Hello, how are you? Now what? The problem with small talk

Musings on everyday life

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Suresh Pattali

Published: Thu 25 Aug 2022, 6:04 PM

Hello, Suresh.” Her high-decibel salutation was forgivable because we were in the middle of a cacophonous crowd. I was one of the guests, er crowd, invited to celebrate three decades of a conglomerate in the UAE. And she is the CEO. The PRO, who ushered the honourable lady into a pocket of vacuum I had found for myself, excused himself and vanished. She wasn’t walking; she swirled like a ballerina in a flowy gown in iceberg blue.

“Hi.” I kind of choked on my monosyllable as I stood in awe of her charisma and shook her hand.

“How are you? I always wanted to see you,” she said, her cadence not in sync with all the razzle-dazzle of her dressing and maquillage.

“Not bad. And you?” She said something and waited to hear from me.

Now what? How do I take the conversation forward? What is the corporate etiquette? Should I say she looked immaculate? Or should I ask how she manages to be an efficient CEO and a successful mother, a great example of work-life balance? Or how her industry was afflicted by the pandemic? Or is it politically correct to ask how her kids are doing?

I don’t have anything to talk to a woman, let alone the lady in front of me. I would have agreed with my colleague Somya if she had jokingly called me a flirt some 25 years ago, but she was yet to come into this world when I had possessed a semblance of the trait which she accuses me of now.

I have changed. So have times. When life accelerates, civilisations seem to bolt backwards at the same speed. The days when the whole newsroom crowd in Mumbai, including Danto, Leena, Ruchira, Ann, Shenoy et al, slept dormitory-style with no gender divisions between us, would never come back.

Today, the dynamics of relationships have changed. Every nation, every religion has its own manual of etiquette, and some of them have self-styled moral police to enforce them too. An innocent compliment could be mistaken as an agenda. A pillion ride with a girl could be a journey to nowhere.

It’s a dangerously thin line between innocuous pleasantry and flirting. Conversations take a toll as people are afraid of looking creepy. I almost fainted a few years ago when a 20-plus intern refused to take a 70-plus editor’s extended hand in the midst of a crowd that had gathered to congratulate her.

The CEO stared, waiting to hear from me as people around us made merry. “I always wanted to meet you too,” I wanted to say but words drowned in my throat.

“Huge gathering,” I managed to mumble, eyes panning around to find someone to rescue me.

“Yeah, it’s a milestone for us,” she said.

Now what? I rummaged in my quiver for another topic. How journalism has evolved from the quaint Letterpress to toxic social media; how the golden era of exclusive and investigative reportage has given way to the dog-eat-dog world of paid content; how all the hubbub of a typical newsroom has been muzzled by various rules of etiquette; how Gen Z journos are struggling with long-form writing. How listicles are forever, while news dies a sudden death. Topics galore but I was looking for one that would match the situation.

“The ambience is too romantic for a business event.” I thought that’s a clever one, not being coquettish but insinuating in part that she was so pretty.

“That says all about how we treat our clients,” she shot back with glee. If the thought that her beauty was all about her hazel eyes had crossed my mind, it was minus an agenda.

Now what? Lady, you ask me about how many millions have been displaced this year by conflicts; how many millions are starving in Afghanistan; how many have fallen dead in never-ending queues for fuel in Sri Lanka; how many fall victim to gun violence in the United States; how many die in India in communal clashes.

“How do you enjoy your work?” That’s plain vanilla.

“I am committed to empowering women,” she broke into an impromptu speech. I listened and listened and listened.

‘Hellos’ and laughter echoed around us. Glasses clinked. China broke. The whole affair looked like a fandangle, in every sense of the word.

“What do you do in the newsroom?” she asked, taking a break from her sermon to gulp some water that her secretary passed on.

“I count bodies. Human bodies. A gravedigger of civilisations.”


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