Monday, June 20, 2011

Small Talk, Plastic Smiles

Many people who meet me for the first time say that I am a quiet person. My wife often tells me that her friends say that her husband is the shy and silent type, never speaking unless spoken to. And that even then, my responses are short and curt. She tells them that they don't know Charles. Those who know me better hold the opposite view. That I am talkative, full of opinion and argumentative. I quietly smile to myself when I hear these comments.

To be honest, my problem has always been with small talk. I find myself in many situations where I am just there, with nothing to say. It is for these reasons that I hate cocktails or networking events where I hardly know anybody. I find it quite difficult to walk up to a stranger and start chatting without any specific agenda. When I was a kid, whenever I joined a new school, I would keep to myself for sometime,not really mingling with other kids until much later when we got to know each other well and I identified those that I thought I shared with a common interest. When I actually think about in now, both in my primary school days, high school and even through college, my friends were drawn from a small circle. I was not the type who was friends with the whole school.

This set-up suited me fine until I started to get into management positions. When I worked for FilmAid as the Programme Manager for their Kakuma programme, I suddenly found myself being invited to events simply by virtue of my position to represent the organization. Now I had to serve some bitings and wine and mingle with other heads of organizations and government people and make small talk. I survived this however because Kakuma was a small community and everyone soon got to know everyone. Furthermore, I more or less interacted with these people in the course of my day to day work. After a few weeks I was familiar with everybody who mattered. But after sometime I was moved to the Nairobi office as the Country Manager. Now I was being invited to all manner of events to mingle with new sets of Country Representatives, Government people, donors ambassadors e.t.c. And because these were not people I saw on a daily basis, the conversations became even more difficult. I remember once being invited to an event at the US Ambassador's residence and discovering to my horror that I knew almost nobody at the event (luckily my wife had tagged along). I was relieved when later in the evening I met two guys I knew and they were able to introduce me to more people.


Networking in events has always been the most difficult part of my job descriptions. Don't get me wrong, I can seek out an organization that I think will be useful to me, make formal contact and discuss business. Later we might even become friends. I am talking about the appearing in an event and suddenly laughing and being familiar with everybody type of networking. I find that it involves pretense and wearing a fake smile. After some time my jaws begin to hurt.

When I moved from FilmAid, I thought I was now going to spend most of my time implementing projects and doing less plastic smiles. But with transitions in the organization, I once again find myself having to do this. As I write this, an invitation to an event at the end of the week has just landed on my desk. But as is the story of my life, I just have to keep learning, even if it learning some of the stuff I find ridiculous. I wish I was my smaller brother Biko...He is the type who walks into a room full of 100 strangers and in less than 10 minutes, he knows all of them...and they know him!

Image courtesy of this site

35 comments:

  1. I feel your pain, Charles!

    The key to my AMAZING SUCCESS and SHORTEVITY in Corporate America was that I don't "do" pretense and plastic smiles.

    Everybody loves the concept of authenticity, but NOT the actuality of it -- haha!

    Good luck ;-)

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  2. I enjoyed your post here today - I have to say I have no problem with meeting strangers; specialising in a whole range of small talk subjects! Recently I joined a Reading Group, it was interesting to watch a room full of strangers seizing each other up, wondering who would emerge the Chief Bull Goose Loony and who I would have the most in common with. The second meeting we had my opinions made on the first night were almost all completely reversed, and I expect by the next meeting opinions may change again - its all part of lifes rich tapestry!

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  3. They say big men enjoy small talk.Nice post..

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  4. True Charles, I guess when I first met you I thought you were very quiet, I saw that in me where everyone one who come across me for the first time are always like do you ever speak? But with time I concur I got to realize you are outspoken and can be very argumentative of course positively.

    It seems like we share the same things at our place of work, the last two years have been quiet an experience where you are always at all functions meeting who is who and some you have to become friends, it helps in your line of work..i'm beginning to have a problem with the size of my waistline due to the too many dinners and luncheons..good piece of article

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  5. Dangerous Linda, is that why you are called dangerous, because you don't do pretense? Thanks for stopping by and leaving some comments!

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  6. Jane, I think this comes naturally to some people, like you and my brother Biko. Some of us mortals just have to work hard at it! So did you become Chief Bull Goose Loony?

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  7. Eric, I thought you were more quieter than me!! As for the issue of the waistline, that is why you should not laugh at others lol! (Yes, i saw your comment on one of my pics on FB some months back!!)

    Fender, you know that I am not a big man!

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  8. Of small talk. To say that I suck would be disrespect to the word 'suck'. I do worse than suck. Worse, if people I'm meeting have the pre-conceived notion that I am an outgoing, extremely noisy person. I am lucky to be able to do tons of dodging on social events, and when I cannot, I shall force my brother to tag along for company. You however, may not have the luxury of a dodge. I will be saying a prayer for you :P

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  9. Carol, I had the notion that you are outgoing, and I don't think you disappointed! I welcome the prayers!

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  10. Here's an excerpt from a post I did many years ago. Ok last year:

    I come off as no nonsense and stand offish at first glance but nothing could be further from the truth. Of course I don’t like nonsense but standoffish I’m not. Maybe it looks so because I’m extremely poor at small talk. I strongly believe in the positive power of mutual silence.

