Today I was at a meeting and heard my friend Jay say, laughingly, that A.A. had ruined small talk for him. He elaborated that when you have become accustomed to the absolute rawness of laying your soul bare in A.A., discussing the nature of addiction, and the hope that God or a higher power might help save us from our own self-destructive tendencies, the idea of going to dinner and talking about car insurance or bunion surgery can seem like a waste of precious time.
Jay was joking of course but he has a point. In life we all need some small talk skills. We can't be wandering around spouting off about our innermost hopes, dreams, fears, loves and losses with startling honesty all the time. That is not how this planet works. We have small talk. It helps us learn how to connect, even if on a superficial level. Small talk is sometimes a good tool to have.
I work as a fashion photographer. A job where small talk flies around on set all day every day. Work can be an absolute blast. It can also be grueling, competitive and cut-throat. The hours are abusively long some days. There are no unions in my field of work so we are at the mercy of our clients. I have worked back to back to back 14-hour days without any real break more times than I care to remember. The conditions can be brutal - shooting outside from pre-dawn to sunset in freezing temperatures, blazing sun, gale force winds and bone-chilling rain. The travel can be so low budget you would rather be traveling out to the uncharted American west on the back of a donkey in 1885 or so glamorous you know you surely don't deserve it. But if one thing is pretty standard, it’s the staggeringly early call times.
When shooting on location we often have to wake well before sunrise. We then travel from the hotel to whatever location we are using that day, to start the several hour long process of hair, makeup, and fashion styling and to generally set up the shots for the day ahead. This usually entails my assistants and me bumbling around in the pre-dawn light trying to figure out what the location will look like in full sun, or freezing sideways rain if we are unlucky. A few years ago, on one particular shoot, we were in Cape Town and universally exhausted. The days had been long and hard and we were all suffering from sun and wind burn and lack of sleep from jet lag. There was also some mysterious illness sweeping through the set, with several members suffering from something the Brits on the crew called "the dreaded lurgy".
One morning our call time was 5:30 a.m. which meant that if we wanted breakfast or coffee we needed to get up even earlier to grab a bite before we headed out to the location. When I got into the elevator at 5 a.m. I saw that several floors had already been pushed. Apparently I would be on a local heading down to the lobby. One after another crew member got onto the snail-paced and rickety elevator so I had time to look around. We all looked terrible, sporting large rings under our eyes and a sort of sickly greenish pallor which was not helped by the morgue-like fluorescent elevator lights. We were all silent, probably one and all dreaming about the nice warm beds we had just left. There were 5 of us in the elevator, all crew members. Worker bees, being paid by the client who was essentially all of our bosses and footing the bill for this African extravaganza. As we shuddered to the lobby, my friend and co-worker Sarah looked around at us all. We were certainly a miserable sight, wretched and exhausted to the man. Suddenly Sarah stood tall and said "OK, ladies!" (which was funny as two of the five of us were men) "it's show time!" She then straightened up to her full height (we were all slumped miserably against the elevator walls), pushed out her enviable bosom, flashed a movie star smile and said "tits and teeth everyone! Tits and teeth!" As the door opened slowly, we came face to face with the client. So we all did exactly what Sarah had done, we stood up tall, puffed out our male and female chests respectively, and exited the elevator one by one, striding out, all the while smiling winningly at our client and each other.
After I had fortified myself with some thick, highly caffeinated African coffee, I went over to Sarah and asked her about the origin of her "tits and teeth" line. She told me she wasn’t quite sure, but that I probably should not start using that expression at home. “Poor dears, can’t say anything over there in America anymore, can you?” But she thought that the phrase had originated in the theater. She explained that she uses that line on men and women alike and that for her it means that sometimes in life we just have to fake it till we make it. To smile when we don’t want to. To make small talk with the client at 5 a.m. To “tits and teeth” our way into a good mood and a sunnier disposition. “Sometimes,” she said “just by straightening up, throwing our shoulders back, and smiling (which is essentially what tits and teeth is regardless of your gender) you feel better.”
So that's how I feel about small talk now. Yes, of course I'd rather be talking about the meaning of life, seeking a connection to God, and living life without needing to numb out with booze or drugs. But sometimes discussing lawn maintenance, hip replacements, and the storm coming up from Florida is what is required. This "tits and teeth" facade is part of life too. Part of connecting with others. Part of being human in a world full of the details and minutiae that we need to take care of in order to keep things going smoothly. To keep the boats, ferrying our existence from one day to the next, afloat.
Shakespere famously wrote "All the world's a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances: and one man in his time plays many parts." So, I go deep when I can. I will also discuss the best types of dog food if that is what is required of me at the time. But no matter what, by staying sober and accepting life on life’s terms, I (almost) always enjoy the show.