You’ve been there before: the awkward conversational moment. You’re trapped, snagged, mired in an exchange with someone that has neither the good graces nor good sense to shut up and leave you alone. Some recent ones for me include:
The long story that reveals itself to be pointless within the first thirty seconds. My favourite example of this is the story that a waitress once told our table of twelve people at a Kelsey’s. I won’t kill you with the details but it took seven minutes to finish and it included the line, “My nephew is half Polish and half Irish, so you can imagine what he thinks about potatoes!” No, I can’t, but I also don’t care to learn.
The “inability to disengage” moment. You’ve run out of common ground, neither of you has figured out a new topic of small-talk, and yet the other person is still standing there, blocking your exit, like a nebbish sphinx that doesn’t like the answer to his riddle. You look fixedly at your computer screen (the computer is off), pretend to shuffle papers at your desk, and check your phone as if it had vibrated with an important incoming call from the Queen of England. (I actually once pretended to die of a heart attack to get out of this one.)
The “sweet-merciful-crap, this person is a raging racist” moment. Just the other day I had one of these ones.
It had been a long day, people were worn out, and an old woman approached me as I started packing my things to go home.
“Thanks for your help today,” she said to me, blocking the exit to the room in a classic “inability to disengage” move.
“Oh, yeah, no problem,” I said. I started shuffling my papers and tapped out an angry message on my closed laptop.
“They were rowdy today.”
“Mm-hm.” I pulled out my cell phone and checked my text messages. There were none. Nor were there any voicemails from the Queen. She never returns my calls.
“I’m not a racist, but—”
Crap. Crap crap crappitty crap crap nuts crap. Never, never in the history of conversation has the phrase “I’m not a racist, but—” ever been followed by something that isn’t rampantly, horrifyingly racist. When a Neanderthal started a sentence with that one you just know that he finished off with something like, “—but try explaining that to an Australopithecus. It’s like they want to stay trapped in the late Tertiary period. And that smell!”
I won’t share the details of what this woman said afterward, but it was sufficiently offensive to leave me muttering incoherent excuses to leave the room. I don’t know why my reaction isn’t to just call someone out on their stupidity, right then and there, but I just can’t make myself do it. I don’t have the stones to say, “Did you really just say that? Do you have any idea how ignorant and backward you sound when you make statements like that? Do you choose to be this way or are you just damaged and dumb?”
She left eventually, still seemingly content in the depths of her racism. And I was left wishing that she had just come in to tell me a seven-minute story about potatoes.