When my friends get back from Burning Man, bursting with stories and photos and souvenirs and declarations about Life, how do I let them know in the nicest possible terms that I don't give a damn about their freaking desert party? I'm very happy that they had an exciting adventure, and I understand that it was Very Spiritually Important, but BM bugs the hell out of me and I dread their inevitable reminiscing (and, even worse, well-meaning attempts to Share the Experience With the Unfortunate Nonattendees). Do I have no better choice than to avoid them for a while? Is there an acceptable way to indicate that I've heard enough without insulting them? Burning Man people are all extremely sensitive, you know.
Oh God Not That Again
Dear Burned-Out Madam or Sir,
I might try something along these lines: "Burning Man [or "Prague in the early '90s" or "Your one-night stand with the drummer from that band you like"] sounds like the sort of thing you have to experience to fully understand, and I wouldn't want to make you talk the magic out of it. So perhaps we should talk about something else. What do you think of the new artwork at the corner coffee place?"
You could also tell a little white lie (a forgivable one, since you're saving your sensitive, well-intentioned friends from droning on tiresomely): "I intend to go to Burning Man one of these years, so please don't give me preconceived notions. I want to see it with fresh eyes."
You're going to have to put up with hearing a boring story or two every now and again -- which is one of the negative aspects of hanging out with other people (the benefits, I hope, will make up for such drawbacks). But a very close friend might also, after giving a generous ear to a particular topic, get away with saying something more specific: "I'm so glad you had fun, but can we talk about something else? It seems as though no one has talked about anything but Burning Man all week. Hey, do you want to see my pictures from the Prince concert you and I went to together?"
Dear Social Grace,
I live on a busy street that I walk on often. Almost every day, I receive "catcalls," as do many women. I've learned to simply ignore them. However, I don't know how to respond to men who, when passing me, say, "Hey, lady, how are you doing today?" Sometimes, it's simply "Hi" or "Good morning" -- but said in a particular tone of voice that implies that they would like more than to simply wish me good morning. Often, if I ignore the greeting, my silence is met with "I said hi, bitch!" or something to that effect.
I feel uncomfortable acknowledging what is clearly unwanted attention. I can tell the difference between a genuine and polite "Good morning" and an advance. If we have made eye contact on the street and he smiles and says, "Hi," I smile back. However, with situations like this evening -- I was passing a man getting out of his car, and I wasn't looking anywhere near him, but he attempted to engage me in conversation -- is it rude of me to blatantly ignore this and continue walking? Like most young women living in large cities, I've developed certain protective practices, but is this just paranoia or coldness on my part?
Dear Urban Madam,
You sound neither paranoid nor cold to me. Some may read your letter and think to themselves, "Isn't it a shame that a woman can't be friendly in a modern urban environment?" But, in fact, it has long been the height of bad manners for a man to try to force an unknown woman to be "friendly" by engaging her in unwanted conversation on the street. It's only in the past couple of decades that large numbers of men have lost enough couth that city gals like you have to worry about such harassment.
When you're walking in your neighborhood, eye contact and a smiling "Good morning" are naturally met with at least a smile or a nod. But you are wise to ignore overly aggressive comments and remarks shouted from cars.
Dear Social Grace,
I am a single 37-year-old woman and have recently started dating again after my last relationship ended. As time marches on, I have fewer group social connections and want to try to expand my social skill in talking to strangers -- at parties, or whatever. I have no real problem striking up a conversation; the problem is how to leave one gracefully. Unfortunately, I have little patience for endless small talk, especially if the person I began to speak with proves to be a complete boor or otherwise unpleasant. I must sound snobbish, but I do wish to spend a majority of my time with people I find interesting (and hopefully vice versa). I also have no desire to offend anyone with any kind of frank expression of my wish to leave their company. The only way I have been able to extricate myself from a difficult conversation is to hope for an interruption from someone else, or make an excuse to visit the restroom, or to get a drink. Isn't there a set of lovely phrases that used to be used that indicated to all parties that the conversation was over without insulting anyone? I'm always seeing movies set in earlier times that seem to be full of social graces and polite exit lines that are lost on our social consciousness today.
Honestly, there's no better way to improve one's social skills than by engaging fellow partygoers in small talk. I encourage you to be patient and to give people a fair chance before you decide that they aren't worth chatting with. (And keep in mind that even uninteresting folks may have an eligible-bachelor friend or a sibling looking to hire someone just like you. The rewards of being sociable are not always immediate.) Unless someone is being outright insulting, a good party guest (one who is not snobbish, that is) makes an effort to participate in the party chitchat that comes her way.
Now, I must also tell you that most conversations in movies are scripted: If a lovely phrase works to end a conversation in an old film, that's because the filmmakers wanted it to. In real life, there are few all-purpose magic phrases (or perfect retorts, etc.). But the conversational problem in modern times probably isn't the lack of well-written exit lines -- it has more to do with two generations of people brought up to think that expressing, in detail, their minutest thoughts and feelings is their right and their duty. They never learned that a good conversationalist asks questions, avoids monologues unless he's sure others are interested, expresses his opinions as opinions (not facts), avoids unpleasant topics (such as gossip or complaints), and watches for creeping signs of boredom or dismay in listeners' faces.
These people don't show up in movies very often. Who'd want to watch them? When you encounter one at a party, I suggest indulging her for as long as you can bear. Your exit line will have to be something as simple as, "Well, Margaret, I've really enjoyed hearing about your trip to Nacogdoches; it has been a pleasure talking with you. Excuse me." And then turn and walk away.