Ultraq's Final MooCow

Bits and pieces by Emanuel Rabina

Changing the standard response (or, how I learned to think with my stomach)

Small talk: it's an obstacle we all have to overcome. As a member of the workforce in an office environment, small talk is the precursor to all work-related face-to-face conversational threads for the day; it's as if it's not possible to get John to complete those reports until you ask John how he or his kids are doing.

The most common small-talk-initiation question is "how are you doing?", and the most common response is one of "good" or "fine". Not wanting to be the one who follows this pattern (I seem to have a habit of doing things differently just for the sake of doing things differently), when it comes to initiating the conversation I'll get straight to what I want to say - none of this "how are you doing?" business (you could be coughing up your internal organs and I'll still get straight to my question first). But when it's me being asked about how I'm doing, instead of answering "good" or "fine" I opt for a different tactic altogether: I think with my stomach.

Human stomach
My second brain

So, conversations at the office with me usually start like this:

Me: "I'm pretty hungry actually; it's almost lunch and there's nothing in my snack drawer 'cause I finished it all yesterday."

Depending on how comfortable I am with the person, responses will range from the general state of my hunger (just acquaintances) to whether or not the shrimp from last night's meal is causing me to visit the toilet at regular intervals (good work mate, must have shared several drinks or meals with them thus far).

It's a very simple change from the standard responses that everybody just expects, but it makes a big difference to the type of conversation that takes place. What would normally be very strictly-business conversations now turn into more friendly chats, and what could normally be very mundane meetings turn into story and experience-exchanging sessions.

I've since expanded my responses to include other aspects of eating, and put it into practice at a meeting today.

Before we started, we were all asked how we were. The usual "good" or "fine" was uttered around the table, until it got to me, where I replied by saying how I had burned my tongue on a hot chocolate this morning and so the tip of my tongue is feeling a bit sensitive right now. It got a round of laughter, and then everybody started pitching-in with their own stories about burning their mouths on hot food (or why is it that we constantly do it despite learning the lesson several times), or what things to look out for when you don't want to burn your mouth (like tomatoes in toastie sandwiches because they retain their heat better than other fillings).

And it's not just work where I do this; small talk is prevalent in any social situation.

Tonight, at dance (ceroc) class, when we changed partners and the girl asked how I was doing, I complained that my left foot was itchy beneath my shoe and then acted-out using my right shoe to try and scratch it. There isn't much more time to say anything beyond that, but after laughing at my predicament, my dance partners became visibly more relaxed, especially those who were here on their first night.

I haven't really figured-out why this is: why complaining about how hungry I am, how I burnt my tongue, or how annoying it is that I can't scratch an itch beneath my shoes, is such a good ice breaker. Maybe it's because the person asking how I am doing keeps hearing "good" or "fine" from others that they never really expect a frightfully honest answer. Maybe it's because upon hearing my complaint, they know exactly what I'm going through - we've all been hungry, had burnt a part of our mouths on scalding hot food, and had an itch that we couldn't scratch.

What I say is pretty boring stuff. I mean, you don't measure your life by the number of times you've burned your tongue, but it's a story that everybody can relate to. Exciting stories are those about going to far-away lands or doing risky things, but they don't make us laugh. Boring stories are those about everyday occurrences, but they make people giggle, open up, and sometimes build connections.

So maybe we're all going about things the wrong way when we accuse ourselves of being boring such that others couldn't ever get attached to us. I mean, telling stories about how you saw Paris from the top of the Eiffel Tower doesn't make me feel closer to you; telling stories about cuddling-up on a cold day to a mug of hot chocolate that subsequently removed several of your tastebuds does.

Suddenly, being boring doesn't sound like a bad thing. You just need to be ready to tell the world how boring you are.