Hello, I’m Eleanor – please can you remind me how to make small talk? | Coronavirus

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In 1828, a strange teenage boy appeared on the streets of Nuremberg. He had a limited vocabulary, and – initially – tended to repeat the phrases, “I want to be a cavalryman, as my father was,” and, “Horse! Horse!”. Later, he would claim that he’d been raised in total isolation; in solitary confinement, in a dark cell. His name, Kaspar Hauser, became synonymous with outsiders, feral children, and – more generally – people who have to learn to adapt to society.

Now, I’m not saying the pandemic has turned the entire global population into Kaspar Hausers; speaking in monosyllables and rehearsed phrases, and hissing at sunlight. My English is still pretty good and, thanks to the spare-time glut, I’ve even improved my French. At the same time, as lockdown eases, the idea of having to hold a conversation with someone other than my partner or the select few people I regularly video call, fills me with both excitement and dread. Even before my year without a social life, I was prone to social anxiety. Parties – if I remember rightly – left me feeling like I’d just tried to schlep a mattress up a hill. Now, I feel like I need to take a nap after exchanging small talk with a delivery person.

Small talk, in fact, is becoming more and more of an olden-days skill, like butter churning or identifying witches. Is there any room for chitchat about the weather when the entire world has just experienced the same traumatic event? It feels a little bit like wiping your feet before entering a pigsty. And – these days – being asked how I am sends me into an existential spiral. The reflex to answer, “Good, yeah, fine”, comes into conflict with a universally acknowledged reality that everything has been extremely difficult, and we’re all processing varying levels of trauma. So I usually answer with something along the lines of, “Uhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh,” until the person intent on knowing how I am changes the subject.

I’m not sure Kaspar Hauser would have known how to deal with small talk either. How do you exchange banal niceties when your only point of reference is a windowless room, your own meandering thoughts and – intermittently – the miraculous appearance of bread and water through a hatch to a world you cannot begin to comprehend? Or (much less extreme, but still …) an entire year spent enacting minor variations on the same non-social activities, and – intermittently – the not so miraculous appearance of a prime minister, to lie about how much longer all this is going to last.

So, if we’re going to set one ground rule for the “back to normal” transition period it should be this: do not, under any circumstances, ask anyone how they’ve been. We’re entering a post-small talk society. One in which casual phrases of greeting such as “How’s it going?” or “How have you been?” need to be replaced with “What was your first encounter with death?” or, “When’s the last time you screamed, and why?”. In the unlikely event that anyone would like to talk about how they’ve been, or what they’ve been up to, it’s probably better that they offer up that information themselves, unprompted. Otherwise, there needs to be an unspoken understanding that everyone is doing “terribly” and has been up to “not much”.

On the other hand, I have almost no doubt that our readaptation to normality will happen, if not quickly, seamlessly. Much like our adaptation to the pandemic. So much of the time, things just are; reality is what it is. No masks, then masks. Hugging, then no hugging. Last year, I got on the tube for the first time in about six months and – after feeling “a bit weird” for about 20 seconds – I felt nothing. Nothing except for the usual feeling of tubefulness I usually feel when travelling on the tube. Granted, I was 100% more wary than I was, pre-pandemic, of how close people were to me, and whether or not they were wearing masks. But that felt normal too.

It’s even possible that, one day, small talk will make sense again. And, when it does, we’ll slip – without any real thought – back into answering, “Good, yeah, fine” when asked how we are. But, until whenever that may be, let’s just accept that everyone we know has gone a little bit Kaspar Hauser. To varying degrees, we’ve all forgotten how to exist in a world where it’s OK to kiss our relatives, or rub the corner of your eye without first washing your hands for the duration of the birthday song.

The other day, I asked my partner what we did on weekends, pre-Covid. I genuinely couldn’t remember where we’d go, who we’d see, and how long we’d stay out. She listed a number of people, places, and activities. I thought for a while, before responding, “Horse! Horse!”

Hafta Ichi
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Hello, I’m Eleanor – please can you remind me how to make small talk? | Coronavirus

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