Let's talk about talking
August 18, 2018 10:17 PM   Subscribe

 
I was tempted to include a couple of other conversational dichotomies that I've noticed in the OP, but I don't really have any articles or anything to back them up, they're just from my own observation: "topic centered" versus "conversation" centered, and "self-centered" versus "other-centered."

"Topic-centered" conversers want to talk about things that they and their conversation partner know a lot about. They enjoy telling stories, giving recommendations, and just generally telling you about what interests them. To them, conversation is a means to an end- sharing and gaining knowledge and information.

"Conversation-centered" conversers, on the other hand, see conversation as a low-stakes tennis match: they stick to tried-and-true topics associated with the context in which they're meeting the person, and make responses according to their partner's responses. To them, conversation is a social ritual with specific rules and is less about the actual content of the conversation as much as the act of conversing itself- a sort of "social grooming".

This dichotomy is less rigid than the others- a person may be conversation-centered at an office party but topic-centered at an interest meeting. Nevertheless I do think there's something in this distinction.

I remember reading a quite popular tumblr post that went something like "it makes me so sad when someone's talking about something they love and you see their eyes light up and then they abruptly stop and say something like 'I'm boring you aren't I' because you just know someone told them at some point that their interests were something to be ashamed of." On the other hand the comments on this article (on how autistic people can struggle with being 'too much' in their interests) quite clearly showed that there are a lot of people who think topic-centered conversers are self-centered and rude.

And the other dichotomy, which I've got even less evidence for but nevertheless still hold to be true: "talk about yourself, and have the other person talk about themselves, because talking about yourself is how you show the interesting parts of yourself, and asking people questions about themselves is invasive and rude" versus "don't talk about yourself, instead ask the person about themselves, because that's how you show that you're interested in them and not self-centered and if they're a good conversational partner they'll do the same."

As someone with a great deal of social anxiety I have to say these sort of dichotomies mess me up constantly! If I ask that question about that person's job, will I come across as prying or interested? If I talk about something that interests me will I come across as self-centered or as interesting? If I stick to a safe small-talk topic will I come across as boring or as socially adept? And the answer to all of those questions is "it depends on the person you're talking to." But there's really no way to figure out that out on a first impression, or even a third or fourth impression, and in any case by then the other person has already labeled you as "rude selfish interrupter" or "boring pryer".

But I guess one of the nice things about noticing these conversational patterns is I'm much more forgiving of people who sit on other parts of the divide. It can indeed be nice and soothing to talk about something as reliably unreliable as the weather, and nice to exchange deep dark secrets with a stranger you'll never see again, and nice to let someone ramble about their lives and interests and thus discover things about them you might not have thought to ask about, and nice to have a spirited fast-paced exchange where interruptions happen at the rate of a dozen per minute. Each particular combination of conversational traits has a certain character to it, a character I wouldn't be able to enjoy if I were too quick to label it as pathological.

(Not that I'm saying that there aren't asshole conversers- there are, and they're mostly people who don't reciprocate: those who talk at length about themselves but don't pay attention to the other person when they do the same, or those who interrupt but get angry at interruptions. But all in all I don't find that I meet very many of those people.)
posted by perplexion at 10:28 PM on August 18, 2018 [61 favorites]


I’m American and I think I do small talk very well, thank you. I pride myself on it, considering I grew up in New England, where you Do. Not. Talk. to strangers. It’s impolite and uncomfortable. But I, at one point, wanted to make people uncomfortable, so I honed the skill. Then I moved where small talk was more accepted and I kill at it. I can talk about the elevator while inside the elevator, the sandwich line while in the sandwich line, and the weather with anyone at any time. I should put this shit on my resume. You would just never know I hate most people.

* I don’t hate most people, I just prefer being alone. I’m sure a psychologist would say I actually just hate myself, anyway, and am projecting.
posted by greermahoney at 11:02 PM on August 18, 2018 [56 favorites]


As someone with severe social anxiety, I need to stay away from posts like this, but that first article is seriously the worst—people who feel entitled to a University of Chicago application essay within five minutes of meeting. I do think I’d enjoy meeting the writer of the second article because I have a lot to say about both the weather and the F train.
posted by betweenthebars at 11:18 PM on August 18, 2018 [28 favorites]


every goddamn one of these theses about what conversation is all about is like a gentlemen's club roundtable debating the proposition that a novel is defined as a story about a man who goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes and gets eaten by a bear on his way home. only the unimaginative chafe at working within these formal restrictions handed down by tradition, for you can have any number of different novels: one only has to make them benson & hedges instead of lucky strikes & make it a grizzly instead of kodiak. an infinitely versatile art form.

and then the coterie in the corner says No indeed, bears do many things besides only eating men on their way homeward from the convenience store and a novel can be about any of the things, just so long as it is made up entirely of rhyming couplets. and eventually they come to agree that there must be two different kinds of novels. both valid! the bear's the important thing and we all agree about that.

like

"Topic-centered" conversers ... To them, conversation is a means to an end- sharing and gaining knowledge and information.

"Conversation-centered" conversers, on the other hand, see conversation as a low-stakes tennis match: they stick to tried-and-true topics associated with the context in which they're meeting the person, and make responses according to their partner's responses. To them, conversation is a social ritual with specific rules and is less about the actual content of the conversation as much as the act of conversing itself- a sort of "social grooming"


both of these typed verbal behaviors are about equally intolerable and neither of them rises to the level of conversation. the first can be replaced with reading a book, and the second can be replaced with a series of hearty handshakes and awkward smiles. and I say replaced with, but I mean improved by.
posted by queenofbithynia at 12:48 AM on August 19, 2018 [21 favorites]


I grew up in New England, where you Do. Not. Talk. to strangers. It’s impolite and uncomfortable. But I, at one point, wanted to make people uncomfortable
Spoken like a true New Englander
posted by DoctorFedora at 12:48 AM on August 19, 2018 [18 favorites]


Mu. Unask the question, and leave me the fuck alone.
posted by darksasami at 12:59 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


I had to do a class on how to have a basic conversation, so take this with a grain of salt, but:

"don't talk about yourself, instead ask the person about themselves, because that's how you show that you're interested in them and not self-centered and if they're a good conversational partner they'll do the same."

my understanding of why you don't talk about yourself is because it is very easy to talk about yourself, and thus it's very easy for your conversation partner to talk about themselves, and if you remember to ask your partner about themselves it makes things easier for them and you've got an obvious go-to point when the conversation needs a place to go.

I would not go to the internet to ask people to define how conversations work, though. If you genuinely need the help, I'd get a book written by an actual expert in social development.
posted by Merus at 3:02 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


I love the actuary's story. I did my own version of that in my early 20s. I thought a good conversation starter was to ask the other person to tell me about the most interesting thing of the day. Didn't work very well. Conversation became gonversation.

Nowadays, the conversation starters are much more contextual; I rarely meet new people outside of my workplace/neighbourhood, so there's already plenty to discuss regarding those things.
posted by rustipi at 3:23 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Merus: I've heard this advice framed as "Ask the person about themselves because of course everyone loves talking about themselves", and I'm like ?????? No, not everybody loves talking about themselves. No, it is not easy for everybody to talk about themselves. Yet it's a very widespread myth. I actually think asking people about themselves is impolite (outside of contexts like job interviews and the like, but even there it's very scripted and both sides know what's expected) – information about yourself is part of you, as a human being, so ideally you'd only share it out of your own initiative.

