the end I decided to leave on her computer monitor post-it while she was on the phone or shuffling things. The same way I do with other people when they are not at their desks and I want to contact them on their return.
The only downside of it is that the answer or document or information or whatever I needed from her, comes back to me half day too late, at least.

I did not say anything to anyone because people would have hated me for that. Or they would probably have misunderstood the whole thing.
I put up with it the same way you put up with public transport going bad – you hate what it’s happening, but is nothing you can do.

Everybody likes her. Fine by me.
I suspect they all love Rhonda because she hardly has to interact with anyone directly. She works only part-time. Her workplace is isolated from ours and out-of-the-way so to speak.
To compensate for that, she feeds us: she bakes an incredibly sweet loaf of a kind or another every now and then.
Then every now and then, she brings some stuff like crackers or other sorts of nibbles and leaves them in a bowl in the kitchen with a note: ‘Help yourself, I bought too many and have no place where to keep them at home’ or something like that.
I fell for that several times when I was new in this job. After a while I discovered that the stuff she brings in it’s always very stale. It was either expired when she bought it on some sale, or she kept it in the pantry for a year. Whatever the reason, it’s never fresh or less hard than granite.

Anyway, everybody seems to appreciate ‘the gesture’ enormously. Fine by me. I’m happy to appreciate it too, just by looking at the nibbles, and when my turn comes to tidy a bit the kitchen based on the roster, I’m rather happy to throw those things in the bin. The cleaning lady does not know what to do with them. She must be as surprised as I was if she tasted them. But I don’t think she ever gathered enough courage or initiative to discard them. She might be a Nesblandian too ( aren’t all the cleaning ladies Nesblandian everywhere?) and might think we are some strange officers with exotic/strange tastes.

Sometimes I meet Rhonda in the bus, going to or coming from work.
Sometimes if there’s room, we sit next to each other and do the small talk. Some other times, there’s no room at all.
There were few occasions when I was under the impression that she pretended not to notice me, although there was a seat next to her or next to me, we did not sit together. Which by the way, for me was not too bad – I always carry something to read in the bus and I prefer to do that at any rate; the ‘small talk’ never does much for me. I’m not coming from a ‘small talk’ culture. Where I come from, we discuss politics, religion and other ‘taboos’ quite passionately, and nobody really knows what small talk means. I think we gave up on conversational taboos about 1000 years ago. Nesblandians, as everybody knows, are quite uncivilized, right?

When we did the small talk, Rhonda and I, we went with the usual:
‘How was your weekend?’ ‘Fine, how was yours?’ ‘Good. I did-this-and-that-or-the-other. It was great’.
Another popular topic was ‘ How is your family?’ ‘Good, thank you for asking. How is yours?’ ‘Excellent.’

Now don’t take me wrong.
I know the rules. When she asked me for example how my mother was, I told her she was great. Even if I spent the weekend at the emergency room in some hospital because let’s say, my mom broke a thumb. I still said she was great. I think if my mother would have died suddenly, I might have still told Rhonda that I had a ‘great week-end’ because she was a Local Inhabitant by Birthright ( I could call them Libs, for short ) and the importance of her personal disposition was more relevant to the fate of the World than my eventual ‘lack of positive thinking’ would ever be.

I know the rules so well that I hardly go into trivial details telling when something really happens, how it happened. Most of the Natives ( or Libs ) here do not want to know such things. That’s why they invented small talk. Light informal conversation for social occasions, the dictionary says, light meaning in fact meaningless/boring/with no substance/irrelevant/insincere/time wasting/hypocritical exchange of words and not ideas.

The purpose of small talk is not to coerce people (God forbid!) to show concern or compassion for a problem, or a person, or a country, or even a continent they don’t want really to know about, because it’s your problem and not theirs.
Non-Nesblandians ( or Libs) are very proud of the fact that civilization and history brought them to a level high enough to master the intricacy of small-talk to the most refined level – the driest of all times.
Since the problem is yours and they are not getting any material advantage from it, that might ruin their day, shadow their mood, or simply force them to pretend to have compassion. That would be an effort involving perhaps some acting, and nobody wants to go into showbiz for free.
People that live outside Nesblandia hate such things.
To fill in the hole that the small talk embeds in their beings, no wonder so many need yoga classes or the Zodiac to put them in touch again with some spirituality, light, balance and compassion. For the sake of The Planet and the Universe-Out-there.

In Nesblandia for example telling a story would be fine – even a very personal one. They would really want to know and even advise you on what to do. There would be follow-ups over a coffee or even a meal. And that would not involve just the situations where some girl-friends-have-some-man-troubles, no.
But we do not live in Nesblandia here, so we should play by the rules of the place.

