Friday, August 29, 2014

On socwardness (part three)

As I've claimed on this blog before,  I am generally a fairly socially adept person, with some notable exceptions. No, really. It's partially a personality trait I've had since I was quite little and somewhat baffled realized that other people occasionally enjoy my company(!), and partially a skill I've developed through the collection of experiences I sometimes refer to as "life". It's cocky of me, though, to claim "life" taught me social skills - at least the kind of social skills I am trying to get to explaining here (I just get caught up in digressions sometimes, not that you didn't know that...) - as probably about 80 percent of them I acquired during my last stay in Japan. Working at an embassy doesn't necessarily make you diplomatic(!!), but you'd have to try extremely hard to avoid a major part of our job if it doesn't make you at least a little bit more equipped at small talk. The kind of small talk that arise in social settings that involve (some) alcohol, pieces of food intended to be eaten in a single bite ("finger food" is a ridiculous name for it, at least in Japan, where there always are chopsticks available), and clever little gadgets that attach your wine glass to your plate so that you have a hand free for shaking or exchanging business cards (of course, you are really expected to do the latter with both hands in Japan, so the really ought to make a gadget that attached the plate and wine glass directly to your body, and then somewhere which wouldn't be affected by all the bowing you also will do. I'm thinking hip or knee).

This kind of setting frequently arise when you work in an embassy, and thus you become extremely good at talking to people you barely or not at all know about mundane subjects (remember, no politics or religion!) for a relatively short time. At the end of my stay in Japan I was almost as good at small talk as the average hair dresser (which is saying something - think about it!).

However, this skill/personality trait doesn't necessarily translate well to other types of social situations, and especially not the one I'm about to describe: Friday lunch.

"Friday lunch" might sound like a specific concept the way I just put it, but in reality it isn't. It's lunch, on a Friday. However, the difference between Friday lunch and Any other day lunch is the simple fact that Friday is the day before the weekend. And thus Friday lunch invites a certain go-to conversation (or, if you will, small talk, to tie it in with the digression that introduced this particular point).

Every single Friday, at lunch time, you stand at risk of being asked "so, what are your plans this weekend?".

Now, I realize I outdigressed myself a little today, as this isn't normally what I think of when I say "small talk". Technically, the dictionary defines it as "light conversation" or "chitchat", but I frequently add "with people you don't know very well" to that, as I find that the moment you know people well enough to have proper conversations with them, you tend to stop with the small talk. I still occasionally have lunch with people where I do definitely practice small talk (by any definition), but since I work in a place with a manageable number of colleagues I find we usually have fairly meaningful conversations during lunch. Which is nice. However, even when you know people this well conversations inevitably every now and then hit a lull, and someone needs to find something to keep it going. On Fridays this will, often, be the above (and below) mentioned question.

"So, what are your plans this weekend?"

To me, this is an incredibly tricky question.

First of all, it is, like many other reasonably generic (as opposed to situational or you-specific) questions, reciprocal in its nature. You're supposed to ask it back. The agony here is to time your answer so that it won't be too long since the original question was asked before you return it. Nothing says "socward!" like ending up spending a disproportionate part of the conversation on yourself, thus not allowing the other party/-ies to participate (thus not making them "parties", as much as an "audience").

Seemingly, this timing problem might be solved by simply limiting your own answer to a few well chosen points, and then let the other party be a party. However, when the question is being used as a conversational catalyst you don't want to keep your answer too short either, as this will quickly put an end to the entire conversation. Consequently, you will have to find some kind of middle way, and that can be tricky. (I believe this particular situation has given rise to the conversational technique "But enough about me; what about you?". )

Secondly, however, you also face the age-old problem of ugly truth vs spiffy façade. You can, obviously, admit the ugly truth, and it might be refreshing that someone owns up to his/her plans of spending the entire weekend in their jammies, watching bad television and eating junk food. In reality, however, there appears to exist a social convention that dictates that even though people realize this is what you mean, you have to camouflage it into something akin to "oh, you know, nothing much. Just have some me-time. Wind down from the stressful week, really. Maybe go for a walk."

If you go all in façade-wise, though, you might also invent a few cool weekend activities you plausibly could attend. I have never gone this far down the road in trying to impress a colleague with my interesting life, but I may have indicated once or twice that I was planning on going to a party I was invited to (but didn't intend to actually go to) or maybe concretized extremely vague plans with some friend I knew never really would show up.

However, this brings me to the third of the problems the question brings about. Because debating whether to be frank or deceitful isn't just a question of façade. Sometimes it is also a matter of self defense. When you know someone well enough for them to ask what you are doing this weekend, it is often a risk that you also know them well enough for them to ask the following:

"Oh good, so nothing special, then. How about...?"

And then they have the audacity to suggest some alternative activity, frequently involving themselves!

As you have now revealed that you are not otherwise occupied, and thus you do not have the option of turning their offer down politely. Either you have to accept (against your will), or you have to tell them that you simply do not want to do whatever it is they are suggesting (as opposed to the kinder "Oh, I really wish I could, but I already planned X" which you could have answered if they hadn't already forced out of you that you weren't).