Even when doing small talk for the sake of it, there's plenty of themes that don't involve asking your interlocutor about themselves. It helps if you live in a place with weather, public transport and horrible urban development plans :)
posted by Vesihiisi at 3:26 AM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


"Question and answer is not a civilized form of conversation." - Stephen Maturin

it me
posted by obliviax at 3:35 AM on August 19, 2018 [9 favorites]


my understanding of why you don't talk about yourself is because it is very easy to talk about yourself

Christ no. I dunno, maybe for a lot of other people, but Jesus fuck no, that is certainly not universally true.
posted by Dysk at 3:55 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


"Lovely weather we're having, eh?"
posted by Fizz at 4:57 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


I mean, the silver lining of all this disagreement is that people usually do an okay job of self-sorting on it. People who find me intolerable to talk to will mostly stop talking to me and go do something else, and leave me with the people who think I'm nice to talk to.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:13 AM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


I feel like I'm in a funny place with a lot of this stuff, though. I'm autistic but I learned young to cover well. And sometimes I think that makes me less tolerant even than allistic people are of stereotypically autistic conversation styles. Like, "You fucker. I had the ability to talk enthusiastically about my interests beaten out of me. Why do you still get to do it?"
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:21 AM on August 19, 2018 [39 favorites]


A good conversation is about involvement, engagement, sharing. As an otherwise introverted person, I enjoy wading into situations where someone is basically giving a speech and turning it around to being about the others present, then backing out to listen. I also love hearing about others’ life experiences and so have worked at good opening questions that let folks just unwind. I’ve learned a lot along the way and I think others have, too. At a recent school reunion I found the loneliest-looking person in the room and drew them into a riveting account of their stellar military career. And at a family dinner where the older folks were expounding, I threw out a few questions that lit up a quiet young niece who’d spent most of the evening in silence; she proceeded to blow everyone away with an account of an adventure nobody knew she’d had and the evening ended with a lively discussion of same.

More than once I’ve been told “you’re interesting because you’re interested.” Curiosity is the gift that keeps on giving!
posted by kinnakeet at 5:22 AM on August 19, 2018 [26 favorites]


Mmm hmm.
posted by srboisvert at 5:39 AM on August 19, 2018 [18 favorites]


I had to do a class on how to have a basic conversation

I need to hear more about this, was it, like, court-ordered
posted by escabeche at 5:42 AM on August 19, 2018 [27 favorites]


How about that local sports team?
posted by humuhumu at 5:49 AM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


You gotta wonder why he's an actuary. If I met him, I'd ask him about his job.
posted by Obscure Reference at 5:55 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I would find both of these people hard to deal with but mostly the first one. He has decided it's more enjoyable and rewarding to pursue conversations his way and doesn't seem to have made any effort to understand why some people (women he's on a date with, maybe), might have very legitimate reasons to not trust a stranger quite so readily with their stories - and they might still be very worth getting to know. He wants to jump to the fun part without establishing that he can be trusted. Though to be fair, though a woman, I probably would have said something similar in my 20s.

The writer of the second story kind of assumes that anyone who doesn't want to do small talk is only having a problem with it because they don't get it. But at least she's willing to make adjustments without getting offended.

Not very long ago there was an FPP about how different subcultures have different expectations for conversation. I can't find the link now, but in some places/groups it's rude to ask people questions about themselves - it's prying and shows a lack of good boundaries. In some places/groups it's rude to NOT ask people questions about themselves - it suggests self-centeredness.

After reading that I decided my goal was to become more flexible - more able to recognize the subculture I'm operating in and adjust accordingly.

Ah-ha! Here's the link.
posted by bunderful at 6:23 AM on August 19, 2018 [12 favorites]


I respond to people who enjoy small talk much as Kronar responds to sparkle sticks.
posted by delfin at 6:31 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


So, in hoping to learn to surf and practise yoga, was Tim Boomer hoping to get his conversation skills above well actuary?

(I'll get me coat)
posted by scruss at 6:34 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


The first guy and I would not get on. Frankly, I distrust people who open their hearts immediately. I don't need to know your deepest darkest secrets and feelings when I first meet you, or even soon after, that's a massive over-share. I feel like it so often indicates a love of drama or a lack of boundaries or often both. Maybe I'm too harsh, but I tend to avoid those people.

Small talk is how you feel the other person out - are they sane? are they super judgemental? Are they rabidly right-wing, or prone to pushing boundaries, or casually mean in a bunch of different ways? You know, before you trust them with any information that could actually hurt you.
posted by stillnocturnal at 6:38 AM on August 19, 2018 [34 favorites]


I distrust schemes of conversation. I know someone who spent a decade as a taxi driver and had decided that passengers liked a bit of chat while taking them to their destination (this occasional taxi passenger does not). He plotted out a few general conversational frameworks and launch points depending on the passenger (student, retiree, white collar type) and the situation (thunderstorm, airport trip, nightclub).

He discontinued this after he discovered that’s he would occasionally pick up someone and have the exact same conversation he had had with them eighteen months ago and also a year before that.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 6:53 AM on August 19, 2018 [12 favorites]


He discontinued this after he discovered that’s he would occasionally pick up someone and have the exact same conversation he had had with them eighteen months ago and also a year before that.

I may have had a couple of rides with your acquaintance ... on subsequent days, though.
posted by bunderful at 7:00 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Small talk makes me want to scream with boredom, and not only I don't think biographical fragments or bits of emotional disclosure are interesting, I don't even think they are revealing. They are marks of what people would like to think about themselves, like clothes or accessories.

What I want to hear are your thoughts about things that interest you. I understand if you don't think very much or if nothing but yourself interests you very much, but maybe then I could just read my book and you could stare at your phone. But if, for example, you love air conditioner motors and think about them all the time, I want to hear about it, because I will learn more about you by listening to your vocal tones and looking at your face when you talk about something you love than I would from any amount of anecdotes and pretend psychotherapy.

Also, if it wouldn't bore or burden you, I think a lot about classification systems, natural kinds, martial arts, deliberate ambiguity, and relations between these subjects, and like to talk about them. I personally am not very interesting, but I think about some interesting things. Insofar as my life and character are interesting, they are interesting as occasional illustrations of other interesting things. I strongly suspect that much the same is true of you.
posted by ckridge at 7:05 AM on August 19, 2018 [16 favorites]


I need to hear more about this, was it, like, court-ordered

The situation is far less interesting than you're thinking, and I wouldn't want to take that away from you.
posted by Merus at 7:15 AM on August 19, 2018 [8 favorites]


I took a class in smalltalk once. Well, only the first third of the class was on it; the rest of the semester was on Prolog and ADA.
posted by octothorpe at 7:29 AM on August 19, 2018 [14 favorites]


Also who in the fuck thinks demanding a stranger perform a song for them is "small talk."

In my experience, about every tenth man I walk past while carrying an instrument.

It is a skill and there are unspoken rules. Keep it light, don't bring up anything rude or contentious

Someone tell Midlands taxi drivers about that. The number of times anti-immigrant bollocks or outright racism have been tried as conversation starters when I've been in taxis...
posted by Dysk at 7:33 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


I am dying for ride-sharing applications to include a feature in the app that allow a user to indicate that they are or are not feeling chatty today.
posted by Thistledown at 7:35 AM on August 19, 2018 [25 favorites]


You may be in luck: Lyft might build a ‘zen mode’ to let drivers know you don’t feel like chatting

Personally I've always enjoyed my conversations with Lyft/Uber drivers but Pittsburgh is a chatty city.
posted by octothorpe at 7:41 AM on August 19, 2018 [7 favorites]


It seems strange to me that people ever developed the custom of "small talk first" because it's such a sad waste of our short lives. Imagine what it would be like if every encounter with another person was a chance to learn something new and interesting about what life is like for other people or get something new to think about. I'd love to live in a world where normal conversation openers with strangers were things like, "Do you believe in God? Why or why not?" or "Do you think most parents have a favorite child?" or "I've been thinking a lot about free will and I'm coming to the conclusion that it doesn't really exist." Yes, of course it would weird you out if someone came up to you today and said something like that, but that's because it's not normal in our society. Wouldn't it be better if it were normal? It wouldn't even have to be deep, soul-baring stuff. It could be "Do you like crunchy things in ice cream and candy bars or does that sort of ruin them for you?" or "Did you ever find something interesting on the beach?"

No one else I've expressed these thoughts to has ever agreed with me. They say, "You have to get to know someone first before sharing things that are too personal." And I don't get it. I really, really don't get it to an extent that makes me feel like I'm from another planet. If it's a complete stranger, who even cares? You should feel comfortable saying anything to a complete stranger, right? I mean, in a hypothetical world where saying anything that came to mind was normal? If it's someone you know and are going to see regularly, of course there's a risk that you'll say something that makes them like you less. But learning more about other people's thoughts and feelings always makes me like them more. It's really that way for everyone, isn't it? I think we would all like each other more if we spent more time talking about what we really care about.
posted by Redstart at 7:42 AM on August 19, 2018 [7 favorites]


not only I don't think biographical fragments or bits of emotional disclosure are interesting, I don't even think they are revealing. They are marks of what people would like to think about themselves, like clothes or accessories.

