Exchanging pleasantries: A cautionary tale

Im not a great conversationalist.

It’s fair to say that any limited eloquence and elegance that my brain produces usually flows in the direction of my typing fingers rather than my voice box.

This is not to suggest that I’m not an adequate talker. Indeed I can bore for hours on subjects which seem inane and trivial to everyone but me.

But the particular skill of holding a conversation eludes me; of knowing when to talk, of listening to what the other person is saying, of making an appropriate response, of displaying empathy, interest and compassion.

Most conversational situations reduce me to a state of discomfort akin to a slug having a bath in salt water.

But, despite it all, I do try. I make smalltalk with my neighbours, exchange anecdotes with the parents of the other children at school, stop and chat when I meet a former work acquaintance in the street. I smile and force myself not to say stupid things. I ignore the voice in my head which tells me everyone despises me. I try not to scare the other person off.

And so today I was walking in the street with my son. I had just picked him up from school and he wanted to visit the play park.

On the way we passed a barber shop. The owner was standing out the front having a smoke. He’s not my regular barber but has cut my hair on occasion. He saw me with my son and smiled.

I stopped to say hello.

We exchanged banal pleasantries, inquiries about families and work, comments on the weather.

And then, just as the conversation began to flag, he asked my son if he would like a lolly.

My son said yes.

I stood confused for a second before the barber guided me into the shop. I found the large jar of lollies and asked my son which colour he preferred.

And then I turned. And saw that the barber had followed me into the shop and closed the door. Immediately I felt trapped and under pressure.

Then he began to prepare the barber’s chair for me and offered to take my coat. I now found myself in the awkward situation of having to decide whether to go along with it or explain to him that I had just been making smalltalk in the street, I really didn’t want my hair cut. I was just being nice.

I gave him my coat.

He guided me towards the chair.

I thought that I had better stop this before it got out of control.

And then I sat on the chair.

My son stood beside me wearing a confused expression.

I looked at myself in the mirror. I didn’t need or want a hair cut.

An idea entered my head.

‘Do you take card?’ I enquired.

‘No, I don’t have a machine.’

‘I’m really sorry, but I’ve just realised that I don’t have any cash,’ I said brightly.

‘It’s ok, there’s a cash machine in the shop next door.’

‘Ah, that’s good.’

My son was now shifting impatiently beside me.

‘I’m really sorry,’ I began, ‘but I don’t think I have time to get my hair cut just now. I’d forgotten I have an appointment I have to get to.’

The barber looked suspicious as I clambered out of his chair.

‘Well then, would tomorrow suit? In the morning?’

‘Uh….um….yeah ok.’

‘About ten?’

‘Er….that’s perfect.’

He started to write something in a book.

‘Name?’

‘Eh?’

‘Your name? For the booking.’

I seriously considered giving a false name but my brain was so scrambled all I could think of was Mr Bump.

I gave my name. My real name.

The barber happily waved me off.

‘See you in the morning then.’

I took a few dazed steps. Then my son said to me.

‘Daddy, did you get my lolly?’

I returned to the shop. The barber generously handed over a red lolly.

I left again and took a few dazed steps. Then my son said to me.

‘Daddy, where’s your coat?’

I returned to the shop again. I was sure I could see a hint of apprehension in the barber’s eye this time.

I put on my coat. My son looked up at me. It was a curious glance, one that I thought expressed his desire to be like his daddy, to learn from my wise counsel, to be firm, assertive and steadfast. Then he went back to licking his lolly.

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