Articles

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN TELLS YOU HOW TO SLAY THEM WITH SMALL TALK

September 1 1951
Articles

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN TELLS YOU HOW TO SLAY THEM WITH SMALL TALK

September 1 1951

ROBERT THOMAS ALLEN TELLS YOU HOW TO SLAY THEM WITH SMALL TALK

Articles

FOR A NUMBER of years now I've found that instead of speaking in epigrams as writers are supposed to do, I keep getting into a peculiar

tongue-tied conversation with a man in a dark topcoat who just flew in from Regina. I don’t know whether this man has any hobbies or any particular interests. In fact I don’t know who he is. He is always introduced to me hurriedly just before lunch by an editor who says: “This is Mr. Withers. He just flew in from Regina. I’ll be back in a minute,” and goes wherever editors go just as you start out to lunch with them. I’m left with Withers in a hallway, or standing beside someone’s desk. We both stare at the same spot in the centre of the room. As I haven’t been to Regina, and neither of us knows anything about airplanes, we just look at one another, then look back at the same spot.

At last I say: “Did you bring this rain with you?” Withers laughs, wipes the tears from his eyes, shakes his head, and goes back to tapping his knee with his briefcase.

A minute or so later he shakes his head and says: “It certainly is raining. Two inches, I’d say. Or one and a half. One newspaper said one and a half. The other said two.”

“Probably about one and three-quarters,” I say. “Still, we can use it.”

“Yes,” says Withers. “It was pretty dry— before it got so wet.”

“Well, we can’t do much about it anyway,” I say. We both burst out laughing, and glance around to see if there’s any sign of the editor.

If it isn’t Withers I have this conversation with it’s with seven strangers in a small crowded living room where someone has left me while he writes out a receipt for a lawn mower he had advertised in the evening paper. There is a second uncle, the woman from the house next door and her sister and an old friend from Toledo, and a six-foot youth who just keeps looking at me and sneering, and a halfbrother who is going back to Montreal tomorrow, and somebody’s grandmother. We all sit there with the identical smile on our faces, looking at the same spot in the living-room floor. I try to think of something to say, but the only thing that occurs to me is an article I just read about sexual perversion among the Fiji Islanders. Nobody else seems to be trying.

I say, “Nice weather we’re having.”

Everybody shouts, “Yes, isn’t it,” in unison and smiles politely at the chandelier. About this time a dog w?alks into the room and everybody starte to pat it at once. There are so many of us that half of us are patting one another’s hands.

I’ve made several tries at learning how to cope with these profound silences, including reading a book I saw on sale one day on the art of conversation, but for the most part the book dealt with conversations carried on with people like grand dukes, about whether that affair had been patched up with the countess, while sipping five-hundredyear-old brandy. I could handle this type of conversation easily enough if I knew a countess and the brandy held out. But the kind of conversation

I’d like to be able to handle is the kind you encounter from day to day with ordinary people. For instance, I vaguely know a proofreader with horm rimmed glasses whom I’ve been meeting on and off for five years in halls, washrooms and on stairways; we both say something like: “Ho, Mister

h-m-m-m,” “How’s everything?” and “Fine.” There should be something I can say to this man, but I haven’t thought of it yet.

And I’m always getting into the most idiotic conversations with some casual acquaintance on the street, ten minutes before the banks start marking my cheques NSF, when I’m carrying three pairs of children’s slippers and trying to remember whether my wife wanted me to exchange them for the same size in pink or the same color in a size smaller. On these occasions I try to go on thinking of the bank and the slippers, and to talk at the same time.

“I say, How are you?”

“Okay.”

“Still at the same place?”

“Sure. Thirty-five years now. I get six weeks holidays and a watch next year.”

“Nice going. Have a good time?”

“How do you mean?”

“On your holidays.”

“Next year I get them. Haven’t had them this year yet. ’ ’

“Nice going,” I say, circling him. “Welp—

I edge along, “How’s your wife?”

“Milly? She passed away.”

“Did she?” I say, walking backward. “I’m certainly glad to hear that. How is she?”

“She’s dead.”

“I thought you said she’d passed away.” I back into a guy with hair sticking out of his T-shirt.

“That’s what I meant.”

“Well,” I say. “We all have to die sometime.”

This half-conscious, hair-brained type of conversation is the kind I find myself in sometimes when I don’t really want to have a conversation at all, but just want to renew my contact with the human race after I’ve been at my desk too long. I’ll go over to watch a neighbor building a cottage.