You don't think people indicating what they'd like to think about themselves is revealing?
posted by asterix at 7:43 AM on August 19, 2018 [9 favorites]


And I don't get it. I really, really don't get it to an extent that makes me feel like I'm from another planet. If it's a complete stranger, who even cares? You should feel comfortable saying anything to a complete stranger, right?

Because sometimes what you reveal about yourself makes a stranger hate you and want to hurt you? Or just the act of sharing anything at all is taken as a sign that they are entitled to fuck you?
posted by schadenfrau at 7:53 AM on August 19, 2018 [43 favorites]


I tend to think about appropriate conversation at various levels of acquaintance as being more about tone than topic. I could tell a lighthearted version of a story about myself to someone I barely know and have an enjoyable, non-boundary-crossing conversation about it; I could tell the same story at a much deeper level to a close friend, where the boundaries would be different. My story of why I live where I currently live has many different versions, all true and all fact-compatible, depending on how close I am to the person I'm telling it to. Ditto for more abstract or theoretical topics.

I don't think "small talk" is bad, because I agree there should be some sussing-out of compatibility and safety, but I think topics like the weather and traffic are just inherently boring 95% of the time. One can talk lightly about more interesting topics.
posted by lazuli at 8:02 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


Yeah, all of these examples require a degree of homogeneity and tolerance ( note: and, not or) that we don't have. And that's not even getting into the sexual aspects.

E.g., for nontrivial fractions of the world, your answers are going to be, I don't know, I can't eat ice cream because I'm lactose intolerant. Or, I don't know, I don't have the money and spare time to wander around beaches looking for things.
posted by meaty shoe puppet at 8:41 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


And I don't get it. I really, really don't get it to an extent that makes me feel like I'm from another planet. If it's a complete stranger, who even cares?

That's exactly why I want no conversation with strangers, with smalltalk being something I am sometimes forced into as the least objectionable option. They're complete strangers, who cares, so why bother with any conversation at all?
posted by Dysk at 8:47 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


How do you tell apart strangers and friends you don't know yet?
posted by hat_eater at 9:06 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


If I don't know them yet, they aren't friends. They could potentially become friends, I guess, but that's not even slightly the same thing.

I'm not hurting for friends. At any rate, being willing to tolerate my not always being up for talking is a prerequisite.
posted by Dysk at 9:11 AM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Actuary guy is describing pick up artist techniques. Ask strange probing questions, bring a prop, keep the mark off-balance, maintain control.

As an introverted person, I used to hate small talk because it seemed pointless but i realized that many of the most enjoyable times I’ve had were spent in such pointless chatter. It’s not about information, sometimes it’s just dogs sniffing each other’s asses and sometimes it’s play and sometimes it’s just being.
posted by rodlymight at 9:13 AM on August 19, 2018 [21 favorites]


I hate these threads. I’m a moderately gregarious person, but, apparently, there is no conversational gambit that won’t alienate a large segment of the population. Then I get called rude for sitting and texting the people I know want to talk to me.
posted by GenjiandProust at 9:14 AM on August 19, 2018 [18 favorites]


They're complete strangers, who cares, so why bother with any conversation at all?
From stranger to stranger, is this one of those self-referential contradicting sentences?

Coming back to the post, great contrast between the two first articles. First author demands deep conversation in payment for a trip, and in the context of a man dating/interviewing/selecting women, and the second one hopes for some chit chat from a gym acquaintance.

"Chit chat" as unoptimized inefficient conversation just seems like the wrong way to look at things.

I'd rather think of chitchat as the sauce that goes with the main dish... Just sauce is not a good way to sustain yourself, but just chicken can be a bit dry to swallow.
posted by haemanu at 9:17 AM on August 19, 2018 [7 favorites]


Blue is the best! No, red is the best! Fight fight fight!

Seriously, these sorts of point/counterpoint arguments which present a universal behavior (conversing) as having only one of two forms which are in dire opposition to one another is so breathtakingly tiresome and pointless that it makes me want to smash something. If you think your One True Way Of Talking is The Right Way, you are wrong. QED. People are different and have differing levels of comfort sharing personal information, along with differing levels of comfort talking about random, banal things. Nobody is wrong or bad for having a certain conversational style. That style may be incompatible with your style. GIANT WHATEVER EMOJI. Not everyone gets along.
posted by grumpybear69 at 9:19 AM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


I distrust schemes of conversation. I know someone who spent a decade as a taxi driver and

former cab driver here, and I couldn't agree more. What I learned without even thinking about it is the profoundly obvious "Everybody Is Different". Some people want to talk. Some people want you to talk. Some people don't want any talk. Some people are like immediate long time friends. But jump ahead four hours and those same people may be completely different people now ... after a few drinks, a fight with their partner, a successful meeting, whatever. Humans are complex even as they appear simple ... and vice versa.

All that said, a cab isn't exactly a level playing field. The customer is the client. The customer is paying for the time in question. Yet the driver remains captain of the proverbial ship.

A few things I did learn are covered in a comment from this old thread:

three questions I almost never ask anyone are:

Where are you from?
What do you do?
Are you married (or in a long term relationship)?

If they want you to know, they'll bring it up. If they don't there are seven billion [squared] other things for two strangers to talk about, starting with the weather.

posted by philip-random at 9:24 AM on August 19, 2018 [13 favorites]


I grew up in New England, where you Do. Not. Talk. to strangers. It’s impolite and uncomfortable.

Maybe I should move there. Or to Finland.

My company used to have this sales guy who always wanted to draw people into conversations, and by that I mean "tell me all about your personal life and what you believe and your first childhood memory and..." oh come on dude, we're in an elevator, this isn't our third date or something. He decided because I didn't like talking I must be a hard worker -- but that only meant he tried to flatter me and then draw me into conversation, which was worse. I really wasn't sorry when he moved on somewhere else.

On those other links, I missed the thing about positive and negative politeness. I'm absolutely on the negative politeness side. You stay out of people's way and they stay out of yours. I feel like people more into positive politeness, trying to do their thing, can wind up violating negative politeness -- and people like me who assume everybody values their own little privacy bubble might be seen as rude for not doing the other thing.

Life. It's awkward.
posted by Foosnark at 9:27 AM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


I work in sales, so I love small talk, it is an essential part of my job really, being able to sit down for a meal with someone I don't know all that well and grab hold of some small thing to drive a conversation based on limited bits of information. I find using small clues like, "I noticed a Red Wings banner in your office, you a hockey fan?" is a great way to make people comfortable talking in a way trying to force deep conversation like the first article suggests otherwise makes people clam up.

The first article brings up, then seems to reject out of hand, the idea that small talk can lubricate the way into deeper conversation later down the line. If you'll excuse the crude analogy, the first article reminds me of a guy who wants to skip foreplay altogether and get right to banging away, regardless of whether it makes the (conversation) partner uncomfortable or not. I travel with work colleagues all the time; some I've developed genuine friendships with where we do have the type of deep conversations the first author prefers, but only over time of getting to know one other and gaining that level of comfort and trust. If a colleague I didn't know all that well asked me on a business trip, "Why did you fall in love with your wife?", I'd probably make an excuse to go back to my hotel room as quickly as I could because it's a profoundly creepy thing to ask a relative stranger.

About a year before I met my wife I was briefly dating a woman who absolutely subscribed to the first author's philosophy. Within just a couple weeks of dating she was telling me all sorts of super dark personal family secrets. Rather than make me feel closer to her, it just led to believe she was an oversharer. What I really didn't like though, was her expectation that this was a "tit for tat" affair, that because she shared something super personal with me that it was now my "duty" to share some super revealing aspect of my life to her, even though to my view our relationship hadn't nearly reached that level yet. Instead we broke up.
posted by The Gooch at 9:27 AM on August 19, 2018 [13 favorites]


You don't think people indicating what they'd like to think about themselves is revealing?

