“Gentoo Penguin.” <>

At an RSS conference in UC Berkeley, surrounded by a small group of people I had just met, we played charades and I picked a card that said “gender inequality.” At a loss for words (perhaps I am misusing the expression), I pointed to my crotch, mouthed the word “versus,” then pointed to my nipples. Everyone just gave me a blank stare, and I was so embarrassed that I just let someone else take it.

At a high school internship in City Hall, I worked in the basement for the Department of Elections and Michael worked upstairs for an elected official. I heard he did really well on an exam and wanted to congratulate him. I found the office room where he worked at an hour when I thought no one else would be there, but the moment I opened the door I found a small group of people that included a district supervisor. I was so surprised that I just walked up to him, mumbled something, then walked away as he asked “Wait, what?”

In an article called Awkward is the New Cool for Millennials (I don’t recommend reading it, but I’m linking it anyway), Kirchoff argues that “awkwardness” has become more socially acceptable — she includes a gif of Jennifer Lawrence stumbling and cites books such as The Perks of Being a Wallflower. This is one of my favorite books, but I wouldn’t say that this is its defining characteristic. By their nature, awkward situations make us feel uncomfortable. Awkward characters appeal to us for the same reason most complex characters appeal to us: They’re relatable.

In my favorite video by VSauce (and this I would recommend watching), Michael Stevens situates awkwardness as the response to a violated social rule. Certain actions are impossible because of the laws of physics. Certain behaviors, such as stealing and murdering, are punishable by authority figures. No law states that we cannot act in a socially “out of whack” way, but feeling awkward is our body’s response. Our heart rate increases. We get uncomfortable.

When I think of my own awkward situations, I find that most are related to conversation. Conversation is one of the most common experiences in which people are required to improvise. While we can prepare a music performance or recite a public speech, conversation is a field where almost anything can happen and where we have to think on the spot. When I think of conversation I think of a team dinner we had with UCLA a few years back. Andrew successfully related to the other team by employing the following strategies:

  • After memorizing names, he asked the people at our table what they did for fun. Rather than separate them by major, he used a much better starter that provided more freedom and did not create division
  • When one of them talked about food, he fully engaged in the topic and excitedly discussed recipes and cooking techniques
  • One member said his roommate was eating only steak and eggs. Andrew made a joke of this and turned it into a running joke — much like HIMYM, he built off of this by utilizing an already-tested line
  • By the time one of them asked us to state our majors, we knew all about their cooking styles, friends, and had a few stories they had shared

The way I see it, successful small talk boils down to two things: What topics each person brings up, and how hard each person tries. The second part is crucial. Some people simply don’t want to talk, either because they’re busy or because of reasons.

Sometimes a conversation feels like connecting wires: Each person continually tries to establish a connection, and sometimes it doesn’t work. But when two people connect, you can almost feel it. It’s admittedly easier with some people than with others — there are people who get excited about almost everything, and there are people who are cryptic until the point when you find the one thing they love to talk about. It’s like striking gold.

For example, at work I have an obscure scene from Psycho-Pass as my wallpaper and someone complimented me on it. He went on to name the anime, relate it to Ghost in the Shell, and cite evidence that he was a fan of both works. He is currently my single favorite person.

For your own personal use, here are some conversation starters I have used that have not been successful at all with anyone:

  • Have you heard about the Safeway sale? (not only is this a boring topic, but Safeway sales are usually a rip-off)
  • Do you think Glee is overrated? (No one thinks Glee is overrated)
  • How tall are you? (you might get a measurement. Congratulations)

What I essentially wanted to say here is that I know what it’s like to feel awkward. I’ve had more awkward conversations than I can count, my strategy at parties consists of smiling at people while waiting for something to happen, and I once tried to open a dorm room ten times before the resident told me I was on the wrong floor. It’s a lot, I mean a lot easier to write than it is to talk. But here’s the thing:

In this TED Talk, Minister Faust lays out some tips for better small talk, cracks a few jokes, but also ends on a surprisingly cold and somber event: The death of his mother. He thinks of her eulogy, then begins to talk to people as he searches for stories to tell.

And in the end, is that not what we’re here to do? We tell stories. We try to connect. In spite of our political parties, our religious affiliations, our separate dreams and our memories and our regrets, we all want more than anything to share and connect. If we’re going to be here for a limited time, and if we’re going to only meet a certain number of people, then it needs to count.

Long after we’re gone, there can still be stories. When we find ours to tell, it will prevent others from feeling alone.