How to master cottage small talk

two men talking and clanging bottles of beer together Photo by George Rudy/Shutterstock

“This year I have to go to the big ‘Winter Festivus’ at my in-laws’ cottage. Situations like these are difficult because I’m awful at small talk, but I don’t want to seem like a weirdo when I meet new people at the lake. What should I say?”

I feel your pain because small talk has not historically been my strong suit (I don’t really care how long it took you to drive here from Picton). But conversing with cottagers on the cocktail circuit has served to put a fine polish on my chit-chat repertoire. I’m guessing that you are either extraordinarily shy or suffer from uncontrollable sincerity, which can make it impossible for some people to engage in idle cottage banter. But there is hope. The first thing to acknowledge is that small talk is not about communication or the honest exchange of ideas. It is instead a mechanism by which to make minutes pass more quickly until either the chicken and ribs have been served or it is time to go home. Whichever comes first.

One way to ease the anxiety of small talk is to remember that it has nothing to do with how smart you are or how good you are at public speaking. Most of the time, people would rather talk about themselves than actually carry on a conversation with little old you, which is a real lifesaver for those who cringe at the thought of social jibber-jabber. Your goal is to merely toss out that first powder-puff pitch and let others fight for the ball. Gatherings of cottagers make this process easy, because all you have to do is mention the weather. Try this the next time you are tongue-tied among cottagers: “Wow! Crazy weather, eh? This must be the hottest/coldest/wettest/driest (choose a season) I can remember.” This will be the last time you will need to speak, as people try to remember when their crawl space flooded or how hot it was the year all the cedars died. Someone will report a statistic like “The last time Mud Lake froze to the bottom was 1987,” whereupon an amateur historian will fact-check this statement with Great-grandpa’s weather log, faithfully updated since the mid-1800s. You, in the meantime, will have time to freshen your drink and get into the spinach dip.

As mentioned, like most everyone else in this world, cottagers want to talk about themselves. Ask lots of questions. If you are visiting a venerable old place, just point out any object or decoration, and you will hear all about how that paddle broke during the hotly contested regatta of 1954 or why Mother keeps all her wine corks in a huge Tiffany bowl. If you are in a newly built cottage and are called upon to chat, ask if construction finished on time. This will lead to a never-ending one-sided conversation, so if you are part of a group, don’t be afraid to sneak off to the restroom or to see about another plate of zesty meatballs.

Children. Dogs. Clean eating. Water levels. Instead of thorny topics to be avoided, these are now precision instruments in your tool kit, allowing you to place the burden of meaningless conversation onto others. So fear small talk no more. But beware: even if you master the twin arts of deflection and evasion, there are certain people at cottage gatherings whose sole job is to seek you out and ruin your summer. They are the “joiner-uppers,” sleek predators who shadow the fringes, looking for unfortunates who stand alone. As with arithmetic and grammar, this is one of those times when rote learning—and a quick response—will save your skin. To the enthusiastic book club lady: “I only read non-fiction. Except for Tom Clancy.” To the relentless lake association recruiter: “I’m trying to open up some parcels of Crown land. How can we work together?” Most difficult to guard against are the pet-project joiner-uppers whose enthusiasms might include miniature beaver lodge models, Druidic re-enactments, or reintroducing the gravel chub to our streams and rivers. Worthy causes all, but how can you defend against such oddball adversaries? It’s a cheap old trick, but do this: point a finger in the air. Loudly say the words “Carpetbaggers! Dilettantes!” Then walk away.

Sometimes, when the going gets tough, I will seek out the oldest person in the room who is able to stand and who is standing alone. It’s a 50/50 prospect, because half of the time, sidling up to an elder at a cottage gathering will get your ear talked off about grandchildren, stupid doctors, the Prague Spring, crooked politicians, and how much they paid for their first Chestnut canoe. The flip side is that you might just encounter an oldster who will nod in greeting but otherwise remain a silent companion. It could be that they are taciturn or suffer from hearing loss. But it is more likely they have grown tired of small talk over the endless decades. It really doesn’t matter because there are two things I know for sure about elderly people: they don’t like standing in lines, and they don’t like cold soup. So when your tight-lipped companion makes a break for the buffet table, follow right along for a pleasant meal, served hot and free from small talk.

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