Table talk

Nothing triggers a sweaty high school flashback like holding a tray of food and pretending that you are not looking for a place to sit in a crowded corporate cafeteria. Suddenly I am fifteen again, with bad hair and last season’s sweater, scanning groups, heads leaning together — each table a clubhouse with secret passwords and handshakes. Lunch was navigating a Risk board of territories: and I was a timid player. These days I stand in the grown-up version and do what any adult who has moved beyond the pain of childhood would do — I eat at my desk, bring a book, or find the one person in the room who can discuss horcrux evidence in the fifth Harry Potter book.

Sometimes I forgo this dilemma by inviting my own party. There will be a table waiting for me full of people who are there only because I asked them. They barely know each other, thrust together by a meeting agenda and a similar position title. I am the hostess, and it is my job to wrest myself from adolescent nightmares with Julie-the-Cruise-Director pluck. I must sit at this table of staring, chewing people and make conversation — what I usually dismiss as “small talk.”

When I lived in Boston this was easy. The topics were instant and understood. You could talk or ask about an easier way to get someplace in your car. Any mastery of the labyrinthine cow paths, especially if it included some tip on traffic avoidance, was respected and considered interesting. Politics and NPR amen-rants were always safe bets. And last, weather predictions: What would the temperature be by four o’clock? Everyone at the table would chime an opinion. It was not unusual for someone to quote the Farmer’s Almanac.

After moving to Chicago a few years ago, I had to consider a new language of casual banter. I learned early on that there were only so many accepted routes to places; discussing politics was akin to sharing why you preferred a certain condom brand, and the weather was just out of our control, an act of God, boring. I had to develop a new repertoire. Now, I sit down with my tray, listen for a few minutes, and if no one is talking, I ask brightly, “What was the last movie you saw that you really enjoyed?” Or, “What book is on your nightstand right now?” Or, “What guilty-pleasure movie do you own and love and watch repeatedly but are embarrassed to admit?” (I found out that in most circles in the Midwest, there is no need to disqualify porn; apparently that does not come to mind as obviously as in Cambridge.) If I am really trying to get things going I will ask about TV shows they watch, or fun things they did on the weekend, or pets.

My captive audience will respond, although it is hard to tell if they are responding to me as a facilitator, or if questions like these would ever pop up naturally among collected strangers. I am often surprised by the limits of some people’s curiosity. If they have seen the movie or TV show mentioned, they perk up and talk about what they liked, and together those who have all seen it will compare notes. If they haven’t seen it, they are quiet, they hold back, and let they others chat about their common experience. Very few people jump in with: “I have never seen American Idol, can you believe it? Tell me again how the show actually works.” “Do you watch any other reality shows?” “How real do you think they are and how much of the story is edited?” “Would you ever enter a contest like this? What would be your talent?” “What other TV shows do you watch?”

Granted, ask all of these questions and you will be offered medication, but one or two seem like just good conversation. People are reluctant to expand or change the subject, especially if several participants seem to know something about it. You can see the discomfort in the people who have not seen the movie; they are outside of this briefly established bond. The same thing happens if someone throws out a movie that no one else at the table has seen. As people shrug or say no, the lone viewer backs off, slumps in her chair, and waits for someone else to throw out a better, i.e., more recognized, choice.

The odd reality is that these are not really complete strangers. They share a great deal in common — same company, job responsibilities, often age range and taste in fashion. And yet the goal of connection seems only to seek out the familiar: the pointy shoes and black pants are not enough.

I was summoned to jury duty a few months ago and went reluctantly, praying that my stuffed work schedule would not be disrupted beyond this one day. I was relieved that the case was similar to an incident I had personally been involved in and I was dismissed in the first round. But not before I sat in a room with 36 people and heard every imaginable plot from the Lifetime channel. Everyone in the room had a story, all different and all extreme. It was a textbook collection of the broadest sense of diversity, and everyone was eyeing one another with poorly concealed aversion. The most obvious freaks, including me, were part of the first cut. About ten of us rode down in the elevator. We started chattering about how lucky we were, how we had heard of one case that lasted three months, how strange the judges’ questions had been, how the others were so weird, whether or not we could get our checks right away or be asked to stay for the rest of the day, and like magic we were friends. There was no need to inquire or search for sameness — circumstance had saved us the trouble of finding commonality. We were a family of outcasts.

Perhaps it is because I grew up on the periphery of the schoolgirl caste system that I am so intrigued by everyone’s story. Once they start talking I prod the narrative, wanting to go somewhere new. I assume everyone is different from me. I suppose this is why I remain amazed, years later, that casual conversation is about finding someone or something that is like you. It is rarely an exploratory activity, unless you’re fishing for an association. Even on the most mundane level, people seem to crave connection more than discovery; it’s much safer to validate that their experience is the same as others’ and therefore normal, accepted. I expect this on a macro level — belief systems, socialized fear of the other, etc. — but I always hold out that in the smallest, most superficial exchanges, people will reach out for what might be fresh information, that they will engage, question, and listen with genuine interest.

I know that the day after one of these meetings I will be on my own again, and my Harry Potter friend will not be there. I will remember my command of the lunch table the day before, my cocktail-party confidence boosted by the responsibility to “make people feel comfortable.” I will quickly assess the tables filled with clusters of people from other departments, and after a few seconds I will decide that I should really read my email. I wouldn’t know what they were talking about anyway.

4 responses to “Table talk”

  1. pandora, i loved this piece. i can see you walking into the dining hall, looking like the girl from welcome to the doll house. i think on your bio you should call yourself “corporate ethnographer.”

  2. Missy says:

    I’ve been thinking about this for the last hour, Pandora, trying to think about how I deal with midwestern group silence, and I can’t come up with anything. You’re right, they just don’t bite. I guess the only two things that ever work for me are feigning ignorance about the suburbs and then having people explain where they are from, usually in relation to Ikea, since that’s the big suburban draw for city folks, or I get them to tell me about their children. But you can’t play those cards more than once. I’d be beating a path back to my desk and the embrace of e-mail friends, too.

  3. just killin some time waiting for an appointment and read some of your older post. loved this one. intentional and witty. insightful and funny. again…good stuff

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