Thursday, July 19, 2018

How to ruin small-talk

Everybody knows that feeling when you walk away from a conversation, then five minutes later think “That’s what I should have said.”

You know that feeling, right?

I still don’t have that feeling.

It’s been half a day, and I’m still at, “What should I have said? Should I have said something?”

I was in the grocery store and I almost collided with another customer. His physical type was one you encounter pretty often here in upstate New York: 60-ish, a rough, full beard, and a weathered face.

Oh, and on his chest, in something like a baby carrier, he was wearing a Chihuahua.
It was basically this model. Now replace the woman wearing it with a gristled 60-year-old man in a rural New York Price Chopper.
Image from
Our near-collision happened as he was coming out of an aisle where I’d been unable to see him, and he courteously let me pass.

A few minutes later, I found myself in line behind him at checkout, and now I saw that the dog-carrier had a very official-looking tag that identified the animal as a therapy pet for PTSD. And that the man was wearing a t-shirt with the text, “Freedom is never free.”

I said something to the effect of it being a great rig for the dog, and the man turned and engaged in pleasant conversation.

He mentioned that the dog was cold, and I asked if it was a Chihuahua.

“Yeah, he’s Mexican. He came up here for all the free social stuff.”


I just wanted to have a light, humane interaction with a stranger who shares my corner of the world, and who is wearing an adorable Dog Bjorn, and who has probably seen horrors I can only imagine.

But that’s not where we are today, so of course a comment has to be dropped into the conversation, portraying Hispanic immigrants as lazy moochers coming to take our stuff.

My face had been smiley and engaging, and I could feel it fall, but I couldn’t think of what to say. So I said nothing.

Maybe I should have said something like, “Immigrants come here to work,” just as a marker that his casual bigotry is not universally shared, but I was blindsided by his comment. The dark turn in the conversation was so sudden that it took me a while to reorient myself.

Should I start dropping Trump digs into random settings? Say I were walking my cat (bear with me here) and got chatting with a stranger who was complimenting his regal appearance. I could say, “Yes, and his strange, yellow hair means he’s a traitor.”

I’ve only been back in the country for nine days, and already I miss America.


  1. I find it helpful to always have the phrases "That is an interesting statement. Can you explain it to me?" or "I don't get that joke. Can you explain it to me?" on hand for just such occasions. It helps if you can muster a totally blank look on your face. My years of acting training come in handy sometimes.

    1. I like that. I'll try to keep it handy.