I was at my grandfather’s funeral last week. The speaker came over to shake my hand and said, “How are you?”
“Hello,” I replied.
Without making eye contact, he turned to my cousin and said, “How are you?” and shook his hand.
I didn’t fault him; I have noticed that “How are you?” is a question asked by people who don’t know or don’t care when they don’t know what to say.
Small talk seems to be a necessary evil, and really no one wants a three-hour monologue in response to their “How are you?” Holidays are wonderfully satisfying for filling in awkward moments when queuing for the coffee and cookies. I have enjoyed many a pointless conversation that included “What did you get for Christmas?” and “Did you spend Mothers Day with your mom or his?”
Moreover, I always enjoy passing someone at church that stops only long enough to say “Your hair looks lovely today,” or “I love that skirt. Where did you get it?” But what do you do when a person’s hair is in shambles and they have worn that outfit five Sundays in a row?
When I was a teenager, I got a lot of “How’s school?” and I hated it. But now that I’m in my 20s, small talk is getting harder to swallow from the people who don’t know and don’t care.
In the spirit of Christian fellowship, I would like to pass on some words of warning for attempted small talk at the next church potluck by people who like to stand over the dip and ask what’s in the punch. When you have run out of recipes to ask for and you are searching for things to say, stay away from three dangerous questions.
The first fellowship-killer dreaded by twentysomethings is: “When are you graduating?” My girlfriend is working on her Masters’ degree, and she says that the word around campus is that anyone who dare asks the question “when are you defending?” is a marked man.
Though you may not have to fear graduate students, it might be wise for the sake of Christian love to avoid asking the question, “Are you done with school yet?” None of us thought that we’d still be in school at 27; if you asked us at age 16 we would have predicted that we would never live that long. Still, there is no shame in continuing education. Even so, no one made many friends with the opening statement, “Graduated yet?”
This same girlfriend attended a wedding last fall for her cousin, and she had the guts to attend solo. Surrounded by nosy uncles and interfering aunts, and remaining long enough to have had everyone in attendance ask her if she’d graduated yet, she entered into the world of arranged dances and awkward set-ups.
The words “So, when’s it your turn?” came stabbing in her ear with nudges and winks from pot-bellied uncles with garlic hors d’oeuvres heavy on their breath. “Do you have a boyfriend, sweetie?” The flowery words sting and bring back memories of long nights in front of a Sandra Bullock marathon on the Super Station and truckloads of chocolate. There is nothing like references to a ticking clock that can make you feel older than Sarah, and there is nothing like dancing with your step-cousin to make you want to cry like Hannah.
I know what she is going through; I faced awkward moments like that before I married my husband; we’ve all been there. You know the story. Before you start dating they ask: “why aren’t you dating?” then you start dating, and they ask, “why are you dating?” Then, you ignore them until they give up and ask, “when are you getting married?” You get married, and then before you are married a month your sister-in-law puts her hand on your stomach, says “anything cooking?” and smiles a smile that is begging to be punched clear across the room.
My sister-in-law, who isn’t done with school and has no plans to marry until she is 30 (so don’t ask her) took notice of a young married friend of mine and wondered if perhaps there was a baby announcement to be made. Then she surmised that it was probably newly married weight gain, and she opted not to mention it. Good girl!
The baby question is the one I dread. I’ve lived through the first two deadly questions and now face this one until I lose my waist and become sleep deprived. “When are you two going to start a family?” We are a family, thanks. “Are you ever going to have kids?” If it’s God’s will. “When are you going to have a baby?” Not today.
My mom and dad waited seven years to have me, and mom says that they stop asking at about the five-year mark. We’ve been married a year, and I don’t think my patience or my smile will last another four.
So, the next time you are face to face with a person holding on to 25, and you are thinking it’s about time they donned that stupid cap and gown, took a trip to the local jewelry store or learned to knit booties: bite your tongue, look them directly in the eye and ask; “Have you lost some weight?”