Rewriting the Playbook for Small Talk

Orange hats floated up and peppered the beautiful midday sky. As I looked at them, I realized I had tears in my eyes. In that moment, my son’s baseball team was celebrating their rise from league underdog to glorious championship victors, but that’s not what was getting to me. What was weighing on my mind was the fact that when those hats hit the ground, it would be time to say goodbye.

It would be a goodbye to mid-week dinner conversation as kids ran and laughed wildly in the outfield. Goodbye to Saturdays in the stands, where we’d all gathered to cheer for little boys with big dreams. Goodbye to the rhythm that had finally begun to feel like it was playing my song. Goodbye to the new friends it took me far too long to say hello to.

You see, when the roster hit my inbox months earlier, butterflies took flight in my stomach. Sure, I recognized some of the names. But there were only one or two parents I knew well enough with whom I could talk without feeling like I was starting from scratch with a near-stranger. It’s not that I hate meeting new people; it’s just that, for me as an introvert, breaking into sideline chit-chat is no easy task.

Believe me, I know from experience. This was my oldest son’s fifth year of Little League. Combined, my three kids have been on more teams and in more classes than I can even count at this point. It never gets easier. For me, each season presents a new social challenge.

Come that very first practice, I sent my son, also an introvert, out onto the field. As apprehensive as he was, I couldn’t help but envy him. At every turn, there was someone in charge, telling him where to go and how to engage with his peers. His love of baseball had him diving deep into each task, and the little conversation that took place with his teammates happened effortlessly, in the quiet moments between the action. But for me in the stands, among the spectators? It wasn’t that simple.

Don’t get me wrong, every parent was perfectly friendly. And I think they would say the same about me. We all warmed up by introducing ourselves and talking about our kids’ schools, siblings (maybe they would become friends this season too!), and how the team was shaping up. But making this kind of idle conversation in a crowd for a couple of hours is far from effortless for me. My mind races to fill the silence, and rather than making a connection, I often find myself exhausted, tripping over my own words. And so, just like my son’s coaches, I’ve developed a strategy for how to succeed.

Each game day, as I headed for the stands, I approached the crowd carefully, looking to find a spot that would allow me to be part of the group as well as give me a bit of breathing room. While it certainly would have been easier for me to sit far off to the side—to avoid giving people a glimpse of how awkward I can be sometimes—I did my best to join the crowd. Not out of social pressure, but because of my kids. While one was on the field, the other two were often by my side, watching my every move. And given that all my children have varying degrees of introversion, it’s important they learn a few failsafe getting-to-know-you conversation topics and basic social graces, e.g., how to make eye contact when speaking with someone. At times, when people tried to draw them into the discussion, they’d squirm in their seats not sure of the right thing to do or say. I’d share an empathetic smile with them since I felt often that way too.

That being said, I’ve come to realize that although I might have engaged in sideline conversation for my kids’ sake in the beginning, through the years, I came to see that some of my favorite people were the parents I was next to in the stands year after year. Sometimes we’ve cheered for the same team, sometimes the opposite, but either way, I found we had far more in common than I ever would have guessed. We’ve connected off the field, celebrating milestone moments and grieving life’s biggest losses together. We’ve leaned on each other to become better parents, better friends, and better people. And it all started with a few innocuous comments up there in the bleachers, during downtime between innings.

This isn’t to say I played the social game expertly all the time. There were moments when the words and the confidence didn’t come, when I leaned too heavily on my kids’ demands for my attention as an excuse to exit conversations, or when I cursed my lack of ability to engage in something more interesting than surface chit chat. But I tried not to let those linger and bring me down the next time I climbed those bleachers. Instead, I held tight to my wins, the times I connected, the times the ballfield faded away and I felt like I was at a table for two, getting deep about the strife and triumph of everyday life. I never let myself forget that there are real friends to make out there in the crowd if I keep pushing through to the good stuff.

And that clear June day, at the end of a particularly tough season? There was a whole lot of the good stuff. My son was far from tentative as he embraced his teammates-turned-buddies, and I felt confident doing the same with the parents in the stands. We’d both ventured outside of our comfort zones this season and were walking away with victories—ones that had nothing to do with the numbers on the scoreboard.

And we’ll do it again next year. Because while it’s sometimes hard for us introverts to say our hellos, it’s well worth it when we find it’s even harder to say our goodbyes.