    Having said that.... I been here forever and its difficult that I would go anywhere and not find someone I know. So that part of my personality is mostly under wraps.

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  11. I could really relate to your story as at one time I found it very difficult to make small talk in certain social situations. I virtually forced myself however and now it seems to be quite easy in all situations. Personally however, I prefer to relate to people one on one or in small groups, rather than large groups of people. Persevere in those social situations and and I'm sure you'll be more than fine (p.s. I wouldn't have guessed you are quiet until you really know someone. I guess when we finally get a chance to meet, I will have to do the talking, lol. Sorry I didn't have a chance to meet you this time.)

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  12. I feel you OH, small talk can indeed be hell when you are among strangers. I usually 'identify' someone who seems to be in my situation (among strangers with no one to talk to) and have a conversation with them. I've met many good friends this way :-)

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  13. Tell me about it!

    The words "Networking lunch" on event programmes, unnerve me.

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  14. Shiko, which post is that? I'd like to read it in its entirety. No nonsense, oh, I fear those looks!

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  15. Joyful, saw your email over the weekend. Will respond soon! You are right, these things come with experience. I am now much better at handling these than I was a few years back. I will continue to persevere

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  16. Joy, welcome. I think the two of us can easily pick out each other in these events right?

    Mrs Mwiti, your personality does not come across as such. You usually sound like someone who would relish these kind of events...but then again you are IT person, right?

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  17. I am one of those people who get along with almost everyone, and can talk about anything! So I'm good at small talk. I wouldn't call it small talk really, I just find topics that a stranger is comfortable with/passionate about, and I let them talk while I listen!

    So I love to attend these 'cocktail' shows! Your brother and I could get along

    P.S. This is like the 4th time I try to comment and it either times out, or resets connection, or comment disappears into thin air!

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  18. Oh, plus the wine at such parties helps :)

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  19. Charlo, you know quiet people like you and me make good writers, we would rather put it in type...

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  20. Savvy, there had been some issues with blogger but hopefully sorted. I can see that your tactic is to mostly do the listening? Very clever!And yes, the wine helps!

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  21. Sally, I have been accused of preferring to send emails rather than call people. I find it easier to put my thoughts on paper (or screen). So yep, you could be right!

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  22. Excellent post and well written Otieno. I love the comments too. Many people will have a view because it affects us all. Savvy has hit this on the head. The secret to the art of conversation is to be a good listener. Most people, given half a chance want to talk about themselves/lives/jobs/kids and by listening we learn and engage.

    Ofcourse a bit of liquid lubrication will help to loosen the tongue and free the mind.

    Stay well.

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  23. Thanks for your comments Woolie!! Stay well as well...

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  24. This is much more of my own description, if we could wear masks to some events it would be better, when you say Biko is your brother, do you mean BikoZulu?

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  25. Mackel9, I have a brother called Steve Biko, so obviously not that other one...

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  26. I can never stand in a position like urs. I have heard people tell me i am not suitable for cusstomer facing jobs. Sadly more and more jobs r becoming marketing oriented

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  27. Wow, this is so on point, glad I stumbled upon this page! Small talk with strangers makes me feel put upon and I dont subject myself to the pressure for pretense. Im a real person and if someone wants to talk to me theyll have to come up with something substantive. I second guess myself too much to enjoy galas and find that people are not usually themselves so its worthless to me. I REALLY enjoy new people when the chemistry comes naturally and interaction doesnt feel contrived. I take that as a clue.

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  28. Why am I not shocked to find out that most writers (bloggers) and avid readers have a hard time making small talk? In case you didn't know, most writers are introverts.

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  29. first time reading your blog and i must say i cldnt have stumbled on it at a better time.
    I just got my first manegerial position,with my first cocktail this week.i wish i could pay someone to attend on my behalf.'my jaws hurt too' haha.you should probably do a post on to overcome this

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  30. :-) This one has me smiling. I'm usually terrified of mingling with strangers and it's usually worse if it's an office function...it just feels awkward.

    If it's a social function I can't avoid, I'll show up with a trusty plus one who is more outgoing & at home with crowds. As for office functions, I just avoid them as best as I can, or make a quick technical appearance then disappear...

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  31. Oh ok, I was thinking it was that other one the, still on that thought have you ever read a poem by Ogden Nash "Complements of a friend"? Its one of my favorites and really explains how you feel, I have a copy on my blog you could pass by and read it...

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  32. @Flying Pen, thanks for stumbling by! Thanks for contributing to the debate as well

    @Eve - I agree, most people who write tend to be introverts, or it that introverts prefer to write?

    @Nyambura - thanks for adding to the list people I will look out for should we ever meet at an event, birds of a feather...

    Jon - sell, sell and sell!

    Mackel, I did come across that poem for the first time on your blog last month. If not mistaken I even left a comment on it I think

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  33. A certain degree of pretence is necessary for survival. We have to feign interest in other people's interest and sometimes hide our true feelings about some things or people in order to get ahead. It's not taught in school but it's a skill we find indispensable as we get ahead.

    Not to say that it is right to be a phoney because history has also taught us that in the long run, being oneself and staying true to who you are pays off. Such pretences should perhaps be limited to the first few minutes of introductions in the cocktail parties and networking events.

    -- EdwinAbuga

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