This is problematic for several reasons. You might really want (and need) that "me-time", even if it only involves jammies, junk food and jelevision. You might have a very good (or bad) reason to not want to do that particular activity - say it's a wine tasting and you cannot drink alcohol due to a medical condition, something you might not be too eager to reveal; or maybe you're being asked to help someone move, and you simply don't want to. The latter may not be a very good reason, but it should nevertheless be your prerogative to choose whether you want to do something or not. Finally, and this last one is bad, you might not want to do any kind of activity with that particular person. I have occasionally been attempted befriended with people I do not wish to be friends with. It sounds awful to say so, but it's still true. Now, I don't want to be cruel - just because I have no desire to hang out with someone doesn't mean I want them to know that. I don't want to offend someone, and at any rate it might not even be personal (say you're working with them and you feel your professional relationship might be hurt by a personal one; or maybe you simply cannot manage to keep up with the friends you already have, and don't want to add to the burden), but even when it is I still rather let someone down easily than be forced to tell them upfront that I would rather spend my weekend doing absolutely nothing than be forced to hang out with them.

Basically, no matter how you spin it the second question is deceitful, as it isn't what you set out to answer when you replied to the first question. Except, with time I've been accustomed to the possibility of getting that second question, and thus I will (as described, in detail) feel more than a little skeptical when the first question is posed. As a consequence, my response, more often than not, will be the following:

"There are several things I'm considering, but it's not set in stone yet. Why?", which leaves me with a handy (if somewhat cynical) solution to problems 1-3.

I realize my statement from the beginning of this post [" I am generally a fairly socially adept person"] may seem odd in light of the wall of text since. However, I stand by my initial comment. I am generally a fairly socially adept person. The fact that I am also a grumpy and cranky fart who does not always appreciate this particular skill/personality trait of mine is not contradictory to that.


Jan Morrison said...

Oh, I think that is why it is so handy being a writer. I say "I'm working on a revision at Kind of boring I know but I simply have to get it done." Then if they call and I'm in my jammies, well, I might very well write in my jammies. In fact I do. But I don't have Friday lunches, except by myself. Possibly in my jammies. So don't listen to me. This weekend - since you ask - the fella is going fishing and I plan on watching movies on my android in bed, going down to the beach (in front of our house) and lying in the sun and possibly dipping my body in, though it is very cold in the water. I might sketch and of course, I will be working on my revision.

Kelly said...

I had trouble getting past the mental image of trying to figure out where to attach my plate/glass contraption so as to free up my hands/body....

But as for the weekend business - I'm afraid most of the time when asked that question I figure the other party is really just wanting a chance to tell me what they are doing, so my standard response is "I'm not sure. How about you?" This pretty much covers all my bases if, by some chance, anything is thrown back at me.

Shadow said...

Urgh! I hate ideal chit chat. Am not good with it either. Usually.

CA Heaven said...

Very good.

I dislike smalltalk with people I barely know, and I very much enjoy discussing politics and religion with people I know well.

And most of all, I enjoy being in my own company >:)

I don't think I'm suitable for diplomacy

Cold As Heaven

Sarah Allen said...

When people try and small talk at me I generally don't realize it and try to read all these underlying currents into things when they may not have meant anything at all. So yeah...

Very interesting post!

Sarah Allen
(From Sarah, With Joy)

Martin said...

On the friday lunch questions at the Office. Not the tekstprogrammeringsprogram as we say in norwegian, but the work related geographical place kind of thing.

Not that I use Office. I prefer works or even wordpad, as they fulfill my needs of merely typing in letters in somewhat systematic order.

I'm terrible at making things up as I go, so when the question comes I usually have worked up something clever to answer.. Oh, I'm going kayaking, hitting the old treadmill, hanging out with friends on bars where the doormen never will let me in because they don’t like my shoes (I love my sneakers), or even taking a hike with my giraff. Well, not the last one but you got the idea, I hope.

I allways make sure I ask them back, not that I really care of course. Its only a way of contributing to a nice social setting. My collegeaes (I have no Idea how that spells and have no intentions of looking it up) seems to have so much more interesting lifes than me. Well, probably true, as I hold the record of being the most boring guy on this side of (type in some geographical place, preferably a sea everyone knows where is).

But usually, I turkey out. In my line of work, there are thankgodallmightychristandanyoneelse, allways good opportunities to wait as long as possible to join in on the lunch. There are clients to talk to, phonecalls to answer, phones to be held, collegeueaseaus (I told you Im not looking it up) to comfort from their uselessness and files to be … filed. I don’t know how to file a file, but neither does anyone else.

But the plan easily backfires as when I enter the lunch room, they have used up each other with their weekendquestions, and are on the look of fresh, unasked meat.

My colliegaueaues (F#%!) allways have the perfect answer, hiking with their loved ones, working voluntarily at the homeless shelter, following their kids to some sports arrangement, saving puppies from fires, climbing mount everest or making twelve disipples follow them in the desert.

After writing these words on the Friday lunch questions at the office, I don’t reallly know how to end this little essay, and the worst thing I know is when people don’t properly end what they

Best regards,


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