I’ve never been great at conversing with complete strangers. It just doesn’t come easy to me. I was subsequently reminded of this fact a few weeks ago during a rare taxi journey, when my opening gambit to the sexagenarian taxi driver was: “Your car smells nice.” We then spent the next ten minutes sitting in uncomfortable silence.
The awkward silence was only broken when the driver proudly revealed that several passengers had recently commented that they thought his taxi was a brand new car, even though it’s actually one year old. “Well, you have kept it immaculately maintained,” I replied (dying a little inside). I sounded like a robot who’d just had a brand new formality chip installed. Had I appeared at the taxi driver’s window in the nude, saying: “Salutations! I regret to inform you that I need your clothes, your brogues and your Vauxhall Vectra,” it would’ve been like a mediocre version of Terminator 2: Judgment Day.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to talk much for the rest of the journey because my kind comments about the taxi driver’s car triggered a demonstration of the wonders of his sat-nav: “There we are, you see [points at screen]. But if we go right at this roundabout…there you go, the road name’s now changed to the one I’m driving on.”
I’d arrived in Stratford-upon-Avon on the 20:30 train from Birmingham Moor Street, but he clearly thought I’d materialised in a ghostly fog aboard a steam locomotive from 1830. Still, I think I managed to successfully feign interest and gasp with astonishment in all the right places.
I eventually called time on the taxi journey and walked the rest of the way home in the pitch dark, occasionally stumbling over the mangled carcasses of unidentified road-kill. However, it was preferable to persevering with my awkward taxi journey. In fact, it was something of a relief to be stumbling around in the dark (rather than mentally doing so, in a strained effort to generate conversation).
My apparent inability to chat casually with strangers makes me think that, in the [hopefully unlikely] event of my abduction, I’d be completely immune to the Stockholm syndrome. I imagine that after telling my abductor that his car boot smells nice, I’d be fresh out of ideas. Upon my surprise release nearly 20 years later, I’m fairly confident that my relationship with my abductor wouldn’t be any further advanced.
I went for a hair cut at the weekend, which is always a conversational black hole. I’ve been going to the same hairdresser for about five years now, yet we still converse like two mismatched singles on a buttock-clenchingly awkward first date. At one point, in order to sidestep a moment of deafening silence, I seized upon the fact that my hairdresser has a 10-year-old son. I then embarked on a brief, but alarming, conversation about how swine flu was set to ravage schools again now that the summer holidays are over.
Unless I was unknowingly channelling the spirit of Dr Hilary Jones, I can’t claim to have said anything even remotely factual. However, I did manage to fill at least 35 seconds with something that sounded like a conversation (in spite of suggesting that my hairdresser’s son was on borrowed time).
When there were other painful silences later on during my hair cut, I’m surprised I didn’t say: “Have you heard about the Ebola virus spreading virulently among pre-teens? Yeah, once they’ve haemorrhaged from every orifice it’s pretty much over. Finito! My hair feels so much better now you’ve taken the weight out of it. Thank you.”
My inability to chat confidently with strangers was painfully apparent at a wedding earlier this year. It was the wedding of my girlfriend’s university friend – who I’ve only met once or twice – so the people in the wedding party were a complete mystery to me. At dinner I had the misfortune of being seated next to the most boring man I’ve ever met in my life, so getting the conversation going was like trying to start up a Morris Marina that had been parked under a tree for 30 years – it sputtered a little, but there was essentially nothing there. In the end, I suffered the indignity of the aforementioned boring man making his excuses to escape me! It did make me wonder how dull I must be for this super-dull man to have felt so unfulfilled after an hour at dinner with me.
I recall dying my first conversational death in about 1983, while chatting to the daughter of one of my dad’s work colleagues (who I fancied). She was older than me by about 2-3 years and looked a bit like Elizabeth Shue from ‘Karate Kid’. My most embarrassing moment was trying to woo her with an impression of Megatron from Transformers, which saw me adopt a nasal, faux-robotic voice, then saying: “My – name – is – Megatron.” (The worst impressions are always the ones where you have to explicitly state who you’re impersonating.) Understandably, she looked quite embarrassed for me. I genuinely don’t think I ever saw her again after that moment.
Nowadays, every conversation I have with someone I don’t know feels as ineffectual as a poor impression of Megatron…and every bit as cringeworthy.
It’s a sad state of affairs when I can chat to strangers more confidently on Twitter than I can in real life. In fact, I’ve often wondered if it would be possible drag this chatty online confidence into a real-life social situation, and I almost attended my local Twestival this year to test out the theory, but ultimately bottled out. Maybe next time.
Oh, who am I kidding? There isn’t really going to be a “maybe next time”. Unless, of course, I can hire Dr Stephen Hawking’s speech synthesiser for an evening, so I can hold conversations without physically talking to anyone. Actually, no, scrub that thought. That’s just silly. I’m almost entirely…well, fairly sure that I’d never go to such lengths to avoid conversation with strangers in a social situation. Tempting, though.