February 18th, 2016

Small talk: a how-to

Social media keeps offering me this article about how small talk is bad and getting into serious, important, emotional conversations is where are our interactions should start, not end. Which I think, with all due respect, is garbage. In the best light, this sort of thinking comes from a place of desiring genuine connections with fellow humans, which of course is a great thing to want. But it also speaks of not wanting to put in any effort–the effort to learn where a person puts their emotional energy, where they are guarded or vulnerable, where they would be comfortable speaking deeply and where they’d prefer to stay on the surface. This idea that we can demand an instant connections, brave emotional honesty and all that entails, from our fellow humans, is a big red flag for me.

When I was dating, some of the fellows I went out with occasionally opened a first date with the baffling line, “Gawd, I hate dating.” After I had heard this a few times and stopped being paralyzed by it, I started making a gesture to leave the room, sometimes muttering, “Well, you asked me out.” Similarly, when someone says to me that they hate small talk, my inclination is to respond, “Ok, sure, so would you like to start with the existence of God, or how you lost your virginity?”

I don’t have a lot of patience with these sorts of comments. I resent the idea that it’s too much work to get to know me, that finding out what I’m like and whether we have things in common would be something this person would skip if he or she possibly could. It’s like saying “It’s too far to get to Spain–I wish it could be just 20 minutes away.” But then it wouldn’t be Spain.

Small-talk can be awkward or embarrassing, or very boring, but it can also be as fascinating and full of personality as any late-night revelation. And it’s very very hard to make new friends without it. Hell, with the person I know best in the world–my husband–a majority of our conversation could be considered small-talk. Since I already know most of his life story, secrets, dreams, goals, and ideals, we tend to talk about whatever has happened since the last time I saw him, often only a few hours before. How is that book you are reading, what did you have for lunch, who was at the party, and what did you dream about last night are some of our classics, and I rarely find the answers less than interesting, at least a little.

So for those whose small-talk contempt is born of fear and not a genuine dislike of talking to other people, here are some good ways to get into it…

How has your day been so far? This one works in any context. The most obvious is someone you see often, like a family member or colleague, but it can be fun to ask someone you just met at a party, or an old friend you haven’t seen in years, or the barista making your coffee. It allows for an answer that is as specific or general as the speaker likes, and unlike some other queries, could never be interpreted as prying. You get to present whatever info from the day you think is relevant, from your health, kids, and work, to a book you read or a fluffy cloud you saw. Using it in the long form, as opposed to, “How are you?” kind of hits home the idea that you genuinely want to know, and cuts down on the “Fine and you?” responses, though you’ll still get those from time to time.

Whereabouts do you live? What’s it like there? This is a great generic question, everyone’s asked it and been asked a million times at work, at events, at parties, but the thing is, there’s a lot of really cool stuff to be said here. Everyone lives where they live for a reason, and I’m curious to know what those reasons are. Are you near all your childhood friends’ houses? Are there lots of old-growth trees in the yards? What’s the neighbourhood like? What are the good restaurants around there? Where do you get your bike repaired? This one can go on for ages without getting boring.

How do you know the hosts? Obviously, this one works only at parties, but it’s a great icebreaker, because you learn something relevant about the person you’re talking to–where s/he works or lives or went to school, whatever the common element is. Sometimes you also get to learn something new about whoever invited you to this party, like you didn’t know she was on a tennis team or that her work had certain elements to it. You get to know BOTH people better, and hopefully the conversation spins on from there.

Working on any cool projects these days? I ask this one most often at my actual job, where the names of projects will have tonnes of meaning for me, and I’ll be able to ask pertinent questions. But I also ask my colleagues in the creative world this one–it’s less scary than “What are you writing?” or “Did you finish your book yet?” It also allows people to talk about projects that they care about that might not have the status of “work” or a “job”–renovating their homes, teaching a child to bake, learning French. I genuinely love to hear about people’s work, but I’ve learned asking “What do you do?” can be a threatening question to those who don’t like their jobs, are un(der)-employed, or don’t work in a traditional sense. This version of the question allows the speaker to talk about what genuinely matters to him or her.

Have you read any good books lately? This is a question I’m always interested in the answer to–I may even write it down for later purchase if someone speaks passionately enough. I have found I need to judge this question pretty carefully, because some people who don’t read a lot of books find it a bit intimidating–“good movies” or “good tv shows” can work just as well. In these days of highly niche content, it’s unlikely that two people will like all, or even mostly the same stuff, but it’s always inspiring to hear about new things, and hopefully find some commonalities in there somewhere.

How did things work out with X? This is a fantastic question, because it shows not only are you interested in talking to this person, you remember what s/he said last time you spoke. That’s huge–it can be so baffling if I update people on elements of my life and then when I see them again, I need to start from scratch. This is a good question to ask because you automatically know this is a topic the person is comfortable and interested in discussing, be s/he has before. And you get to find out another chapter in a story you have been following, which is always cool.

An unusual but not prying question: At my age, everybody’s asking “Do you have any kids?” which is a fine and interesting question, but it comes up a lot. I am a huge pet person, and I found when I started asking “Do you have any pets?” I got REALLY good answers. It’s just not most people are expecting at a party or a business meeting, and yet at the same time, not really personal or intrusive. People who do have pets love to talk about them, but the thing I’ve found was that people who don’t have pets still put some thought into giving an interesting answer. They talk about pets they want to get someday, animals they know in other contexts, and their childhood pets (the VP of my department told me a great story about the cat she loved as a child!)

There’s a billion more interesting questions you can ask people that will both set them at ease and draw them out–and then you can gradually go deeper and more personal if the person seems receptive. Or not. I know plenty of people with whom I can fill a good couple hours with the above questions and feel as deeply connected as when I’m talking about true love and fear of death.

The commonalities here are all of the above are questions, not demands–“Tell me how you knew you were in love!” or statements–“Here’s the interesting thing about me.” It doesn’t always work, but usually when I show genuine interest in who a person is and what’s going on in his or her life, the conversation goes good places–big or small.


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So Much Love by Rebecca Rosenblum

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