“Getting along pretty well, eh?” I say.

“Not bad.” The neighbor stops and stands there swinging his hammer and looking at the roof. “The only thing, I was just wondering whether I should take that strip of sheeting off over the breakfast-nook window and build up the stripper underneath to two and three-quarter inches or leave the eave the way it is and just brace it with a ferrule bracket.”

“Well, you’re certainly getting along fine,” I say.

“But if I do that I’ll have to mortise the transom cribbing.”

He watches me sharply and I realize that he actually wants an answer. I say, studying the roof, “I don’t think it matters much one way or another.”

“What do you mean?” He looks at me sideways as if he just smelled something burning.

“Well, I mean you can either take the sheeting off and—uh—follow your original plan, or just go ahead with the ferrule bracket.”

“What am I going to do with the bracket over the sheeting?” he asks a bit testily.

“I’m sure it will all work out all right,” I say. “Everything always does.”

I edge away while the guy watches me as if he’s thinking, “— knew writers were impractical; I didn’t know they were complete morons.”

I find that in some cases what I need is not so much a technique of handling a conversation but some way of not starting conversations at all. A few weeks ago a farmer near our cottage told me to drop in to his farm any time I wanted eggs. When I did, a woman answered the door. I put on my best manners and said, “You’re Mr. Wyatt’s mother, I suppose.”

She said, coolly, “I’m Mr. Wyatt’s wife.”

“His wife?” I squeaked, then shook my head in elaborate amazement. “Well, he certainly is the youngest-looking man I’ve ever seen. But I’ve noticed the country air always makes people seem younger. Husbands, that is.”

She was looking as if she’d like to turn me under with last year’s turnips, but I couldn’t seem to stop. “Of course, I knew you were a young-looking woman for a mother.”

“But I’m not his mother.”

“Oh, I know. What I mean is if you were a mother you’d look younger than my mother, for instance. Of course she’s worked hard all her life.”

“Well, I don’t know; I think most farmers work as hard as anyone else.”

“Oh yes, most farmers. But I thought your farm looked as if nobody had to work very hard on it.” “How many eggs was it?” the woman said, backing away from the door.

I also frequently get into a conversational mess at 1.30 in the morning after I’ve eaten and drunk myself into an uncomfortable, yawning pulp, tightly bound in brown sharkskin and suspenders. Instead of going home I carelessly drop some old dull dog-eared thought of mine, such as: “No government has ever survived that hasn’t constitutionally provided for the average man’s personal frame of values,” and sink back into a coma.

But some wide-awake extrovert pounces on it and says, “What do you mean?”

I start to figure out just what I do mean, and wish this wise guy wouldn’t crowd me.

“Well, a perfect illustration of it is in our attitude toward Scandinavia.”

“I thought our foreign policy there was pretty sound. Just what’s wrong with it?”

I realize that I haven’t a clue what our foreign policy is - the last time I came out with this remark was back in 1932. In fact, right at the moment I’d have a tough time remembering what our national anthem is.

I yawn and grope blindly for an olive. “It’s too high-handed,” I say. “But I’d better get along. My car is hard to start when there’s a heavy dew.” I don’t always have

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be half asleep to say the wrong thing.

I remember one time at a dinner party I started talking to a vivacious brunette about how delicious the celery was. “Wonderful,” the girl said.

“Would you care for some more?”

I asked, feeling pretty suave.

“Yes, thank you. 1 wonder how they grow it so tender.”

Thinking of an uncle of mine who used to grow the best celery in the block, I said in a clear confident voice, just as everyone else at the table stopped talking, “It’s simply a matter of covering it up with plenty of horse manure.”

The woman put down the celery and turned to a bearded gentleman on her other hand. The rest of the evening I spent out on the hostess’ veranda exchanging grunting sounds with a carpenter who was repairing the steps.

One thing I continually have trouble with is thinking up polished bits of repartee when I need them, like when a streetcar motorman slams on the brakes, sends sand flying all over the tracks and says, “I CALLED OUT YOUR STREET FIVE TIMES.”

I’ve always been able to think up an answer to this guy just before I go to bed, when I’m wandering around the kitchen in my pyjama tops eating bread and peanut butter. In fact this is the time when I’ve come out with some of the most annihilating remarks known to man. In this particular case I always say, “Why don’t you try it with your teeth in, my good man.”

