Holiday Dread: Small Talk With White People

This year, it will feel more loaded than ever.

Image: Brady Tulk

Small talk. Phatic Communication. Shit-shooting. Whatever you call it, exchanging meaningless decontextualized words as a social grace is a foundational part of human life. And the holidays are a high-volume period of the year for small talk. But if you’re a nonwhite person living in a country that just witnessed the regressive victory of white nationalism, the prospect of mingling at a holiday party and being forced to chitchat with white semi-strangers can feel more loaded than ever.

What do you do? Where are you from? Do you see my very existence as a threat to yours? Where’s the bathroom?

The key to small talk is to remember that it is supposed to be small and harmless. As soon as it turns even slightly towards actual dialogue, it is your choice to either confront it by replying or to confront it by walking away. How do you manage the sadness and paranoia of this first holiday after millions of mostly white people put a con artist in charge of the military? How do you talk in a meaningless, offhand way about this unprecedented new chapter of our national and global history? And most of all, how do you overcome centuries of interracial mistrust so that you can just grouse about LaGuardia Airport for a while?

1. Resist the Urge to Be Funny

If you think of a good joke or witty retort, save it for when you’re telling other nonwhite people about the conversation later. The problem with jokes around white strangers and semi-strangers is that they will either laugh, which will set off a series of panics in your heart about why they are really laughing, or they won’t laugh, which will set off the same series of panics. Alternately, if a white person makes a joke in your presence this holiday season, even if it’s hilarious, smile and nod and go, “Nice.” It comforts white people to evaluate jokes rather than laugh at them.

2. Avoid Conversational Pauses

You know in action movies how a hole in an airplane sucks all the napkins, barf bags, peanuts, businessmen, into it and out towards the abyss like a high-powered vacuum cleaner? Pauses in small talk with white people are like that. They drain all the little knick-knacks of human life out of a conversation, leaving behind the anxious silence of American history. Think of that tremendous pause in Lenny Bruce’s classic bit, “How To Relax Your Colored Friends At Parties.”

Bruce, playing a slightly tipsy well-meaning white guy at a party, introduces himself to a black guest, played by jazz guitarist Eric Miller. After Bruce, full of hyperbolic bluster, introduces himself (“Pleasure indeed!”), a brilliantly timed pressurized cabin of silence expands between them, leaving nothing but an oppressive awareness of racial difference that tinges everything the white guy says. “You know,” come the first words after the pause, “that Joe Louis is a helluva fighter!” Pauses create a kind of panic in white people. And when white people panic, racism is their pacifier.

3. Don’t Discuss the Weather

If the election results are an indication, many white people seem to believe that decades of climate science is a liberal hoax orchestrated to put the oil industry out of business. Maybe you have family that’s been directly impacted by climate change, maybe you are a climate scientist yourself. Whatever the case, if you are talking to a white person, the chances are good that you may be talking to a climate science denier. This makes idle chitchat about the weather a minefield of suspicion. So now when a white person comments on how “gorgeous” the weather has been this year with the lusty guilelessness of a Romantic poet, and none of the dread you’d expect from a person wearing a tee shirt in Buffalo in December, it’s probably best not to discuss your anxiety about climate change.

4. How to Deal With Appropriative Language

White people love using black slang, humor, expressions. In a way, it’s their default form of small talk, their way of commenting on how boring their own form of vernacular English is. You’re used to this by now. Obviously there are levels to this. Words like “yo,” “homey,” “aight,” “baller,” and “what’s up” are so commonly employed in everyday white American life that they are hardly recognized as appropriative, even though they most certainly are. Know your appropriative language threshold. Do you draw the small talk line at “scrimp” or “we bout to turn up”? Be especially wary of the term “woke” when used by well-meaning white people. It is mostly proof that they are good at appropriating black activist language, which is the opposite of wokeness.

5. Native Informing

There is nothing white people love more than hearing something straight from the horse’s mouth. And on issues of race and other “diversity” issues, you, nonwhite person, are often that horse. They love steering small talk towards race when you’re around, even with a question as seemingly harmless and yet patently absurd as “Which did you like more, “Atlanta” or A Seat at the Table?” Be prepared for them to treat the subject of race or racist policing like a topic. To them, you are an opportunity to finally discuss racial stuff with a real racial person. (To many this is your primary small talk value.)

Of course, you know this is not talk-for-the-sake-of-talk. Not an NBA trade rumor. Not a chance of snow. This is your existential predicament, and to respond to such lines of inquiry can often feel like capitulation that your life is of fleeting topical interest. For your own mental health, don’t engage. They will want your take on “Moonlight.” Give it, but refrain from going in depth. They don’t want to hear about how you wept and thought of your wounds and those of your father. Say something like, “A little slow, but I liked it!” Use a chipper voice. Embrace that you are lying. Remember that, by breaking the primary rule of keeping small talk small, they have forced you to lie. Remember that small talk can be a great defense against having a “conversation” “about” “race.”

Bonus Tip: “Cornucopia”

During this holiday season, when white people are silently listening to you engage them in small talk, they usually say the word “cornucopia” in their heads as you’re talking. Cornucopia. It calms white people to imagine a horn-shaped receptacle for assorted produce, spilling its bounty onto an earthen floor. Try it yourself when white people are engaging you in small talk. Cornucopia. See the grapes and squash tumbling out. Isn’t it nice? Never utter the word aloud though. Just keep thinking “cornucopia” as you nod and make meaningless eye contact.

Mik Awake is also on Twitter.

Holiday Dread is The Awl’s series dedicated to the season of joy and other emotions. Previously:

Holiday Dread: Sleeping Arrangements