Mental Menus

(WARNING: This is one of those posts that starts off tangentially. Sometimes that’s the way communication works.)

If you peruse the books in the travel sections of stores and libraries, you can find pocket-size volumes of useful phrases in different languages. While pantomiming works well for some situations*, there are times when having the actual word is best for all concerned. (For example, being able to ask a shopkeeper, “Tampons?”)

* I believe it was travel writer Rick Steves who noted that one does not always need a phrase book — merely pointing at your injured foot and screaming does get the point across just fine.

Sure, there are plenty of little words of politeness that are great to memorise, please, thank-you, excuse me, and the rest. But these little bits do not a conversation make. And anyway, phrase books are always of limited use; anyone who has tried such can explain the inherent problems that result by being about to make statements or ask questions, but not being able to understand the answers, or know what you are to do with the other person’s reply.

And that’s where we sometimes end up when wandering through the awkward territory of small talk. As I have blogged on before (“Small and Medium-size Talk”), the big sorts of talk, those that are the exchange of real information on subjects of mutual interest are generally rather easy — it’s the medium-size talk that is the social dance of chit-chat which is fraught with difficulties.

But there are days when the very-small talk of passing through and exchanging greetings seems to be a strain.

Sometimes I am just really tired, or am coming down with a virus, or am skidding into a migraine. Everyone can relate to feeling crappy, and not having the patience or social wherewithal to deal with inanities, even if most people don’t end up with events of halting speech.

Sometimes I am really preoccupied with something and deep in thought, or as they say, “lost in my own little world” (honestly, who else’s world would I be in?!) and the transition from thinking and only using part of my attention to navigate through space, to having to heed and listen and respond to someone else’s verbiage, is a struggle. In these moments I have the same internal feeling as when the car’s gearbox is cold and uncooperative, and my imprecise stick shifting produces that split-second of horrible grating noise.

Sometimes I am simply out of practice. There was a period of graduate school where I would be doing field work or lab work or report-writing for days on end, and I simply wasn’t around other people to converse. Although alone, I did not feel lonely. But when trying to re-integrate my brain to the demanding social milieu that is the grocery store**, I would discover that hours of performing high-level technical written communication work did not transfer to performing basic interpersonal verbal communication work.

** Seriously. Travel to a country where you can neither understand nor speak the local language, and see how awkward and electively mute you become.

And maybe some of these are reasons why we have those stock social phrases, the likes of which are listed in travel guidebooks, topically categorised into columns of options. Apparently somebody decided it was useful to organise the information that way, and it certainly makes sense to me.

One day I realised that I had also sorted all of my phrases in much the same manner. When I can tell that I am in one of those awkward states, I work proactively by mentally accessing the appropriate list before entering the social situations. Assuming I can anticipate which kinds of social situations I will be in, it works pretty well. But then I run into unexpected detours where somebody engages me with an unexpected query or social routine, and am scrambling to find the right response. I am mumbling or stammering or delivering a reply that is two or three seconds late, my volume dropping as I realise that I am speaking to someone who is already exiting stage left.

Well, the old Words program works okay, but it’s not great. I’m hoping that there will be a release of iChitChat soon …

A graphic modelled after the Word program toolbar, with with the name, \" width=


  1. 1 August 2012 at 2:09

    […] Ah, the dreaded “small talk”! Learning scripts to use for small regular transactions isn’t hard (e.g. waiting for coffee to brew or cashier transactions, as described in this post). […]

  2. 7 June 2011 at 19:34

    […] Small Talk […]

  3. EKSwitaj said,

    7 July 2008 at 10:22

    When you’re visibly foreign, it can be much easier to communicate with phrasebook language than it is to navigate through small talk that you don’t really get in a language that you know. In my experience, people are much readier to accommodate your needs in the former case than in the latter (or maybe I’ve just been very lucky as I’ve stumbled through learning Japanese and Chinese).

  4. Emily said,

    1 July 2008 at 19:30

    “* I believe it was travel writer Rick Steves who noted that one does not always need a phrase book — merely pointing at your injured foot and screaming does get the point across just fine.”


  5. Bev said,

    1 July 2008 at 3:42

    Well, that does make sense, doesn’t it? I like your ideas for organizing the most likely to be needed words, and may give this a try. Still, I long for the day when it will be acceptable to wear a sign around my neck stating something like HEADACHE: DO NOT DISTURB or PREVIOUSLY APPROVED SCRIPTS ONLY, PLEASE. Until then, “Greetings. My name is ___ and this is _______ Mc___.”

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