It's a clue like clothing or accessories, but no more revealing or interesting. Mostly if I want to find out about people I listen to them when they are thinking about something other than themselves. Otherwise they only show the face they make at the mirror.
posted by ckridge at 9:28 AM on August 19, 2018


And I don't get it. I really, really don't get it to an extent that makes me feel like I'm from another planet. If it's a complete stranger, who even cares? You should feel comfortable saying anything to a complete stranger, right?

Hey man, maybe you're right, because this reveals so much about you and your perceptions of your own vulnerability and safety and how much you pay attention to what other people are saying, considering that multiple people above your comment have talked about how small talk is a process of feeling out whether the conversation partner is literally even safe to spend time with.
posted by Caduceus at 9:30 AM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


Mostly if I want to find out about people I listen to them when they are thinking about something other than themselves. Otherwise they only show the face they make at the mirror.

Porque no los dos?
posted by asterix at 9:35 AM on August 19, 2018




If you'll excuse the crude analogy, the first article reminds me of a guy who wants to skip foreplay altogether and get right to banging away, regardless of whether it makes the (conversation) partner uncomfortable or not.

I’ve never read a more succinct, yet apt, description of this phenomenon and why I hate it so much.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 9:46 AM on August 19, 2018 [18 favorites]


From the second link: "What the seemingly meaningless exchange means is we can relax. The person we’re inches away from for the afternoon is not dangerous." Yup. That's an important factor to determine in the first minute.
posted by MonkeyToes at 9:46 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'm taking the "I'm getting too old for this shit" option, whereby I accept that, at this age, I may never be the best conversationalist in the world, and if someone didn't want an extended disquisition about what I like about playing RPGs, well, maybe they shouldn't have interrupted my reverie about how cool it would be if I were a character in some of my favorite Star Trek episodes. I'm still perfectly willing to make new friends, not so much to make myself over to be the sort of friend any random rando needs me to be.
posted by Halloween Jack at 9:52 AM on August 19, 2018 [11 favorites]


I'd love to live in a world where normal conversation openers with strangers were things like, "Do you believe in God? Why or why not?"

for 2,000 years the wrong answer to this question got you set on fire
posted by poffin boffin at 10:05 AM on August 19, 2018 [70 favorites]


Yeah, if you are someone who, for any number and combination of reasons, has to go through the world feeling pretty unsafe as a general rule, the existence of boundaries on the amount of intimacy a stranger can demand of you is definitely a good thing, in my experience.
posted by ITheCosmos at 10:12 AM on August 19, 2018 [11 favorites]


You may be in luck: Lyft might build a ‘zen mode’ to let drivers know you don’t feel like chatting

Personally I've always enjoyed my conversations with Lyft/Uber drivers but Pittsburgh is a chatty city.


There are Lyft drivers in DC who brings their dog with them while they work, and while it might bother people who are allergic or just don't like dogs, it vastly improved the one time I had it happened to me, and same with a friend of mine in a different Lyft. I talked to the driver about their dog, and I almost never want to talk to the driver. They should definitely have a 'zen mode' with an option to talk if there's a dog in the car.
posted by numaner at 10:12 AM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


From stranger to stranger, is this one of those self-referential contradicting sentences?

This is a thread on an Internet forum. There are so many ways in which it's different to being stood or sat a few feet from someone, making mouth noises (or sign gestures) at each other's faces.
posted by Dysk at 10:12 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


Small Talk in the 24th Century

i want to cringe myself to death
posted by numaner at 10:17 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


They should definitely have a 'zen mode' with an option to talk if there's a dog in the car.

tbh there should be a dog mode where the driver is guaranteed to arrive with a dog
posted by poffin boffin at 10:19 AM on August 19, 2018 [29 favorites]


For me, I am just not that interested in strangers' inner lives. I don't know you! I don't care what your personal philosophy is, or whatever. I don't want to have to think hard about what you're saying. For me it feels like work.

So by and large I love chitchat.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:26 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


ike, "You fucker. I had the ability to talk enthusiastically about my interests beaten out of me. Why do you still get to do it?"

Oh, joy, the ASD gender divide. Don’t get me wrong — it does a huge amount for my career to be able to just shut up, but sometimes I wish the amount of time I spend being self-conscious earned me brownie points somewhere.

Anyway, small talk is scripted. And I like talking to people, so it’s a good thing in my book
posted by steady-state strawberry at 10:34 AM on August 19, 2018 [11 favorites]


I would say a great part of chitchat is that you can have a successful, pleasant conversation in any amount of time. Cut short? It's fine, you weren't discussing anything important anyway. Unexpectedly stuck in an elevator? You can just keep chatting to fill time without facing the yawing void of a conversation about something you hate.
posted by BungaDunga at 10:34 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


I think we would all like each other more if we spent more time talking about what we really care about.

I think you might be on to something when you speculate that we might like each other more if we knew more about each other. I generally like learning about people. In my experience, those conversational prompts you listed just aren't a particularly promising way to go about it.

I mean, I could probably talk about lots of these things quite easily - I'm an opinionated person who doesn't mind sounding like a fool on occasion when my opinion turns out to be not that well-founded after all. But that's me, and other people may feel put on the spot when asked about something they might not already have a carefully considered, precisely worded answer for.

And sometimes, the circumstances just might not allow for doing the topic justice. Do I believe in God? It's complicated! I just don't think I could give a satisfying answer in the space of sharing a bus ride, or during a dinner party where we just met. It would probably result in a lot of hemming and hawing on my part, and then an attempt at giving you my whole lifestory for context, and finally a conclusion that would leave me with the feeling I just gave you a completely inaccurate impression, painfully reminding me of the limitations of langugage and the ultimate futility of any yearning for human connection. Can be interesting, but I have to be in the mood for it. My idea of fun is certainly something else. And that's me talking about something I have actually thought about quite a bit!

For many people forming communicable opinions about topics more complicated than the weather requires a certain peace of mind and leisure they don't always have, and then you asking them to show their work can trigger unpleasant memories of school. Or maybe it reminds them of happier times when they were better informed about stuff, and makes them feel bad about the turn their life has taken. Sometimes you just want to relax, and then that sort of stuff can really spoil the mood.

I try to be more careful about what I say, partly because I'm afraid people won't like me, yes. (And you might have a point, that kind of thing is better clarified sooner rather than latter). But the more important reason is that I don't want to accidentially make someone feel bad just for my entertainment.

Take for instance "Do you believe most parents have a favourite child?" What a minefield! I would never raise that topic without at least a bit of a clue wether the other person is actually comfortable talking about family. What if _they_ were the disfavoured child and are still struggling with the impact of the trauma? It might be healing to talk about it - to a therapist, or a trusted friend, maybe - but perhaps not at the whims of a stranger, when you were looking forward to a fun evening rather than facing your demons. There are certain conversations you want to be mentally prepared for.

But, you might argue, triggers can be so arbitrary! You could never possibly avoid them all. Surely, the more important skill is to drop the issue fast enough when you accidentially hit one. I like to think you would handle it gracefully when people just brush off your prompts and change the topic. But I don't know you, so I can't be sure. So there's that moment of tension - will they let it go? Will I have to justify myself? Already, the mood is less relaxed.

And then there's the fun thing where some people interpret an unwilligness to engage in a topic as some intellectual deficiency, a lack of perspective, a sign of defeat. I don't know you, how should I know you aren't one of them? Eg. I no longer talk about feminism with any guy I just met - there's too much of a chance they find something debatable, and these debates are always more exhausting for me than for them (because I've got skin in the game, and they don't, or at least never to the same degree). I'll shoot the topic down, and they'll let it go, fine, but often with an air of "of course you wouldn't dare to face my superior reasoning".

Sometimes the mere way in which some people approach a topic that feels like life or death to me as if it were a fun cause for idle speculation can hurt like a slap in the face.

If you start with typical small talk stuff, you might still accidentially hit on something that makes me uncomfortable - again, triggers can be arbitrary - but at least you made some gesture that you tried to minimize the risk, so I'll feel more safe to believe it was truly an accident when it happens after all.

People stick to typical small talk topics for a start, because they don't want to launch a difficult conversation, when it's not the right place and time for it. I think it's important and often enriching to have some difficult conversations once in a while. But I've made the experience that you will learn more, if you're patient enough for them to come up organically. And it's generally more worthwile to have these conversations with people who've already given some evidence they'll engage in good faith. Life is short, talking about the important stuff is exhausting, and people like to use their energies wisely.
posted by sohalt at 10:44 AM on August 19, 2018 [33 favorites]


If you consider conversation as an attempt at seduction in the wider sense it becomes clear why boundaries, styles and talents are so different. And why demanding a meaningful conversation won't work unless you are a border agent.

