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Running Like Crazy from the Awkward Pause

Chris Carpenter - Director of Internet Programming

You’re standing innocently in a movie theater lobby waiting for your spouse to return from the bathroom. You are mesmerized by the buzz of activity as it swirls from the ticket counter to the concession stand back to a row of brightly colored movie posters. Everything is right with the world as you casually kill time until he/she returns.

Then you see him. But did he see you?

Your eyes suddenly start darting furiously around the lobby, trying to focus on anything but him. It’s too late. As your eyes are doing their fourth sweep of the lobby you can’t help but notice him walking toward you. You consider heading for the nearest exit. But you can’t. Your spouse will never find you. Perhaps you could feign a violent sickness and rush for the bathroom. The only problem is that he would probably feel obligated to come help you, thus making an unpleasant encounter that much more dreadful.

He is now just 10 feet away. You dig your feet into the carpet just a little more firmly, bracing yourself for the inevitable. It is about to happen. You are less than 30 seconds away from … The Awkward Pause.

I for one am a person who absolutely fears the awkward pause. It is not that I don’t have anything worthwhile to say but instead I really don’t feel like extrapolating information from the dark, cobwebbed recesses of my mind just for the sake of a conversation that will drift away into oblivion five minutes after I have had it. Some people have a gift for being a good conversationalist. I am not one of them.

I have expressed my discomfort with many of my friends and family in the pursuit of gleaning some tangible way to improve my conversational discourse with people I don’t want to talk to. Here are some of their suggestions:

1. Pick up on the other person’s last comments to change the course of the conversation into territory you are more comfortable with.

2. State the obvious. Tell the person you are conversing with that ‘Hey, it seems as though we are at an impasse here with this topic. Rather than prolonging the inevitable why don’t we just wish each other well and move on.”

3. Politely excuse yourself from the conversation and then run for the nearest exit.

4. Play the favorite things game. Ex. What was your favorite television show growing up and why?”

5. Fall back to an old standby. “We have been having great weather lately haven’t we?”

Doug Hall, known as America’s #1 idea guru, offers the “Hockey Puck” solution for when you find yourself in a tension filled, awkward conversation. He says that whenever you find yourself in an awkward pause situation, blurt out “hockey puck” in a loud but firm voice. The person you are talking to must then suggest the most ridiculous, obscure reference they can possibly think of.

Hall says the “Hockey Puck” solution eliminates discomfort while stimulating fun and creative ideas. The only problem that Hall fails to mention is, what if the person you are talking to has no inkling as to what yelling “hockey puck” in their face stands for. The reason I bring this up is because it happened to me. Let me explain.

Several years ago, my wife and I were standing in a church’s Fellowship Hall, waiting for my in-laws. It was one of those holiday eve type of services, so most everyone was in a festive, jovial mood. We felt a little bit out of place because we did not know many of the people who attended there. However, they definitely knew us. My father in law has a way of telling everyone and anyone who will listen about all the wonderful things his kids are doing. Apparently Wilfred Upton had been on the receiving end of one of my father in-laws family forays.

When he saw us standing alone, Wilfred rushed over to greet us.

“Well, hello there,” said Wilfred, who was an elderly gentleman, sporting a magnificent set of false teeth. We know this because he refused to stop smiling. “You must be the Carpenters.”

“Why yes we are,” I replied, extending my hand to shake Wilfred’s. “I’m Chris and this is my wife, Mitzi.”

Wilfred smiled broadly as he shook both of our hands. He continued to smile at us even after releasing from our grips. And he smiled some more. He kept smiling.

My mind raced as I tried to figure out a way to get Wilfred to stop smiling at us. I had just the perfect thing to say.

“Pretty good weather we have been having lately.”

“Yes it is but winter is just around the corner I am afraid,” smiled Wilfred. He smiled some more. And after that he continued to smile. He wouldn't stop.

I didn’t quite know what to say. I had now exhausted my weather comment. What now? Of course, I will ask him about his favorite television show.

“So, Wilfred, what is your favorite television show?”

My wife whispered in my ear that she was leaving to go to the car. Obviously, she had opted for the aforementioned Suggestion #3.

Wilfred smiled from ear to ear as my wife excused herself and ran for the exit. When he turned back to me he was still smiling but this time he was nodding his head. Apparently he had really connected with the question I had just asked him.

Gunsmoke. My favorite television show is Gunsmoke.”

Time to incorporate Suggestion #1.

“Gunsmoke huh? That show isn’t on the air any more is it?”

He smiled. Nodding his head ever so slightly, he replied, “Nope … no it isn’t.”

This time I was the one who was smiling. I had absolutely nothing else to say. Furthermore, whose responsibility was it to continue the conversation? Wilfred had started it, I had continued it, but now we were both at an impasse. All we could do was grin foolishly at each other. Neither one of us made any attempt to walk away.

Finally, just when the conversation seemed headed toward an unsettling conclusion, the “Hockey Puck” idea filtered its way into my thinking. What did I have to lose? I had used the weather, the favorite television show question; my wife had even used the rush for the exit idea. All I was left with was Suggestion #2 (be honest and say the conversation is over) but that is rude. So, it was Hockey Pucks or bust.

“Hockey Pucks!!!” I shouted. A few people on the other side of Fellowship Hall glanced over at us momentarily but quickly returned to their conversations. Wilfred adjusted his hearing aid.

Before he could answer, I felt the familiar grip of my father in law’s hand on my shoulder. I was saved. If there is anyone on this planet who has never experienced an awkward pause in a conversation it is him. He closed out my tortured give and take by talking about the big high school football game to be played the next morning.

Wilfred smiled.

But the story does not end there. Two days later, my wife’s entire family and I were heading into a local diner for breakfast when I saw him. Wilfred was standing just inside the door examining several pies in the bakery case. I could do one of two things: head back to the car and hide or try to slip past without him noticing. I opted for the latter.

My foot was barely over the diner’s threshold when Wilfred spun around from the coconut creme he had been gazing longingly at. Extending his hand to greet me, he grinned from ear to ear and shouted, “Hockey Pucks!!”

Several patrons turned to see what the ruckus was. This time I smiled. I was a victim of my own awkward pause.

In Proverbs 15:2, Solomon writes, “The tongue of the wise uses knowledge rightly, but the mouth of fools pours forth foolishness.”

Your tongue, left uncontrolled, may quickly stir up bizarre, sometimes odd reactions in other people. Foolish words can sometimes produce hurt and resentment; or at least varied degrees of misunderstanding. Once spoken, words, and awkward pauses for that matter, cannot be erased.

Rather than trying to create award-winning conversation when it just isn’t comfortable for either one of you, why not just provide kind, gentle responses when appropriate. There will always be awkward pauses, but if you keep yourself under control and not try to be someone that you are not, the rest will take care of itself. You never know, one of these awkward moments could turn into a deep, lasting friendship.

Hockey Pucks!!

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