Time came for me to go in holiday one day. I had so many things to do, I was so stressed with preparation and travel agents and fluff like that. I must have looked very tired, even to the strangers that did not know me from Adam and Eve.
Finding myself in the bus after work, my Rhonda having an empty seat next to her, and finding herself in a mood good enough to notice me, I was invited to sit next to her. We did our small dosage of chitchat as usual.
Me, knowing the rules, I hardly break them. When I do, it’s due only to lack of enough self-control, (like right now, right here on this very blog ) and for her part, Rhonda belonging to the culture that invented the rules, never breaks them.
That day I broke some because I was so stressed out, my mind was all over the place, so I told her about my holiday preparations. Amongst other things, I told her that I had to double my expenses and errands because I had to take my mother with us to Europe, and I had to sort out things for her as well. That, was adding to the cost and the amount of travel arrangements to be made.
Rhonda seemed sympathetic and very understanding. I was almost happy that I broke the rules this time. It felt sort of good and nice to share my concerns with another human being.

Anyways, two days later, in the bus again, we were siting together on our way to work. This time she sat next to me because there were no other free seats around.
A thing lead to another in our regular chitchat, and she asked if all the arrangements were made for our trip. Then suddenly she offered to visit my mother in my absence.
Because – she said – she understood how worried I must be thinking of leaving her by herself for a whole month, while holidaying. She could go to my mother’s home and check on her twice a week if I agreed to.

I was flabbergasted. But then I recollected myself instantly and looked at the bright side of the picture: how nice of her to offer such a thing! No wonder everybody liked her at work, she was so nice.
She is quite a bit older than I am, so she must have forgotten – understandably – that I told her we were taking my mother with us. (Although somewhere in my sarcastic little mind I thought that she was too young still to forget like that, from a day to the next – but then I brushed aside that nasty thought).

She doesn’t know my mother, she must assume that she is a wreck, a totally senile creature that also does not speak English very well like all Nesblandians must be in their old age. She wanted to help.
I must have been a bitch – I thought – to ever suspect that her niceness was a façade, a phony thing, some well disguised ‘I-don’t-really-care but-I-know-how-to-pretend-that-I-do’ kinda thing.
I was very angry with myself for being such a terrible, terrible person. For thinking such terrible, terrible things about some people, instead of going with the flow and appreciate them to their right value. Like the rest of the crowd did.

So, I thanked her effusively and explained once again that we were taking my mother with us. for the very reason that she was old enough (although alert and perfectly sane) to worry us, if we left her behind for one month.

Another couple of days passed, and then one other morning in the bus we had another chat. I suspected that finally, Rhonda was trying to take some interest in me after all. The people at work must have been right all along – she was nice and selfless. I, on the other hand, must be a judgmental bitch who cannot tell a genuine person from a phony.

She is a widow, and she likes to mention that, very often. In every conversation. Even those about nothing. Like for example when she asks about my weekend she always adds that hers are not that good as they used to be when her husband was alive, although they are still fabulous weekends she adds. Because she has children and in laws. She doesn’t go into details much, and I did not try to invade her privacy with too many questions that she might find too nosy. The rules would not allow me to.

That morning I was in for a new surprise when she brushed by about her dearly departed husband again. While I showed my understanding somehow, mentioning knowledge about that sort of thing because my father is dead as well, she asked me how long ago my mother died.
I refreshed her memory with the mention that my mother was packing her suitcases for Europe right then. Dear Rhonda apologized profusely and continuously for about 3 full minutes, talking very fast and concerned, as she does.
After which we went to the more neutral season-and-weather-analysis and pretended both that nothing happened. We were very good at that too.

One of these days in the kitchen at work, during the lunch-break I was busy making a sandwich when Rhonda came in. She started the routine with the weather because there were another two persons as busy as I, fussing around the grill and the microwave and we had to talk about something in order to show that we are civil people.
God knows what I did in my hurry to quench my hunger, but opening a drawer to get a knife, I broke a nail. That is a “neutral” subject and gross as it is, it’s better to mention it within the chitchat frame even at lunch time in a kitchen (!) than other things. Like let’s say the fact that the Catholic Church was again in the news due to some pedophilia cases; or the fact that some illegal immigrants were arrested in a boat by the coast-guard; or the last flood in China, or whatever other more dangerous subjects there might be.

It slipped, as simple as that: ‘Damn, I broke a nail!’ I said, contributing to the degradation of silence in between two breaths, and the monotony of sunset-overcast-sunshine-clouds-cold-warm-rain litany.

Needless to say that our Rhonda interrupted her weather analysis with a warm, appreciative, deeply heart-felt:
‘That’s nice, dear!? Excellent.”

About SmallTalk in 3000 Words


Adelaide, Australia

  • Artist

Artist's Description

I don’t think I react well to disappointments. When it comes to people, that is.
I give everyone a chance from the start, usually. Any person can be nice until it turns out not to be.

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