“What would you like to drink?”
“Have some more nibbles.”
“Have you met my wife, Claire?”
We all know where this scenario is going. It’s the holiday season with dinner parties and works dos. You are introduced to the partner of your partner’s colleague. You are expected to make small talk. Once the weather and Christmas plans have been exhausted, either you are rescued by a wise policy of party intermingling or you are mired in a discussion reminiscent of awkward teenage icebreaker activities and the vein attempts to find something in common.
Yet now there is an added threat to the generic questions of where do you come from and what do you do. For you are a transport planner and you know where this could lead…
“I work for local government in Anytown.”
“Oh? Doing what?”
“You mean like roads and buses?”
“Have you noticed the state of the roads round here? We live on The Street and it is absolutely full of potholes. When it rains, there’s a swimming pool at the end of our driveway.”
Lovely. Aren’t you a great conversationalist. But it could get worse…
“So can you do something about the traffic lights where The Road meets The Avenue? I grew up in this area, you know, and it used to be a mini-roundabout, which worked just fine. I don’t know why they changed it.” Or, if they’re particularly annoying, “I don’t know why you changed it.”
“I didn’t,” you say, because it probably happened before you joined the Council or you work somewhere else entirely. But you can guess the answer. There’s likely been a new housing development, a superstore and a new school all emptying out into that junction over the last 10 years. Has the person noticed the town has doubled in size since they were ‘growing up’? You really know you’re trapped when they start drawing you a diagram on a cocktail napkin. Your only escape is pleading a weak bladder. And then forgetting how to get back to that particular room. There will be other people in other rooms to socialise with. Or if not, that dark, lonely corner definitely has its charms.
So how do you avoid the stigma of being a transport planner at a party? What do you say when people ask you what you do, where you work? Sometimes, I’ve gone for: “This is supposed to be a social occasion. I don’t want to talk about work.” That really makes them feel guilty. Or I try to avoid the follow-up question after admitting I work for local government. Then it’s just a matter of avoiding a complaint about local waste collection.
Of course, the other option is to lie. Parties with strangers are great places to invent a fantasy life for yourself. What shall you pretend you do for a living? Something glamorous? An actor? What if they ask what you’ve starred in and whether they would have seen it? In international business? Will they believe you if you’re wearing nothing posher than an M&S sweater?
Perhaps it’s better to have an average occupation. An accountant? Then what if they ask you for advice on your taxes? An administrator? But who do you work for? A sales clerk? Can you get me a discount? A nurse? Do you have advice on what to take for my ailment? What do you know about that? A bus driver? Uh-oh, back to transport.
No, there’s just no route to a pleasant conversation. On reflection, it seems that other jobs are almost as bad to admit to. The only solution is to go back to the beginning of the conversation and stop it before it starts. Following the weather and Christmas plans, quickly find another safe topic. Time to brush up on your football stats.