The other day I was sitting in the lobby area of our local Department of Social Services, waiting to attend a meeting about one of the foster children I work with. A slightly disheveled older guy walks in and sits down a couple of chairs away. We’re the only ones in the room.
A few minutes pass and the guy says, “I wonder if things will change as much in the next 42 years as they have in the last 42 years. That’s when daddy died.”
I have no response, so I nod just the tiniest bit out of courtesy.
He continues, “42 years ago, when daddy died, there weren’t all these Mexicans around here. Not that they’re bad. In fact, there’s a Mexican family next door and they’re as sweet as can be. And there was one black girl back when I was in school.”
Oh crap, here comes a diatribe from a bigot who thinks he’s a nice guy. I squirm and stay silent.
“And 9/11, who could’ve imagined 9/11?”
Please, please don’t start in on all Muslims are terrorists…
He must sense my discomfort because he changes topics and says, “You know, my daughter, she died in 2010, gosh I miss her, she used to think I couldn’t hear her when she’d apologize to people for me talking to them. I never met a stranger…”
Okay, so that topic is not much of an improvement. Of course, I feel badly that this guy’s daughter passed away and that he has apparently spent the last 42 years mourning for his father, but this is not the way to make small talk with strangers. I ponder how to offer my condolences without inviting further information, when the DSS receptionist pops her head out of the window and tells me to go on in to the meeting. With great relief, I scurry off.
If nothing else, let’s try to extract some lessons from this uncomfortable encounter. Here are some guidelines about making small talk with strangers:
- Talking about your dearly departed loved ones is not the best ice breaker.
- Just because someone appears to share your skin color does not mean they share your attitudes about people of different skin colors.
- Most importantly, sometimes it’s best for strangers to remain strangers.