You might think small talk is the same everywhere, but it isn’t. The foot-in-the-door, icebreaking chitchat you make with a stranger at a party or the chick next to you at the bar varies radically from region to region.
You take New York City, for instance. I would usually start with, “Where do you live?” because New Yorkers identify with their neighborhood. If the person answers, “The Upper West Side,” then you can go ahead and use big words.
In Washington DC, people always begin with, “So, what do you do?” That’s shorthand for, “Are you important enough for me to spend time talking to you, or should I just throw my wine in your face and move along?”
I grew up in Indianapolis, where people are inordinately concerned with surface transportation. The opening question there was usually, “How did you get here?” The appropriate reply would be something like, “I took Keystone, then I cut over on Kessler Boulevard and…”
A friend from Oklahoma City tells me the typical icebreaker there is, “Where do you go to church?” I guess it takes all kinds.
Here in Santa Fe, we have our own quirky conversation starters. The three I use, which work in almost every local social setting, are:
“Didn’t I read that you were running for mayor?”
“Doesn’t that metal thing in your tongue hurt?”
“Hey pal, looks like you’ve had way too much to drink!”
Believe it or not, I have been to a couple of events here where the opening salvo was the extremely bizarre, “Where is your other home?” Huh? I have another home? I mean, I can’t really afford one, and even if I could, I don’t need the constant pressure of deciding whether I should be in Santa Fe or in my other place, in, say, Schenectady.
The problem is, folks who ask where your other home is usually have one of their own, and they immediately shift the conversation to their life back in El Paso or wherever, which I don’t give a big fat crap about.
If this happens again, I will be prepared. I plan to invent a second home, so I can hijack the conversation.
“Oh, I divide my time between here and Boise,” I will say, and then I’ll whip out my phone to show photos of some place I downloaded from a real estate site. You know, a cabin or an old school bus or whatever they live in up there in Boise.
The interesting thing about small talk in Santa Fe is not so much what you say, it’s what you don’t say. I have been warned—no, more like threatened—by any number of people who said I should never, ever, trot out the DC question, “So, what do you do?” In Santa Fe, I have been advised, people are reinventing themselves all the time, so what they do doesn’t matter. The way we make a living does not define us here.
Honestly, there are people I see all the time, and I have no idea whether they are gunslingers, ornithologists, haberdashers, door-to-door cheese salesmen or what, because of Santa Fe’s rigid “don’t ask, don’t tell” livelihood rules.
As I understand local etiquette, if someone is so déclassé as to try telling you what she does for a living, you’re supposed to cover your ears and say, “la la la la la la la” until her lips stop moving.
I’m okay with all this, and I’m prepared to take my own private work history with me to the grave, because that is the local custom.
But I’ll tell you one thing. If I ever run into Robert Redford or Shirley MacLaine at a party here, the first words out of my mouth will be, “So, what do you do?” I mean, who could resist an opportunity like that?
Robert Basler worked for Reuters in the US and Asia. He now lives in Santa Fe with his wife, and way too many rescued dogs and cats. Email the author: firstname.lastname@example.org