This game of getting and giving attention can also be played by algorithms, re youtube with its perfectly tailored (to each viewer) mixture of chit chat cat videos and deep meaningful ted talks, available if we just watch one more little ad.
posted by haemanu at 10:49 AM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


every goddamn one of these theses about what conversation is all about is like a gentlemen's club roundtable debating the proposition that a novel is defined as a story about a man who goes out to buy a pack of cigarettes and gets eaten by a bear on his way home.

I understand the feeling, but I don't think that's fair. A person who decides to come up with some Grand Unified Theory of the Novel is probably just doing it for fun- do all plots follow the hero's journey? do they not? It doesn't matter either way; it's just fun to debate.

With conversation, on the other hand, it does matter, because it affects how people perceive you. I don't want to make you feel uncomfortable by bringing up a topic you feel is too deep from a stranger. I don't want to make you feel unimportant and neglected by not indicating interest in you. I don't want to make you feel threatened, or bored, or any one of the negative feelings people have brought up in this and prior threads.

And I think dismissing these dichotomies as just abstract theory dismisses the way many of us have had to learn and internalize these rules as they did not come naturally. Non-neurotypical or anxious people often don't know what they're doing wrong, but they know they're doing something wrong, because people are avoiding them. Same thing with immigrants or those who otherwise find themselves in new contexts.

I'm not white and it took me a while to figure out that the rules I learned from my parents about conversation didn't apply to the white people I was meeting. Then I moved from Texas to New York and the conversation rules changed. I'm in Seattle right now and the conversation rules changed. Or when I'm in a social context that's overwhelmingly Asian or overwhelmingly Hispanic the rules again change. When I'm in a context that's overwhelmingly working class or upper class the rules change again. So this sort of stuff really isn't academic to me.
posted by perplexion at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2018 [13 favorites]


These threads are so relevenat to my interests, please keep them coming.

I don't get social cues easily. I spent most of my life avoiding social interaction, working with computers or non human biological systems. Tired of spending so much energy trying to act normal, only to end up called aloof, or a creep, or some kind of weirdo.

These articles, threads, and askmefi posts have been teaching me in the last 10 years that it is not that there is some telepathic organ that most people have, but a bunch of rules and conventions that no one talks about.

Knowing this turns social interactions from a game of Paranoia in a minefield into a fun series of puzzles that can end in friendship, some degree of intimacy, and more importantly for me, in getting things done.

I enjoy the game so much that I quit coding and now have a job that consists mostly of finding common modes of communication between very different people, de-escalating conflict, helping people build bridges.

And I've become good at it (unless all the feedback I get is ironic and I am missing that).

A recent example involved 2 teams that had a miles long list of mutual grievances: laziness, rudeness, racism, harassment, bossynes, arrogance, inappropriate emails, etc...

The engineering team in Mexico has people from Cairo, Islamabad, Bogota, Southern and Northern Mexico (the only thing in common is that we both speak some version of Spanish), and Silicon Valley types. The business and finance team in New York has a boss from Wall Street, people from all over India, a few second generation Hispanics, and a small clique of East Coast MBA.

It took a while (60 days), and a lot of work, but all of the issues except for one are now resolved. Just by talking about communication styles and social expectations, and by putting many of the conflicts on the table in several awkward meetings. The unresolved issue was a racist comment that the commenter refuses to apologize for, and that person no longer works in the project.

Suprisingly to me, many of the conflicts came from 'small talk' issues. Do you day 'hello' in Salck and wait for a response before asking your question? Do you go straight to the question? Do you ask 'how are you doing' in a meeting? Do you respond with how you am really are doing or just with an OK? If you take a day off, is it appropriate to share how you spent the day? Is it appropriate to ask how someone spent their day off? The list is endless, and gets into deeper stuff like preserving honour and saving face.

The two teams now work great together, some of the people have made the trip to meet each other, and we've had cool things happen, like coming up with vegan Pakistani-Mexican dishes for a potluck.

So thanks Mefi. And how is your day going everyone? Today one of ant colonies produced it's first major worker and I felt so happy and proud I watched a couple of old Britain's Got Talent auditions so I could cry a little bit.
posted by Dr. Curare at 10:55 AM on August 19, 2018 [36 favorites]


"don't talk about yourself, instead ask the person about themselves, because that's how you show that you're interested in them and not self-centered and if they're a good conversational partner they'll do the same."

I don't know what it is about me, but about 80% of the people I meet don't ask me any questions. They're not rude exactly; they usually don't just drone on about themselves, they'll reference current events or whatever. But rare is the person who even asks me what I like doing in my spare time, or what I think about issue X. I knew I'd found my BFF when, upon our very first meeting, he spent hours asking deeply, sincerely curious questions about me and my life and actively listening to my responses instead of waiting for a chance to speak.

It's really frustrating and unless it's a professional contact, I've stopped talking to people if they haven't asked me anything after the first 3 questions I've asked them. These are not deep questions as in the first article, they're basic questions like "did you grow up here, what type of work do you do/want to do, have you seen [movie]?" I have no idea why this happens, but it makes me feel pretty worthless and invisible.
posted by AFABulous at 10:58 AM on August 19, 2018 [11 favorites]


I've had people jump into conversational deep ends that really alarmed me - telling me very personal stories while I was thinking "oh shit I'm being cornered into an intimate conversation I do not want to have and cannot get out of politely."

But I've had conversations move really quickly from small talk to deep talk comfortably, when people are paying attention to each other's signals.

Anyway, there's a whole realm of conversational topics that fall between "nice weather today" and "how I fell in love." I like to know about people's hobbies, books or movies or podcasts that they enjoy and why they enjoy them, what made them to decide to pursue a given career path, etc.
posted by bunderful at 11:00 AM on August 19, 2018 [13 favorites]


I should add that I don't ask people questions just so they can ask me questions. I am genuinely curious about people. I've learned fascinating things about Lyft drivers just by asking how long they've been driving and whether they enjoy it. It's just frustrating that almost no one is curious about me. I suppose it could be culture; my 3 closest friends grew up in upstate New York, Florida, and Arizona, whereas most people I meet in person also grew up here (Wisconsin).
posted by AFABulous at 11:04 AM on August 19, 2018


Liza Anne -- Small Talks
posted by curious nu at 11:06 AM on August 19, 2018


My experience with dating in particular is much like AFABulous relates: I almost never get asked questions about myself.

Most dates have consisted of the guy talking about himself endlessly. At first, I am smiling and nodding, maybe asking a few questions here and there when he pauses in his soliloquoy. Then as it becomes obvious that he doesn't give the slightest shit about learning anything at all about me, I smile less, nod less, and ask fewer and fewer questions until I'm just sitting there silently, desperately trying to figure out how to get TF out of there so I can go home and do something more fulfilling, like my laundry. ***In almost all cases, he does not notice and just continues talking about his favorite subject, himself***

I've been told before that I should be more forgiving, that the guy was probably just nervous. Now here I'm being told that it's a different conversational culture, that some people think it's rude to ask questions of others. But I just CANNOT feel charitable about this, and ascribe it to different communication styles. I cannot see this as other than supreme self-centeredness. If this is some sort of cultural divide, it's not one I'm interested in crossing.
posted by nirblegee at 11:16 AM on August 19, 2018 [19 favorites]


Funny, from my experience, the best conversations are those that involve minimal direct questions as the give and take over come interests lends itself to a natural back and forth as each person shares their take on a subject and expands on it. Having one person ask questions and the other answer as a dynamic is a bad power structure, for me, both parties need to be contributing in roughly equal measures in sharing interests and questions when useful, nothing too revealing need be brought up or asked when a conversation flows well since it finds its own path fairly naturally. When conversations aren't going well, that itself is a sign maybe continuance shouldn't be pursued.

