The Perils of Polite Conversation

By Mary Tyler

What’s New With You?

I’m a barista at a high end coffee shop in Boston. If there’s one thing I’m good at, it’s small talk. But what do you say to someone you only see once a day for 25 seconds? Do you mention the snow falling outside? Do you tell them their haircut looks great? Do you ask them if they’re having a nice morning? After the usual hellos and how-are-yous have been uttered, inevitably, the four words I dread most come flying right at me: “What’s new with you?”

These words, however amiable and well-meaning they may seem, only serve to make me bristle with unease. What’s new with me? For the sixth day in a row, I’ve woken up at 4:30am, walked 25 minutes in the snow to work, opened up shop, and hoped that I’ll have the energy to practice after my grueling 8-hour shift. I have three auditions coming up in a month that will make or break the next year of my life and I’ve just received the music for one of them. I’ve got to figure out where I’m getting the other half of my rent and I have to write a blog post for the new orchestra I’m a part of. I think I forgot to take out the recycling last night.

“Oh, nothing much. I have some auditions coming up. Can’t complain!”

It’s a response that keeps me safe. It keeps people far enough away that I don’t have to explain myself to them and it keeps them from having to feel sorry for me. But why? What’s so bad about breaking the norms of frivolous conversation? More importantly, why would we ever need to change them?

25 Seconds

In those 25 seconds I have with my regular customers every day, I’ve learned that they are professors, athletes, business owners, students, entrepreneurs, mothers and fathers, architects, chefs, authors, and members of any number of other professions that require a great deal of time, energy, and dedication. With all of our glaring differences (salary, age, experiences, etc.), this is what we have in common: we are all fighting for success. We are all channeled into the narrow tunnel that our dedication has painstakingly carved for us. With every passing day, we all become more expert; more proficient. We have more and more reason to believe that what we’ve chosen to do with our lives was the best thing for us. We are validated. We ignore the rest.

Most of my customers know that I’m a musician. A lesser percentage know that I play the trombone, but every single one of them is fascinated when they found out. “Wow, really?!”, they ask. “Who do you play with?”

My answer: “Phoenix.”

They’ve never heard of Phoenix; most of them rarely go or have never been to an orchestra concert, and I could never hold it against them. How can you expect someone so focused on their own field to enjoy something they know almost nothing about? A good many artists come to my cafe, but I don’t go to their shows because “I don’t know enough to appreciate their work” or something like that. Quite honestly, whatever excuse I’ve given myself is a bunch of garbage. It’s not that I don’t appreciate their work. Of course I do! They’re artists! I’m an artist! They’re passionate! I’m passionate! So what is it that’s keeping me from taking the leap from thinking about going to actually going? Let’s revisit what I was saying earlier.

A Chance to Be Wrong

Why is it so bad to break the norms of conversation with strangers? We’ve been taught that it’s strange to be enthusiastic toward someone you’ve never met. To show someone that you really care about them without actually knowing them is crossing some sort of line that places you in the pigeonhole reserved for those wackos who yell on the subway. In short, it’s uncomfortable.

I don’t tell my customers what’s really going on in my life because it’s uncomfortable, in much the same way that people who don’t think they “get” art don’t go to art shows and the way that people who don’t “get” classical music don’t go to orchestra concerts. We’ve been brainwashed into thinking that crossing that line; going outside of our comfort zone; is in some way going to reveal us for the bumbling idiots we’ve worked our whole lives to avoid being. We ignore vast expanses of experience and knowledge and we avoid what we think we aren’t allowed to know about, all to remain experts in our own tiny corners of the universe. If becoming a member of Phoenix has taught me anything, it’s that this is the most boring way to live.

I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t know if we’re going to bring in a huge crowd in March or if we’re going to be playing for our parents, but I am so excited about our mission precisely because it’s so crazy. When I tell people that we’ll be playing in night clubs and theaters and museum wings and that we’ll have drinks and great choreography, they ask me if that’s really going to make a difference. They don’t think that classical music will ever be anything but “classical music” (see, you knew exactly what I meant by “classical music.”). They know exactly what to expect because they’ve ignored every other possibility. Their expectations have never been challenged because they’ve never dared to be wrong. What Phoenix is offering is the chance to be wrong in the best way possible. We want you to come with the expectation of “classical music”. We want to provoke you into thinking differently. We want you to be wrong. We’re bringing in anyone and everyone who has ever wanted to try something new. We’re challenging every single person to have a blast doing something they never imagined they’d love. We want you to come with us.

It’s not a question of “getting it.” It’s a question of doing it. Phoenix is changing the conversation.

What’s new with me?

I’m a part something that’s going to change the way you live your life. And I definitely forgot to take out the recycling.

Mary Tyler is a trombonist with the Phoenix Orchestra, a new Boston-based ensemble with the mission of “revitalizing the presentation of orchestral music for modern audiences.” This post was originally published on

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