x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Conversation without a safety net

Even in a balmy breeze on a quiet street it can be hard work avoing the weather, the traffic and the office.

Avoiding small talk is no small feat, as I discovered this weekend.

As someone who genuinely enjoys meeting new people, I gleefully accepted when a friend asked me to accompany her to a colleague's birthday celebration. Scanning the room, no face-recognition registered, but nonetheless the crowd looked a friendly one so onwards I forged.

However, my sense of security quickly evaporated when I was told of the host's little ploy to keep things "interesting".

Strictly banned were the topics of "work, weather, taxis and traffic" or forfeits would be applied. Had our conversations become so staid and predictable that such intervention was required? Evidently so, as the game proved particularly challenging for some who found it hard to step outside the comfort-zone of mundane, mechanical conversation.

Soon after arriving, my friend pirouetted off around the venue to meet and greet others, leaving me in the company of strangers. Gulp! A trio of grinning faces stood before me.

New friends, not strangers, I told myself. We all got off to a good start with the usual round of "What's your name and where do you come from?", steering deftly clear of inevitable inquiries about work. As we stood uncomfortably on the humid balcony, ignored too was any obvious discussion about the oppressive heat.

For one of the group the game was very heavy weather indeed, and she became conspicuously quiet, creating the awkward silence she was trying so hard to avoid. The other two guests had no such concerns and flitted effortlessly between the topics of travel, art and politics with the ease and charm of an ambassador and a rear-admiral.

Personally, I loved the mystery of it all. With our careers so often stereotyping or even defining us, I learnt far more about my new friends than I ordinarily would have.

By far the worst offender of the night was the host himself, who tripped over his tongue countless times, much to the amusement of his guests. He was forgiven and the game eventually forgotten as natural curiosity got the better of us all. There was an almost audible sigh of relief by some when they were finally allowed to talk about their daily grind.

The one subject that should have remained buried in the birthday cake was the weather. An icebreaker it may be, but this kind of tedious talk makes me yearn to be struck by lightning.

As the evening drew to a close and the psychological experiment ended, I came to the conclusion that I was not ready to turn my back on idle chit-chat for good.

For, in the words of Oscar Wilde, talking about nothing is the only thing I know anything about.