The other day, I was crossing the street, walking home at the same time as a neighbor I don’t know very well. Half a block away from home, inevitably we were headed to the same place.
A brilliant idea struck: I could decrease my pace. He had already opted to cut the corner, going around the back of the bus shelter. I, taking the long route, slowed down. Surely he would emerge long before me, and we could walk separately in peace.
It was not meant to be. He took a curiously long time to emerge from behind the shelter.
I wasn’t just avoiding him; he was avoiding me!
Well, now we were stuck.
“I forgot my credit card,” he told me, obviously feeling he should explain why he was headed back home after I’d just seen him cross the street in the other direction. “I don’t think they’ll let me buy groceries if I can’t pay for them!” Who knew this particular neighbor was so witty? I surely wouldn’t have if my slow-walking strategy had panned out.
“They definitely don’t!” I replied. “I was at the grocery store just the other day and had a cart full of groceries. I was about to pay when I realized I didn’t have my credit card!”
“Oh, no!” he responded. We were walking quickly, both clearly anxious to end this encounter while it was still going well.
“Yeah, they held my cart for me, though, while I went home to get it,” I said. I didn’t go into the reason I forgot my credit card, which was because I had biked to work, which led to shuffling items between my purse and my biking bag, which wreaked havoc on my carefully planned out day, which led to me locking my keys in a cabinet at school and almost not being able to get home. My husband says sometimes I talk nervously to people I don’t know, so I restrained myself.
It’s a decision I make on a case-by-case basis: How much should I say? How friendly should I be? My father-in-law has an amazing ability to make small talk. We’ve been in the elevator with him and seen him seamlessly ease the awkwardness of the 20-second ride by glancing at a neighbor’s hat and making an observation like, “So you’re a Giants fan?”
I asked him about his tricks for easing these awkward interactions. He finds that “breaking the ice is often welcomed and actually met with relief.” He advises that the ice should be broken with something that isn’t too self-revealing. No wonder my small talk about funerals and doctors visits wasn’t going over very well. He says strangers often react in a light-hearted or humorous tone to whatever conversation starter he tries, because a small burden — awkwardness — has been lifted. In other words, what you say — as long as it’s not too revealing — doesn’t matter so much as the fact that you’re saying something at all.
Yet striking up a first-time conversation is hard for me. I’m better with repeat interactions once I have a go-to topic. There is a retired couple in the building whose daughter teaches like me. We almost always talk about the school year, my students, or their daughter. Another couple goes to my yoga studio. When we cross paths in the mailroom, you can bet we’re talking about down dogs and vinyasa sequences.
Running into neighbors off the premises adds another level of conversation savviness, one I often don’t have. At National Night Out this summer, someone we had just met introduced my husband and me to a man from our building. “You guys live in the same building,” the introducer said gallantly.
“Oh yeah,” I barged forward, trying not to be awkward; a clear sign that I was about to be. “We know each other.”
Condo Neighbor looked at us with a puzzled look on his face. His puzzled look puzzled me. My husband and I are like the two Great Danes; we are not tiny people. When you see one, you notice it, but when you see two together, you definitely remember. Surely he had some recollection of us?
“We talked at the holiday party?” My husband was trying to smooth things over before I started babbling.
“Yeah, we talked for a long time. I remember you,” I added.
No dice. This guy had no idea who we were. We reintroduced ourselves. The next day, I saw him on the street. “Hi, neighbor!” I said.
“Oh, hi,” he said. There was a hint of confusion in his eyes. Oh well.
But this is nowhere as bad as the gaffe I made one summer evening when my husband, my friend and I were out for a walk. A woman with a dog walked right past us without even looking up. Wait! I was sure I knew her…
“Sister of Ed!” Suddenly, I knew who she was! Unfortunately I couldn’t recall her name. I can’t explain my strange syntax except that it would have made slightly more sense had I been speaking Spanish.
She stopped walking, turned around and looked at us. My husband immediately greeted her by her real name, which triggered the realization that she was not the sister of my friend Ed but instead, a dedicated member of my husband’s weekly meditation group. I had interacted with her many times, but in my defense, not recently.
Another awkward neighbor encounter happened this past week. I was walking down the street with my friend and I saw two of my neighbors approaching. I kept up the conversation with my friend, trying to play it cool.
The neighbors were getting closer. I help up my hand in greeting.
“Thank you!” I said, and kept walking.
I immediately realized my error. But maybe no one else had? Once they were out of earshot, I whispered to my friend, “I just said ‘thank you’ to my neighbors! What is wrong with me?”
“Yeah, I was wondering why you were thanking those people,” she said. So much for no one noticing.
Having had all of these awkward neighbor experiences, I knew that on the day of the interaction with the neighbor who had forgotten his credit card, I wasn’t doing as badly as I could be. Name-Unknown Neighbor and I arrived back at the building. He opened the front door to the entryway and swiped his key fob to open the door to the lobby, and therefore, the elevator. I quickly swiped my key fob to open the door to the stairwell.
“I’m gonna make myself take the stairs,” I said, and disappeared. Little did he know I usually take the stairs; he probably thought I was trying to avoid prolonging the conversation. Regardless of what he thought, I’m sure the relief was mutual.
We had done a good job socializing. Better to stop while you’re ahead.
Carissa Jean Tobin lives in a condo in Northeast Minneapolis with her husband. Her hobbies include creating humorous surveys for friends, lounging at the Wilde Roast Café, and scanning old papers in an effort to minimize. She teaches first grade in North Minneapolis.