In Australia it is proven time and time again that a skill much more useful than telling venomous snakes and spiders from harmless ones or swimming to safety at torpedo speed in allegedly shark-infested waters is the ability to make small talk. Small talk happens everywhere and whatever your purpose for leaving the house is, you are bound to encounter someone who will start a conversation with you, whether in a shop, at a cafe, at work, on a train, in a park, at the gym, at a library or at your kids’ school. People here just love a good chit-chat and I learnt it on a number of occasions.
I was just queuing up at the deli section of a supermarket once and when I asked for some ricotta cheese, the lady serving asked what I was going to do with it and quickly added, as if justifying her question, that she’d never thought of incorporating ricotta in her cooking. I gladly shared my latest discovery of a recipe-ricotta and spinach-filled cannelloni-which she seemed to have made a mental note of. We went on to talk about cooking in general, then about Gordon Ramsey’s latest book and by the time the conversation was over, I almost felt like saying, ‘Forget the recipe. Just come over for dinner. 7 pm my place.’
Talking about supermarkets, the best chinwag happens at the check-out. This is the place where I have held numerous conversations about tinned fish and frozen strawberries, kids, Christmas, holidays and the coronavirus pandemic, to name but a few. If you happen to be served by a young man at the time of the year when the footy season is on, questions like ‘Are you watching the match tonight?’ and ‘Who are you going for?’ are bound to be asked. It’s good to learn a few names of the players too in case the check-out guy takes his time scanning your products.
By far the most memorable small talk I remember took place a few years back when my family and I went to the opening of a newly-revamped picnic area/playground. I was just keeping an eye on my little one, enjoying my cake and coffee when I heard a much hackney phrase, ‘Do you come here often?’ It would have been the cheesiest conversation starter if it hadn’t come from the lips of the very premier of Western Australia at the time, Colin Barnett, who had arrived specially for the occasion to officially open the new ground. I almost dropped my cake, I was so flabbergasted, but after my initial shock and slight unease wore off, we had a great natter about playgrounds and outdoor life in Australia in general. The talk surely wasn’t just small.
Small talk happens close to home on an everyday basis. Unfortunately one of our neighbours must have a very short memory for he always greets me with ‘Lovely day, isn’t it?’ expecting me to stop by for a tete-a-tete each time. In Western Australia we are lucky enough to have nearly 300 sunny days in a year so this statement is valid most of the time and makes a great conversation starter. Finding a varied answer is what I sometimes struggle with now, as I try to reply with something original each time. Fortunately, he’s a keen gardener like myself so gardening is always a safe topic to resort to. And that’s another thing. Whoever you talk to and whatever the circumstances, there will always be something to talk about.
Dog owners are great conversationalists and a funny breed of them too. After a generic starter of ‘He/she is a friendly dog.’ uttered after you’ve been sniffed about or jumped on by their pet, the conversation might continue revolving around canine creatures or turn into an exchange of opinions on any random topic from physical activity, to weather, to latest developments in the town’s infrastructure to lamington-flavoured crisps.
I could go on with my examples but I think I have given you enough to prove my point.
Aussies are very open, friendly, spontaneous chaps willing to engage in the act of talking at any occasion. And one more thing I failed to add before, small talk is not an opportunity to have a whinge or a rant. That would be very un-Australian. A true Aussie thinks life is permanently awesome and will assure you every time you enquire about their well-being that they are good/ fine/ never been better even if they’ve just had a sun stroke, been run over by a ute or bitten by a redback. The optimism of Australian people and their ability to always look on the bright side of life has never ceased to amaze me. An Aussie whose arm has just been bitten off by a great white shark just takes it in their stride and celebrates the fact that they still have three limbs left. True story.
Personally, I think this verbal placebo works really well. A positive affirmation heard and said a few times a day becomes a reality. And so when someone farewells me with ‘Have a great day!’, I wish them the same and think to myself, ‘Do you know what? I will go and have myself a fab day, thank you very much.’
Here are the simplest phrases to start the ball rolling:
- How are you?
- How are you going?
- How’s it going?
- How’s things?
- What have you been up to?
P.S. For those of you who need more proof that Aussies are optimists on steroids, here’s a testimony from Bill Bailey, Britan’s famous actor and comedian.:
The image “50 Shades of G’Day” courtesy of La La Land and the artist: Justine Morrison