But actually I never have a chance to use this, as the next time the motorman says: “I DIDN’T SAY THIS

CAR TURNED ALONG BLOOR STREET,” and to tell him to try it with his teeth in just doesn’t make sense. I find myself standing under a sign that says where the car is going, shrieking in an unnatural voice that he should put a sign up somewhere, trying to get out the wrong way, and kicking some old woman’s basket of flowers out of her hands.

Just recently, however, I’ve prepared a couple of stock comebacks that fit any situation. For instance, I just bend down and talk to the motorman in a low voice about how much do children under four feet have to pay on Sunday, then straighten up and yell: “OH, SO YOU THINK PEOPLE WHO RIDE IN STREETCARS SHOULDN’T HAVE A VOTE?”

Another type I work this on is the man who uses a discussion like a sledge hammer and, no matter if we’re talking about petunias, sounds as if he’s just about to pin a murder rap on me. He does it by backing me into a corner and forcing me to answer questions.

He’ll say: “You wouldn’t plant a petunia in the snow, would you?” “Why—no— but” (All I said was, “Will petunias grow anywhere?”) “Okay then,” he glares at me. “Well. I'm telling you that petunias will only grow if they have sun and water.” He pokes me on the chest. “Am I right or wrong?”

“Well, I guess you’re right, but—” “You guess I’m right,” he snarls. “Do you admit that you can’t expect flowers to live if you spray them with nitric acid?”

“Sure, but— ”

The treatment I’ve doped out for this guy is to wait till his wife is nearby, then say, “Well, it’s all in the way you look at it, BUT IN MY OPINION YOUR WIFE WORKS JUST AS HARD AS YOU DO.”

One type I haven’t been able to

figure out yet though is the one who can survive in silence indefinitely, raising his eyebrows in it, tapping his knees with his gloves in it, or slowly rotating a gold-headed cane in it. Bank managers use this on me when I go in for a loan, knowing instinctively that I’ll do practically everything if they wait long enough, including going away.

One time I decided that when he asked how much I made in a year, instead of saying “Urghsevenfifty-five—lessee, sixty-fivewas it?” while he sat there playing with an ivory paper knife, I’d fill the silence with clear-cut facts and figures. I put the information in a black folder I carry around with me, took a seat near the open window for plenty of light, and when the question came I snapped “YESSIR! ONE MOMENT, PLEASE.”

I whipped open my folder and just then a gust of wind blew everything in it all over the manager’s office. There were little sketches of Indian teepees, a half-finished manuscript, an overdue notice from a loan company, the music

PLEASE DON’T INTERRUPT!

I love conversation.

I’m fond of the art of it. The great fascination,

Of course, is my part of it!

——S. Omar Barker

for the first ten bars of I Wish I Could Shimmy Like My Sister Kate, a cartoon and a dirty photograph a printer had given me and which I didn’t know what to do with.

The next moment I was down on my hands and knees under his desk, giving timid little tugs to his pant leg, asking him if he’d mind raising his foot, crawling around the room knocking my head against chairs and losing my glasses. As far as I can remember the only things I said from then on were “Oops!” “Aha!” “I got them!” “Goldarn it!” and “Jes’ a sec.”

But apart from a few gimmicks I’ve worked out for my own preservation the art of conversation seems as far as I’m concerned to be pretty well lost for good. In fact I’ve found that to start monkeying with an overlyconscious use of words sometimes leads me into speech difficulties that would have worried my parents back in the days when I was asking for more Pablum. I start off in a clear, commanding voice: “As a matter of fact I think it’s largely a matter of—” and find that I’ve been listening so closely to my own voice that I’ve forgotten what I was going to say. I try to ad lib the rest of the statement and usually end up still doing it fifteen minutes later when people begin to wander into the hall, pick up their coats and murmur it was a lovely evening.

The only thing I got out of my book on the art of speech was a thing the writer called a “donkey exercise” for loosening the jaw muscles, which is done by intoning “ee,aw; ee,aw; ee,aw,” several times. I still fascinate myself by doing this in the bathroom mirror, and occasionally it comes in handy for limbering up my face after a rough shave. But as far as I can see it has nothing to do with the art of conversation and will never do me much good unless I can find someone who doesn’t mind standing there while I make sounds like a donkey, which is pretty much what I often find myself doing anyway.