The worst thing about Wisconsin’s winter is not only that it sucks, it’s that you’re forced to talk about it.
As I leave behind the cold February wind and unwrap six layers of winter gear, I see Wendy from HR walking into the building. Our eyes meet. I’m terrified, but there’s nothing I can do. It’s on. I’m trapped. It’s time for small talk.
Am I scared? Of course. This is not any kind of small talk, but Wisconsin small talk. And I’m facing Wendy herself, the queen of chit chat. It’s the big leagues. She approaches with the warmest smile, her face slightly tilted. Oh, she’s good. People tremble when poised against her baby pictures. There are rumors of some defenseless souls who have been exposed to up to five of her crochet projects. This is not amateur hour.
“Esteban!” she shouts, opening her eyes wide. “I almost didn’t make it. I have no idea how I actually got out of bed!” she says, pointing at the whirlwind outside. This is why she’s a legend. Not even a “Hey,” no sign of a “how are you” – we’re going straight into the weather. The worst thing about Wisconsin’s winter is not only that it sucks, it’s that you’re forced to talk about it. But I don’t even flinch. I’ve been training. Big smile, hands on the waist, strong eye contact. “The only thing that got me out of bed,” I say, skipping a beat for maximum effect. “was coffee!” She bursts into laughter. Oh, how we chuckle and howl. I’m starting strong. Maybe Wendy from HR has finally met her match.
I’ve been training on my Wisconsin small talk since I arrived to Madison 6 years ago. Nothing prepared me for such professional chit-chat. Sure, everyone’s proud of the Packers, but nobody seems proud of Wisconsinites’ greatest pastime. And as an immigrant from South America I tried too long to avoid it: arriving late to all meetings, speaking Español to my Uber driver, or keeping my groceries under 12 items or less so I can use the self-check out machine at Woodman’s.
Every encounter between any living multicellular form involves a power struggle. Some animals show their teeth, some animals emit incoherent sounds, and others sniff butts. Small talk is nothing but an overly complicated version of the first two. And I felt terrified of playing this game of repartee with such pros. It felt like being tossed in to play basketball with Michael Jordan, or like trying to prove a point using outdated sports references because everything you know about American sports is the 1996 live action/animated classic film Space Jam.
Wendy and I move slowly down the hall and I feel like I’m doing great. She talks about the unpredictability of March, I mention Al Gore, we share a moment of silence for the polar bears. I wonder why people here are so keen on these performances of social comfort. There’s no need for small talk where I’m from. Quito is a relatively big, cosmopolitan city, so that may be part of it. In South America we kiss hello with strangers, quickly compliment each other, and go on our way. There’s no need to establish a social connection when we’re already tightly linked by Salsa music, Catholicism, and all those germs from kissing strangers. Maybe the intensity of these things keeps us on the move. If I wanted to know any personal detail about my coworkers I could just ask my aunt Julia. Here in the US all CIA information is classified, but in Ecuador you can gain access to the Aunt Intelligence Network with a phone call and the promise of some herbal tea.
When Wendy and I reach the end of the hallway and notice we are clearly going in opposite directions, it’s evident neither of us wants to let it go. I refuse to lose. Too much is on the line for me. This is graduation day. I am not going to go gently into the “have a good day.” Defeating Wendy would mean I’m no longer scared of small talk. It means I can look Wisconsin’s weather in its ugly face and say “I understand you. I understand your people.” It means I can feel ok with wearing an orange Styrofoam wedge on my head. But also, I must confess: compared to the freezing gray outside, Wendy’s casual banter is making me feel warm inside. It makes me realize that small talk is the only logical reason why someone would ever settle on Wisconsin.
I couldn’t fathom the existence of early Wisconsin settlers who, after setting up and getting comfortable in the Wisconsin summer, witnessed their first Midwest winter weather. What stopped them from packing up and heading south? I can now guess someone made eye contact and said “Can you believe this weather?” And the extended chatter that followed lasted until the answer was yes, they could believe it now, and it was time to collect berries, and fish, and run from bears or whatever. Wendy helped me understand that. Sure, the weather sucks, but that’s a small price to pay for the ability to connect with your community about how much it sucks. Exactly how much did it suck for you this morning? How much does it suck compared to other years? How hard is it for you to believe in how bad the weather has sucked this season? You answer some of these questions and suddenly you warm up to the idea of a collective embrace.
As far as who won our small-talk competition, no one gave it up. So after 42 minutes and two follow-up emails later, we decided we are getting married. Maybe next May or June, when the weather gets better. We’ll choose a date as soon as we’re done talking about construction on the beltline, which I assume will take a couple more weeks.