In my line of work, I'm stuck with conversational people often, and overhear many others talking with friends and strangers alike. Maybe I'm a snob, but I don't want to get involved in any deep or lengthy conversation with most of those people. There is a lot of ignorance out there and lot's of people want to bend your ear with their personal version of it. It's easy to get along with most people in a basically superficial way, most people are basically decent on some level no matter what their background, but there are lots of really unsettling and divisive attitudes that can be mixed in that aren't something really pleasing to deal with on a stranger/brief acquaintance level.

Good conversations, for me, come from finding shared interests coming out of superficial exchanges where the tone and manner of conversing itself reveals something of a like mindedness in how we relate to the values of sharing. Asking for or giving one sided lectures in conversation isn't that and is for me is a sign of someone I would seek to avoid at any cost. Unfortunately my job doesn't always allow for that so I have to suffer listening to the self important and self styled smooth talkers all too frequently. It sucks.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:38 AM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


By dint of how long this comment has already gotten, I think it's clear that I'm almost constitutionally incapable of making true small talk for very long in any medium, lest I get deep into something. Heh. So there you go. I clam up if we can't engage beyond trite observation or can't pick up a thread of connection in some way. Given that I'm an introvert, though, clamming up can be fine by me. I tend to conserve my energy if I feel like conversation is going to go in a direction where I won't want to share anything of myself that's real, where I start to want to tell white lies to avoid actually letting the other person know anything about me. So I suppose I'm a bit all-or-nothing, like the gal in the second essay.

I'm mostly out of time-travel romance movies, so I've picked up with travel romance movies recently. So often they involve one partner (usually the guy, or if it's a woman, she tends to be a manic pixie dream girl) transcending the other's usual conversational boundaries very quickly, and while the other person might blink a bit or respond badly at first, ultimately they tend to be able to move past this. That's the premise in more of these than I can name off the top of my head. And that's one reason I like the genre, because I like to imagine a world where it's just that easy to get to know someone—like how mags for teens and young women often fetishize things like the grocery-store meet-cute. I'm not sure if I decided this was a good idea because of magazine articles or because I grew up with parents who were fairly isolated and then overshared very quickly when they were around people (and then, sigh, argued about how much one was oversharing, even though they both did it), or because I went to summer camps during my formative years where getting into a mind-set of total radical candor and emotional safety was one of the best parts, but I don't really need to know why. It's just what I like.

Also, I grew up, as many of us did, in this time now where you quickly get to the part where you're oversharing with someone through chat (or, y'know, in years' worth of MetaFilter comments) before ever meeting, and while I of course like that quite a bit, now I do get why some people refuse to delve into a long correspondence with anyone before meeting them in person. It can be misleading, for the same reason that some people have a rule that they never like to meet their favorite authors, because it ruins their writing for them—a gift for written correspondence doesn't always match up one-to-one with being an overall cool or good person. That said, I've also had some success in the past couple of decades getting to know friends, not just romantic partners, via chat. There's definitely an interesting dissonance when you get to know someone via chat and then sit next to them and have to get to know them all over again as a living, breathing human being. If you can do both, it can be very rewarding.

Here we go, here's the phrase: "Cognitive giftedness in perceiving the intentions of others." In Odyssey of an Eavesdropper: My Life in Electronic Countermeasures and My Battle Against the FBI, this guy Martin L. Kaiser III once wrote about this notion:
My dad's unpredictable moods were tantamount to guerrilla warfare: days of placid normality punctuated by moments of sheer terror for my mother and me. My brothers were spared most of his wrath, another mystery that I would understand only when I grew older.

In retrospect, the emotional and physical abuse that filled my adolescent years was a crucible that toughened me for the battles—psychological and otherwise—that lay ahead.

As I grew up, my feelings for my father were fear mixed with anger and resentment, but there was absolutely nothing I could do about it. By the time I left home at nineteen, I never wanted to see him again. My relationship with my mother was not so hot either, primarily because she had never tried to stop the abuse. I suppose she was too terrified, but at the time it was happening her inability to come to my defense mystified me. Perhaps that was one reason she drank.

The only positive result of those years was what psychologists have described as 'cognitive giftedness in perceiving the intentions of others.' In plain English, I developed an unerring perception of what was in the minds of total strangers by observing facial mannerisms, tone of voice, or body language. This talent has served me well during my business career when negotiating with a new customer, though I concede I have made mistakes in judgment that have cost me dearly."
I believe that this is a thing, and I have it for the same reason he did. I also know that the mistakes in judgment nonetheless do happen, and the only person I ever thought to share this with (in context of marveling over our seemingly magical, fairly instant connection) turned out to be perhaps not entirely worthy of my sharing as much as I did. So there you go. C'est la vie; c'est la guerre. That doesn't mean one shouldn't try to make it to a place of deeper conversation, when it's appropriate to the moment.

Something I tend to get positive results with, when it's appropriate, like switching up the tempo of the music, is to change the depth of conversation, go a little deeper when the conversation merits it during routine small talk, or go lighter when it gets a bit heavy. After years of interviewing people, I've developed a better sense of when and how to do this than I had when I was younger (when my idea of a fun conversation included experimental stuff like essentially chatting on paper in writing while sitting next to someone, or typing while people around me were talking, transcribing what they said, which often made them laugh—I still do the latter sometimes, heh).

I like to play in conversation, if my conversational partners are on my wavelength. I'm church of excited interruption if I'm into a topic. But I've also come to recognize that a lot of conversation necessarily happens on other levels. Tad Friend writes a bit about this in his essay "The King of Banter," in the book Committed: Men Tell Stories of Love, Commitment, and Marriage. I think this one resonates with me so much because, like Amanda in that story, I married a king of banter, though I'm only rarely able to play the same banter game he does. I too banter in other ways. Yet I've also been, like Tad, a cultivator of people in the way he describes, and it was a habit I had to deliberately break in myself, to be able to walk the line in that High Fidelity way ("When is this gonna stop?!").
"I wasn't so good at being loved. Being loved requires you to stop cultivating every woman you meet; it requires you to pony up. Amanda didn't always say that much, but I knew she could banter at an emotional, rather than verbal, level—she could respond to my needs, mend her course, and zing back needs of her own. And so I reacted to my pleasure in seeing her, my delight in her brisk walk and cackling laugh, by staying away. A few months into our relationship, I landed in New York late at night after a reporting trip and went not to Amanda's but home to sleep. I called her from my apartment, saying I was just too tired and would see her tomorrow. She said, 'Passionless fool!' and we both laughed. It was true. Not that I was passionless, but that I was a fool to hide it.

I had always been happiest expressing passion during the chase or retrospectively, after a relationship was over. (It was all a little sadistic.) Voicing passion in an ongoing relationship was much harder—it felt too naked. I slowly got better at telling Amanda my feelings..."
Anyway, I'll also say this, as someone who just went to a retreat with several dozen remote colleagues, toting crutches and a walking boot: When it comes to conversation and small talk, physical disability often immediately makes one both more visible (as different) and invisible (as the other, and literally overlooked when people are standing around talking and drinking on two feet). It's hard to reconcile those two things, as you're never sure when you'll be fussed over or ignored. I think I'd almost prefer to be ignored than squealed over. I can't tell you how many times I was asked the same questions and had to recite the same stories ("How long until you get the boot off?" "There is no set time frame; I just have to be able to walk." "How did this happen?" "I slipped on the sixth step from the bottom of a spiral staircase and caught my foot as I fell.") Great, now you know—can we talk about something else? It made me wary of small talk, even though I knew that the questions weren't meant with ill will or bad intent, and I didn't mind discussing it briefly.

There were times when I almost welcomed having something easy to fall back on, if I didn't have much to say to a given person. I can talk as long as you can bear to hear it about bone growth, physical therapy, etc. I have a new area of expertise, heh, and hey, you asked. But yeah, it's not really what I want to be talking about if I can help it. And even as I'm indulging this line of questioning, I think about how I can only imagine what this is like for people who are permanently, visibly disabled. The same line of questioning would be horribly inappropriate: "How long until you can walk again?" "Uhhhh, the rest of my life." No good. So I grew wary of encouraging it as a topic of conversation.

Anyway, those are a few thoughts. I think this is part of the difficulty I face, perhaps obviously, in trying to make small talk with anyone, because my semantic cloud of related topics just spins off in depth in multiple directions. I hold back a lot and try to only direct limited doses of this at anyone, when we're already connecting or I truly have something to add. That's why the small-talk layer is important, so I can gauge whether it's even worth spinning off on some tangent.

