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When There’s No Safe Small Talk

By Samantha Panepinto

no-safe-small-talk

Small talk is supposed to be straightforward: Isn’t it a nice day? How was your weekend? What do you do? The whole point of it is to fill a small amount of time with polite, uncontroversial topics.

But depending on the circumstances of your everyday life, the answers to those basic questions can reveal more than anyone bargained for, and you can find yourself on the receiving end of opinions, confessions, and manifestos when you were really just trying to grab another sandwich.

I’ve run into this phenomenon for years. I’m a white woman who grew up in the northeast United States, which has led me to spend a lot of time in situations like the one I was in last week: chatting with a squad of middle-aged, wealthy white people at the tailgate for my younger brother’s college lacrosse game.

It’s always an early question in these situations: “Oh, you live in New York City? So exciting! What do you do there?”

And so begin the calculations of how to frame my job, which is writing period education curricula for THINX. The mere mention of this job can inspire discomfort or disgust, and often prompts people to share intimate details about their own periods and everything related therein. I hear about infertility, relationships with mothers, embarrassing moments from middle school. I have to ask myself: Do I want to get into all that right now?

Do I go with the vaguest, most benign answer of “I run an education program for middle schoolers?” I choose this one if I’m tired, surrounded by men, or otherwise disinclined to engage. Then there’s the next level up: “I run an education program about puberty.” A bit more precise, but still fairly safe.

The bomb drops when I mention periods, or the name of the company I work for, “Yes, the one you remember with *those* subway ads.”

That’s when cisgender men start to bow out of the conversation, holding up their hands in an *I surrender* gesture and backing away slowly. Or, if they don’t, they’re often encouraged to, as one woman recently suggested to my dad.

“He doesn’t want to hear this,” she waved him off, before leaning in and telling me about her hysterectomy.   

It’s hard to say what she felt she was protecting. My dad’s innocence regarding the gorier details of a body with a uterus? Her own privacy, even though she’d met *me* barely three minutes before? Had she tried to have conversations about this with her husband, and been shut down? I don’t know these answers, because this extremely personal conversation is the only one I’ve ever had with her.

It’s like I’m an involuntary shapeshifter whose magic works in five-minute increments. In these situations, I morph from casual chitchat partner into therapist, period guru, and secret receptacle.

It’s a unique vantage point, and I’m happy to host spaces for these conversations. The immediacy with which people unload intimate period-related details highlights the need for these opportunities. Clearly, these stories have been looking for an outlet.

It was a slightly different story when I was a middle school teacher at a public charter school in Harlem, my mainstay for the five years prior to joining THINX. Where my current conversations reveal pent-up feelings about menstrual taboos, a year ago they were highlighting systemic racism, stereotypes about blackness and poverty, and the false expertise that white people sometimes get from watching Season 4 of The Wire (excellent TV, but watching does *not* create an expert in urban education). Do the students bring weapons to school? Do your sixth graders know how to read? And the well-intentioned, yet painfully steeped in white saviour-ism. Oh, you’re doing such a good thing!

How to delve into these topics when this conversation is only meant to last five minutes? How to give each of these questions the full answer it deserves without assigning a reading list of Paulo Freire and Michelle Alexander? And without completely fulfilling the stereotype of feminist buzzkill, for the sake of my introverted parents, who have to undergo this socialization ritual on a weekly basis?

I answer imperfectly, as best I can: Yes, sometimes kids bring weapons to school, but it’s almost always so they can feel safer on their commutes. Yes, they know how to read, but often not as well as they should because of things like overcrowding and under-resourcing in their elementary schools. Please stop — I’m not doing a “good thing” by somehow blessing a room of black and brown children with my presence. And to be honest, let’s just say ~certain~ organizations are not helping by getting more “people like me” into the teaching profession. Would you like the long or short version of that particular rant?

These conversations will always be too big for small talk. For those whose jobs, experiences, or identities fall outside the bounds of “polite conversation” (however “polite” is defined in the context), it’s a constant navigation of how much to reveal, and how to answer thorny questions that may follow.

That navigation can be exhausting, but maybe these spontaneous chats are a key part of moving previously taboo topics into the realm of everyday talk.

How do you navigate small talk that refuses to stay in its lane?

Samantha Panepinto is our Giveback Program Associate here at THINX. She runs the THINX EveryBody program: an inclusive, medically accurate, hands-on curriculum about puberty and periods.