The Secret to Small Talk

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Photo: SuperStock/Getty Images

Eli D’Angelo has a superpower: the ability to win over strangers in seconds flat.

I once watched the gregarious 12-year-old approach a scowling man in a leather jacket and chaps as he secured his Harley in a restaurant parking lot. He didn’t look like he was in the mood for conversation, but his expression softened as soon as Eli complimented his bike. When Eli reached out to hug him, he hugged back.

Even more intimidating was the group of teenage girls Eli once greeted at an after-school soccer practice. With smiles and flattery, he talked them into drawing him a picture of a two-headed guitar-playing zombie who shoots laser beams from his eyes. (The inspiration came from a YouTube video for Eli’s favorite Alice Cooper song.)

You couldn’t pay me enough to approach an unfamiliar biker — or worse, a teenager. The idea of talking to anyone I don’t already know fills me with an acute dread that I’ve channeled into developing my own superpowers: avoiding eye contact and noticing something interesting on the ground. Eli, however, greets everyone exuberantly. He hugs strangers and tells them he loves them.

Eli’s superpower is actually a symptom. He has Williams syndrome, a rare genetic disorder sometimes called “cocktail party syndrome” because it makes people extremely outgoing and irrepressibly friendly. When I first heard of the disorder — before I knew much about the intellectual impairments and serious health issues it also entails — I was envious of the apparent social ease it imparted. An anxious introvert, I usually feel like the most awkward person at any cocktail party. I wanted to learn about the strange genetic disorder, which sounded more like a gift. Really, I wanted to know the secret to making successful small talk.

But the three years I spent shadowing Eli for my new book, The Boy Who Loved Too Much, taught me that perfect small talk itself wasn’t the balm for awkwardness I sought. When people responded warmly to him — and they almost invariably did — it wasn’t because he was a smooth talker. He made mistakes that would have mortified me, like calling people by the wrong name. For a while after I met him, he called me Kenny (instead of Jennie), which I later discovered was his school-bus driver’s name. But every time I showed up at his house, he was so genuinely excited to see me that it was impossible to take offense.

“Hi, Kenny!” he shouted when I came over one Saturday to accompany him and his mother, Gayle, to his special-needs baseball league. “I’m so excited to go to baseball with you! This is the best day of my life!”

Eli did teach me some valuable small-talk techniques. He usually greets new people with variations on the same three icebreakers: “I like your shirt,” “How’d you sleep?” and “Do you have a dog?” Although the formula is his own, the approach could have been lifted straight from an etiquette book: start with a compliment, inquire after the person’s well-being, and then choose a conversational topic you know will appeal. Who among us, after all, doesn’t want to talk about our pets?

But Eli violated the standard rules of etiquette more often than he obeyed them. Once, while out to dinner at Friendly’s, he asked a teenage waitress with severe acne, “What happened to your face? Something bit you?” The waitress immediately turned red. Eli’s tone conveyed real concern, however; his guilelessness was evident. She later accepted his usual bear hug with goodwill.

Another time, he cheerfully told a man with a deep, gravelly voice, “You sound like a monster!” To Eli, whose favorite TV character is Cookie Monster, it was a compliment, and the man seemed to take it in the spirit in which it was intended. Again and again, people forgave Eli’s faux pas and responded instead to the earnestness of his interest in them and the sincerity of his care.

And Eli truly cares about people. He wants to talk to them, hug them, invite them over for a sleepover. He can’t help feeling this way; almost everyone with Williams does. It’s one of the quirks of the disorder, caused by the deletion of about two dozen genes from chromosome seven. The absence of these genes, it seems, produces an insatiable drive to connect with other people.

I met one exceptionally high-functioning woman with Williams, in her early 30s, whose IQ was in the normal range and who spoke eloquently about politics and world affairs. But at one point in our conversation, she reached out and touched my shoulder, then took a step back.

“I have to remind myself to stay an arm’s length away from people,” she said. “Otherwise I get too close.”

And although she told me she loved me within an hour of meeting me, she recognized that I might find this unusual.

“You seem more like the reserved type,” she told me. “Which is good.”

It is good, in some ways. Coming on too strong has never been an issue for me, as it can be for people with Williams, who sometimes alienate others with the full force of their affection. And it has shielded me from the manipulation and exploitation to which they are uniquely vulnerable. Parents have told me heartbreaking stories about people with Williams who’ve been sexually abused, taken advantage of financially, or duped into helping commit crimes. One young man with Williams was recently sentenced to 15 months in prison for loaning $100 to a man he thought was his friend — who spent the money on a plot to bomb a Kansas Army base.

But being reserved also means I miss out on the joys of interpersonal connection that people with Williams live for. More than a preference for limited social contact, my reserve is really an expression of fear. Like many of us, I often lie awake at night replaying every social humiliation I’ve ever experienced. The fear of adding one more item to my humiliation highlights reel keeps me from trying to forge the bonds I might otherwise forge with other people; it’s what makes me a wallflower at cocktail parties.

Eli doesn’t have that fear. He’s never flustered or embarrassed by his mistakes, no matter how often he puts his foot in his mouth.
When I gently reminded Eli that my name was Jennie, not Kenny, he took the correction in stride. He didn’t blush; his bright smile never faded. I, on the other hand, called a co-worker by the wrong name years ago and still cringe whenever I think about it.

Spending time with Eli, and others with Williams, made me realize that this is the key difference between us: It’s not that they’re not awkward, it’s that they’re not afraid of being awkward. They don’t have the fear of looking foolish that holds many of us back. We’re so terrified of that one-in-100 chance of embarrassment or rejection that we avoid the 99 interactions that are more likely to be fulfilling.

Watching Eli throw himself into every social encounter, it occurred to me that, in similar situations, I focus so much on saying exactly the right thing that I hardly pay any attention to the other person. I’m more concerned about how I look to them than I am about getting to know them. Lacking that concern, Eli grasped what has long eluded me: that most people aren’t excessively judgmental. They’re quick to forgive. And more often than not, they want to connect.

I’m no better at making small talk now than I was before I met Eli. In fact, I’m probably more awkward than ever, if only because I’ve started talking to more people. I don’t (always) pretend to be on my phone anymore when I run into my neighbors on the sidewalk; I sometimes ask about their dogs.
The other day I struck up a conversation with a man whose name I could have sworn was Neil, who was very friendly despite actually being named Leo. Momentarily suppressing my terror of teenagers, I even recently offered to take a picture for two girls who were struggling with a selfie.

These are small accomplishments, but they represent a sea change in how I socialize. What I learned wasn’t the secret to engaging banter. It was that putting yourself out there — being open, genuine, and vulnerable in your desire to connect with others — is more important than managing every interaction perfectly.

The Secret to Small Talk