Heh, just thinking about this is a bit exhausting.
posted by limeonaire at 11:43 AM on August 19, 2018 [7 favorites]


Talk talk talk, it's only talk
Comments, cliches, commentary, controversy
Chatter, chit-chat, chit-chat, chit-chat
Conversation, contradiction, criticism
It's only talk
Cheap talk
posted by parki at 11:50 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Hmmph. That's a very elephantine thing to say.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:56 AM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Who would win a fight between Mugsy Bogues and Danny Devito?
posted by PHINC at 12:14 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm so terrible at small talk between the auditory processing disorder and being socially awkward. Apparently, "Hi, did you know Stevia is part of the ragweed family," is not a great opener on a Starbucks date.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 12:22 PM on August 19, 2018 [9 favorites]


Apparently, "Hi, did you know Stevia is part of the ragweed family," is not a great opener on a Starbucks date.

Incorrect, this is a great opener, it explains so many things about why I hate Stevia
posted by schadenfrau at 12:38 PM on August 19, 2018 [19 favorites]


yeah i'm intrigued and want to know more
posted by poffin boffin at 12:39 PM on August 19, 2018


I can do small/big talk but I should be allowed to choose and so should my conversation partner.

One exception though: please tell me about your pets.
posted by arcticseal at 12:42 PM on August 19, 2018 [6 favorites]


I'd love to live in a world where normal conversation openers with strangers were things like, "Do you believe in God? Why or why not?"

for 2,000 years the wrong answer to this question got you set on fire


Yeah, a new boss tried this "ice breaker" on me, and spent the rest of her tenure trying to change my answer. I'll never be dumb enough again to get into that conversation with somebody I don't know.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 1:04 PM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


I'd like to add another voice to the chorus of people frustrated about not being asked questions by men - the right sort of questions. Granted, questions can be tricky - I just wrote a long comment about why I think a certain sort of question is counter-productive as a conversation starter. But I'm not necessarily talking about conversation starters, I'm talking about follow-up questions. Starting a conversation is one thing, keeping it going quite another, and much more crucial for the success of the interaction, if you ask me. Any conversation starter will do as long as both parties are in the mood for talking, and none will, if one of them isn't. But keeping the conversation going takes actually paying attention, and that's where a bit of effort can make all the difference.

Like other commenters, I also don't necessarily buy the "cultural divide"-explanation. It's a problem I usually encounter with men, and rarely with women, regardless of milieu. See, the beauty of a follow-up question is that it concerns an issue I'm apparently comfortable talking about, since I've been talking about it with some ease already (and might have even brought it up myself). That should greatly reduce the risk of rudeness of further inquiry.

Another hint that fear of rudeness might not be the culprit here is that I, after all, would have already asked many questions of that type in the course of the conversation ("Clever! What gave you the idea?"; "Sounds scary! Were you afraid?", etc.) , which apparently my interlocutor didn't consider rude, since he answered them readily and often with great detail. So something tells me they aren't from a culture where all sorts of questions are a sign of rudeness.

Of course it doesn't have to be questions. There are a million different ways to show interest in order to keep a conversation flowing. Sometimes it's as simple as staying on topic, building on something the other person has said instead of immediately veering off on a tangent. But I've found that men who don't ask me questions won't do that either (honestly, otherwise I wouldn't even notice).

At least the guys I talk to eventually notice when they've lost me. I have to give them credit for that. (Probably because the conversation rarely happens in a dating context, so they might feel less of an obgliation to soldier through to some bitter end). Still, I have to wonder, why, so often, men, who seemed perfectly content talking to me as long as I was doing all that work of keeping thing flowings, would rather let the conversation die and sit in silence, than reciprocate. Like, I'm welcome enough as an audience, it's just that nothing I could contribute could ever evoke their curiosity.

And it's not like I'd be stingy with contributions! In conversations with women, I always have to be careful not to dominate. Show me the slightest bit of interest, and I will gleefully launch into lectures, rants, or epic accounts of my trials and tribulations. I mean, when women eventually stop encouraging me, because I can sometimes lose the plot a little, I totally understand! But most men never learn that about me in the first place.
posted by sohalt at 1:25 PM on August 19, 2018 [14 favorites]


Small Talk in the 24th Century

lmao how come Data was such a shitty AI coder? Dude's like the most intelligent in the federation and yet his code is worse than a Tesla driving into barriers and shit.
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:36 PM on August 19, 2018


Funny, from my experience, the best conversations are those that involve minimal direct questions as the give and take over come interests lends itself to a natural back and forth as each person shares their take on a subject and expands on it.

This and the rest of gusottertrout's comment is me so hard, with the exception that I'm largely content to listen to someone else do most of the talking if they're inclined to do so. Some people can be bores, but I have a pretty low threshold as I'm usually relieved at not having to put energy into thinking of a response if I'm not in this situation intentionally with the goal of engaging with someone. And in groups I tend to not need to say anything most of the time, unless people make a point of getting response from me, in which case it's usually pretty easy to reply.

But in general, I feel like talking about myself unprompted, or at any length greater than strictly necessary to communicate my thoughts when prompted, is rude of me, and it makes me uncomfortable. And I also feel uncomfortable asking too personal of questions, that feels like prying. A good conversation for me is finding a neutral topic to use as a sounding board, so the weather or a person's job is a reliable one, and if we don't go beyond that, that's usually fine. But a good conversation is me and others chaining conversation topics largely without personal questions, but topic related questions and comments that allow us to each reveal as much as we're comfortable regarding the topic without having to try and change the subject to avoid something we don't feel like talking about or tell conversation stopping white lies or noncommittal nothings.

It's not always easy for me. I'm socially anxious in general because I was ostracized a lot as a kid and then moved to a different state at a pretty bad time, immediately before starting middle school, which is just a perfect time to not know fucking anybody. Compounding that is most of my interests are political social justice stuff which I'm hesitant to bring up because I do not feel capable of expressing myself clearly enough in a conversational format to explain myself clearly and the idea of accidentally getting myself into a debate fills me with dread and anxiety, or esoteric nerd shit a random person is unlikely to know anything about.

I just don't have anything beyond what other people say in podcasts if you want to talk to me about, you know, sports or popular music or television or whatever. The closest I get to the mainstream is I think a lot of nineties mainstream rock bands were more enjoyable than they're mostly given credit for (though I still think most nineties music was bad), and Griffin McElroy convinced me that Carly Rae Jepsen is good, but even with music all my truly favorite stuff is what I can best describe as gothic americana folk punk (Or punk folk). It's difficult for me to connect with the majority of people beyond small talk or going "Yeah, I heard that was good/bad/interesting." Metafilter helps with some of this but even then I tend to be drawn to the above topics.

(I've maybe thought a lot about why I've struggle with socializing as an adult in my thirties.)
posted by Caduceus at 1:40 PM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


(Okay, "any conversation starter will do" is obviously wrong, since people in this very thread have gone on record saying that small talk won't do it for them. I can even remember a time when I used to think so as well, and want to apologize for forgetting. I still think the focus on conversation starters when talking about satisfying communication is misplaced.)
posted by sohalt at 1:40 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm so terrible at small talk between the auditory processing disorder and being socially awkward. Apparently, "Hi, did you know Stevia is part of the ragweed family," is not a great opener on a Starbucks date.

Depends. Were you wearing pants and overall of sound fluids?
posted by Foci for Analysis at 1:41 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I ask people questions for a living--people who are generally artists and who have very deep things to say about what they do and what they think and that's the stuff I need to get them to say in order to do my job effectively. Also, for the most part, these are people I've never met before.

You know how I get us both into the conversation? Small talk. Like, these are conversations we've both scheduled ourselves to have, but even then, just jumping in feels weird. "Hi, how are you doing? Did you find the place alright? What part of town are you coming from?" That kind of small talk is meant to build a modicum of rapport between us so that when we get to the weighty stuff, we do so with trust and good will. This attitude that "life is too short to waste on talking about the weather" sounds to me like "I don't want to do the work of being friendly." The person who you're jumping on and asking the meaning of life, what are they getting from that interaction? What have you shown them of yourself that says "hey if you open up to me, I'm not going to be an invasive jerk"? Like, I'm sorry that being pleasant with other people bores you, but people aren't Narrative ATMs that you can just stick your Conversation card into and withdraw whatever it is that you're looking for when you do that.
posted by Maaik at 1:52 PM on August 19, 2018 [41 favorites]


QFFT: that it is not that there is some telepathic organ that most people have, but a bunch of rules and conventions that no one talks about.

