August 9, 2009

I've often wondered how it would feel to be the type of person who is skilled at dinner party conversation and effortless with small-talk. Turns out, not so good.

The other day I was having coffee with my cheerful friend, Jack, who rarely complains about anything. "Does being so relentlessly upbeat and chatty have a down side at all?" I asked. He thought about this for a second. Then, gradually, his brow furrowed and he replied, "I am frequently used as a seat filler. Because I'm so friendly and can talk to anyone, I'm the guest who is seated next to the most difficult people at dinner parties or weddings."

This is the sort of complaint that could only come from a social and affable person. One thing you'll never hear a depressed person moan about is being 'used' by hosts because they can talk to anyone.

Given that I have no experience with the down side of being too likeable, I was unclear as to why this was a bad thing. Difficult is interesting - what's the problem?

Jack explained. "I miss out on sitting next to the fun people. Frequently I'm placed next to the dull people, the old people, or the ones who are socially inept."

Just then I remembered, how Jack and I met several years at a dinner party. He had been seated next to me.

Placement at dinner parties is one thing - the tables are rectangular and it's possible to have a conversation that engages everyone there. But placement at weddings is another. The tables are round and they seat at least eight people. You're stuck talking to the person next to you whether you like it or not even though you know a much more exciting conversation is taking place - just across the table. You can see it. But you can't participate because there's a giant flower arrangement in the way. Or a candelabra that belongs in a cathedral. Or the circumference of the table is the size of a small country.

The only way to talk to someone else requires getting up, leaving your seat, walking around and then crouching down alongside the person while they remain in their chair. If you're wearing a dress, it's impractical and after thirty seconds your knees are sore. Then you worry something is wrong with your joints. No conversation is worth a trip to the rheumatologist.

My father is another one cursed with the ability to talk to anyone and knows how to make the best of every situation. I asked what it's like when he's been seated next to someone tedious.

"I don't find people tedious" He replied.

I clarified. "Okay, someone who has nothing to say."

"It's not easy. You think about things they might be interested in. You think of their history, their age, where they've lived - you look for an opening about something. After a while you run out of topics but then you concentrate on the food."

Not only can he talk to anyone, he does.

Recently, we were in a car together and I was driving. He was in the passenger seat and we stopped at the red light. "Roll down the window," I said, "And ask the person in the next car to us if we're headed North."

He did. The in gentleman in the car next to ours responded and then my father told him the name of the restaurant. "You know it?" He asks.

The person responds that yes, he does know it. They begin chatting. The light turns green and I inform my father that we have to go. He continues chatting.

"I'm going to have to pull away now," I said. I put my foot on the gas.

"Why would you start a conversation with him when we were at a red light?" I asked. He shrugged. "I don't know."

This leads me to believe it's a compulsion. There are people who can't help themselves - they have to be personable no matter what the consequences.

Finally, I've found an affliction I don't have.