I hate to admit it, but you have to talk to people every now and again.
For many years, I’ve attempted to avoid speaking to people through shyness and loathing for humanity and hoped that I would eventually land a career where I didn’t have interaction with anyone, and that’s a professional mime.
The reasoning is simple; everyone avoids mimes, and those who do approach them aren’t offended when a mime doesn’t speak to them.
However, I soon found out that being a mime doesn’t really pay well, so I couldn’t afford some of the little luxuries in life like toilet paper and chewing gum and, let’s face it, mime school ain’t free, so I had to take a part-time job that was the complete opposite of my future goals, and that was a gas-station attendant.
Being a gas-station attendant/cashier, I was forced out of my shell by tending to the morning customers every day on their way to work, stopping for gas, cigarettes and coffee — sometimes all in the same cup — and I was horrified when I realized I had to talk to them, especially to ask why they wanted gas, coffee and cigarettes in the same cup…P.S. you don’t want to know.
In those transactions, you get to learn the art of the small talk, those conversations with pleasantries, banter and the back-and-forth tidbits of knowledge and new-age-old sayings that keeps communication with our fellow human beings alive and well.
At first, I was so unfamiliar with small talk that when I first heard a customer ask me if I was “working hard or hardly working,” I honestly didn’t know how to respond.
I stopped and thought about it for a few moments until the customer snapped their fingers in front of my face to say it was just a saying and that there was no need for me to cry and to hit myself in the head with a pricing gun.
Then, as I became more comfortable with my morning exchanges, I would either respond to that greeting with “hardly” or “working,” depending on my mood at the moment and then I would trick it out and customize it with something like, “I’m working hard to hardly work for a living.”
Yeah, that didn’t make sense, but it sounded good as the customer would laugh and make their departure and either realize on the drive away that what I said made absolutely no sense or they’re thinking about it so hard that blood vessels started to burst in their brains.
I also didn’t know what to come back with when I asked someone how they’re doing, and they respond with “well, I’m here.”
“That’s 100 percent accurate, unless you’re not all mentally there, then you would have to give me a different percentage,” I would answer, and they would slowly back away from the cash register until they were a safe distance away from me and my pricing gun, and they’d sprint to their cars.
There’s also the art of small talk, which is basically saying things that don’t benefit the human race by any stretch of the imagination as the participants are just exchanging exchanges.
My favorite exchange begins with “how’s it going” followed by “can’t complain” followed by “wouldn’t matter if you did.”
Once you become familiar with it, then you can play games to see how far you can take it with someone also well versed in the art of small talk.
“How’s it going?”
“Oh, can’t complain.”
“Yeah. It wouldn’t matter if you did.”
“Nobody would listen anyway.”
“The only one who would listen can’t do anything about it.”
“And they would probably charge you.”
“Then they wouldn’t accept your insurance.”
“Plus their co-pay would be unreasonable.”
Forty minutes later…
“The moon will always wax and wane.”
“And the washing machine has four cycles, too.”
“…wait. Who are you, again?”
“Would it matter if I told you?”
“Let’s not start that again.”
Much like stories, excluding “The Neverending Story” of course, there’s a beginning, middle and end to the verbal phenomenon we all share.
So, once you establish that you’re hardly working and how nobody would care to hear you complain if you did complain, you are then faced with departing words, words for someone to remember you by.
“Take it easy.”
“I’ll take it any way I can get it.”
That happens to be my favorite departing phrase as it has a baseline philosophical blue-collar twang to it.
The problem with the departing exchange is when to end it. I remember situations where I would have a back and forth with a customer to the point where they’re halfway out the door, in the parking lot or shouting from their fleeing vehicle.
The secret to having a good ending is to not leave anything open for a back or a forth.
Examples like “Take it easy,” “Have a good one,” or “Later, Camacho” all leave the door wide open for a lengthy departure, which is fine if you’re dropping off your soulmate at the airport or profusely thanking a police officer for letting you go with a warning, but if it’s a customer or a casual acquaintance, it’s uncool.
The best way to end a conversation for good is my very own tried and true way that I’ll use to end this column.
Leave before I hit you with my pricing gun!
According to Hofmann is written by staff reporter Mark Hofmann of Rostraver Township. His book, “Stupid Brain,” is available for purchase on Amazon.com.