For many people, I’m sure small talk is generally not the biggest of deals, albeit generally regarded as awkward. For me though, it used to be more than just awkward. To me, small talk would be like a mini pop quiz of pain where the person I was talking to was secretly judging everything I was saying. Whenever I found myself in those situations, I used to get that horrible pang of fear like someone’s just asked me to give an impromptu speech.
You know the kind of conversations I mean. The one you have with the cashier when you’re paying for something and their till somehow breaks, leaving you two in that lovely 5 minute-limbo of awkwardness. The one you have with the other person who gets into the lift on your way to the top floor. The one you have with someone at a party who you’ve never met and you’re fully aware that neither of you actually wants to be there.
The reason I didn't like them was rooted in something I am still affected by to this day: caring too much about what people think of me. Because of that, I would find initial interaction with new people quite difficult. So much so that I used to actually give a disclaimer when I was younger that I was bad at first impressions.
Whenever I was in one of these situations, I would be very aware of everything I was doing. I would be thinking about my facial expression, my body language, the tone of my voice, the structure of my sentences, as well as everything I’ve just listed but from the other person’s perspective. With new people, my self-consciousness would be heightened, basically jumping to 11 when it would usually be simmering around the 8/10 mark.
Of course, these scenarios would often occur when I was uncomfortable anyway. Maybe I was at a party for which I was already panicking about being in a room with a bunch of people I didn't know. I would already be going into the situation full of fear that the people I talked to weren’t going to like me, they weren't going to find me funny or they’d just think I was a bit odd.
My solution to all this would be to just avoid this kind of situation. I would think to myself 'why should I put myself in an environment and a situation that I find uncomfortable in the first place?' But the problem was that this 'solution' resulted in exactly what I didn't want. I started thinking that the person I'm holding back from must think I'm rude and then they'd stop trying to talk to me altogether.
When my therapist pointed out how this kind of thinking was actually having a negative affect on me, it was like someone telling me that 2 plus 2 equalled 5 – it just didn't make sense. But over time, and with enough practice, I gradually learned to manage it the best I could.