The art of small talk

HR-MANCocktail functions are a necessary (and painful) evil, suggests Jackson Biko

The swimming pool sparkles like a bed of diamonds. Someone blows a saxophone in a jazz band at the edge of the square, his face puffed and shiny, and I want to steal his red bowtie. The hubbub swirls with woody perfume, nude sandals, tuxedos, white shirts and black cocktail dresses. There are men with confident laughs and a hand touching an arm, and someone saying dishonestly, “Oh so good to see you, you look fabulous!”

It all swirls there under the sky, shored by spicy chicken kebabs, pine-nut salad spears, goats cheese with peppers and almonds, steak and oyster skewers, and I’m suffocating under all this, feeling like I’m drowning in this cocktail do with strange people in suits and their even stranger voices that seem so comfortable with small talk. I want nothing better than to remove my shoes and go and sit at the edge of the pool, feet immersed in the clear blue.

Cocktail functions kill my soul. Oh Lord. Because there is always someone who wants to show you a picture of his children and then you have to say something nice, even when they say, “And this is Lucia, she’s eight,” and you want to say, “Oh, I thought that was your son, Gary.” Or those people who are always pushing a business card in every hand that isn’t holding a flute of champagne, which means at the end of the night, you will sit at your desk and empty your pockets of about 200 cards, some with names like Ambetsa, and you can’t remember if Ambetsa was the one who sells farm fertiliser or is the one who said he named his dog after his mom. Then there are those who lie to you, that you look great: “Have you been working out?”  Or those who call you ‘Jackson’ or worse, ‘Steve’. Those are the worst. Those I want to push in the pool, snout first.

Then of course you are required to ‘work the room’, which means walking around, shaking hands and acting engaged. There are those who do it effortlessly, floating around the room like Bono, smiling, shaking hands, laughing and talking eloquently about anything and everything. Those I also want to push into the pool. Then there are those who show up with a classic watch tucked into their pocket, acting like Sherlock Holmes. Fashionistas. They want to talk about fabric and clothes and things that came out in ‘Fall’.

I only have one rule for cocktail functions: Avoid them. But sometimes you really have to go because of allegiance, relationships, business or just to stay afloat in a big bad corporate city. So I look for someone who looks like they are drowning as well, and together we stand in a cluster of hopelessness and talk about pushing the guy with a cheesy hat in the deep end.