I love these threads, because the one rule members of either side of these dichotomies has is that it is an unspeakable breach of ettiquette to share the secret code their using with someone who doesn't get it. Also i suspect we'll discover trichotomies like people who are ok with inventing new words only if no existing word fits, people who enjoy inventing new words even when suitable words exist, people who insist a several word phrase must be uttered each time so that no new words ever need be created. I of course hate all of those peoples.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 2:15 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


My other 2 cents: just raising awareness about these dichotomies switches our approach from "why do some people suck" to " is it possible some people are using a different, albiet inferior, protocol" and hopefully to " all protocols are valid and have strengths and weaknesses, i should learn the others so i can better navigate life" to " we should teach our children the many linguistic protocols and how to announce or detect them so that everyone can navigate life better."

Unfortunately for a lot of us, we were taught to be blind to the water we swim in, and to laugh at those who are drowning in it.
posted by Anchorite_of_Palgrave at 2:19 PM on August 19, 2018 [18 favorites]


Stevia is part of the ragweed family, which people don't know and so they don't always recognize that they're having a mild allergic reaction to it. If you have seasonal allergies each spring, there is a good chance you're having a reaction if you use Stevia in your morning coffee.
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 2:22 PM on August 19, 2018 [9 favorites]


Stevia is part of the ragweed family, which people don't know and so they don't always recognize that they're having a mild allergic reaction to it. If you have seasonal allergies each spring, there is a good chance you're having a reaction if you use Stevia in your morning coffee.

OMFG. Oh Em Eff Geeee. I got a box of stevia a couple weeks ago when it was on clearance. I have lots of seasonal vegetation allergies. I have felt like I was at death's door for two weeks. (I have been out of my allergy medications for one week because I was too sick to go to the pharmacy.) Could it really be something as clear-cut as that for once in my life?!?
posted by The Underpants Monster at 2:31 PM on August 19, 2018 [12 favorites]


For once my useless trivia is useful! Hurray!
posted by 80 Cats in a Dog Suit at 2:47 PM on August 19, 2018 [15 favorites]


My other 2 cents: just raising awareness about these dichotomies switches our approach from "why do some people suck" to " is it possible some people are using a different, albiet inferior, protocol" and hopefully to " all protocols are valid and have strengths and weaknesses, i should learn the others so i can better navigate life" to " we should teach our children the many linguistic protocols and how to announce or detect them so that everyone can navigate life better."

One way how to announce and detect preferred linguistic protocols, that we already teach, is small talk. The content itself may be superfial, but if you pay attention, who can learn a lot about the other person's conversational style and preferred topics. Eg. the prompt is weather - you could us that as a jump-off point to talk about your plans for the weekend ("I hope it won't rain, I would like to go hiking"), your general mood ("I could use a bit more sun soon, those constant clouds are getting me down" - "Ugh, how can anyone get any work done in that heat?") , or something entirely impersonal, like agriculture ("that lack of rain has sure been good for tourism, but bad for farmers") or global warming ("another summer breaking heat records, scary to think that's just going to get worse"). This will give you a first idea what sort of conversation the other person might be in the mood for having, and some of those might lead you into deep water fairly quickly, depending on your follow-up. (Eg. the global warming thing for instance. But if you think this issue is controversial - you really shouldn't, but hypothetically - at this point of the conversation, it's stilly pretty easy to steer it back to safe "well, at least I got a nice tan"-territory, signalling to the other person that you want to keep it light.)

Small talk won't just help you figure out which topics might be of interest, it also helps you to determine whether the other person is in the mood for talking in the first place. If you get a mono-sylabic reply to a small talk question, you can conclude that the other person just isn't in a chatty mood - the same reply to a "deep" question and you have to worry that you hit a sore spot, and have put a strain on the relationship. It makes a lot of sense to keep the stakes low for a start, and make it easy for the other person to brush you off, when they're not feeling it.

Finally, the style of engagement. "I hope it won't rain; I'd like to go hiking." - Does the other person answer "Sounds fun! Where are you going?" or "Wow, you couldn't pay me to do that - couch and TV for me!" might give you a hint as to preferences with regard to asking questions/talking about yourself.

All of that happens in a context where not much harm is done if you get it wrong, so you can engage in a bit of trial and error. Small talk is like that tutorial at the start of a video game, where you can figure out the rules in an environment without any enemies jumping at you when you get it wrong. Of course that can get boring fast - some people just figure this things out fairly quickly, and then it's tempting to cut the tutorial short. And sure, do that - if the other person you're playing with is on the same page in that regard! For most people it's just a bad idea to skip the tutorial, because they're not fast enough to figure it out before they get eaten by the first wolf.

In my experience, people who think they can skip the tutorial, because there's only one set of rules and they know it already, or because there are no rules anyway, and anything should go, are rarely much fun to engage with.
posted by sohalt at 3:05 PM on August 19, 2018 [37 favorites]


The person who you're jumping on and asking the meaning of life, what are they getting from that interaction?

An interesting conversation about the meaning of life, without having to make it through a politeness test first?

Of course it feels weird and unfriendly to just jump right into conversation that isn't small talk because that isn't normal. But I'd be a lot happier if I lived in a culture that had developed different traditions about how to show friendliness and what a normal conversation should look like. Being asked about the meaning of life wouldn't feel like being jumped on to me. I'd be fine with it, if it were considered normal. I would actually love it if people would start conversations by walking up and saying, "Give me the best argument you can come up with for/against [random position I might or might not actually hold myself]." (I realize that wouldn't go over well with everyone else, so I start conversations the regular way, by talking about the weather or whatever. But it's not that fun for me.)
posted by Redstart at 3:07 PM on August 19, 2018


I don't know what it is about me, but about 80% of the people I meet don't ask me any questions.

You are so lucky. I just hate when I'm in a conversation and someone starts asking a ton a questions about me. I find it really rude and intrusive. There's no way to not answer without being rude but then the conversation is centered on me as a topic which is never something that I'm going to be comfortable with.
posted by octothorpe at 3:17 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


"I would actually love it if people would start conversations by walking up and saying, "Give me the best argument you can come up with for/against [random position I might or might not actually hold myself."

You sound like someone who definitely didn't do enough dorm-kitchen philosophizing in college. Lots of people go through that phase ("lots of people" = me for instance), and stop eventually because it just rarely yields the hoped for results - not necessarily because no-one would jump at the opportunity (a dorm kitchen can absolutely be the right place for that kind of thing), but because people are rarely terribly original when they just say the first thing that comes to their mind and people who are so free with their opinons often tend to not consider them too deeply. But maybe it's something everyone has to try out for themselves.
posted by sohalt at 3:22 PM on August 19, 2018 [16 favorites]


There's no way to not answer without being rude but then the conversation is centered on me as a topic which is never something that I'm going to be comfortable with.

I can't speak for the original poster, but I shared the complaint about not being asked enough questions, and for me, the type of question is critical. The questions wouldn't have to be about me personally, but about the topic I've been talking about (which might be me, okay, I do sometimes like talking about myself, but could also be something else entirely!), to encourage me to keep talking about the topic. For instance - maybe I was talking about Wuthering Heights, and how it gets a bad rap for glamourizing abusive relationships, because the unhealthiness of the relationship is the whole point and you're not supposed to read it as aspirational, then you could ask "So you think Bella got it wrong in Twilight?" and I think that would be a perfectly non-intrusive question to ask, showing me that you have been paying attention and are interested in hearing more about the topic.

I think it's important to distinguish contextually appropriate questions developing organically from the flow of conversation, and people working their way down some weird questionnaire they found in a self-help book ("50 questions to jumpstart intimacy!") or turning the whole thing into a job interview. The latter sorts, yeah, I don't like those either.
posted by sohalt at 3:42 PM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


Of course it feels weird and unfriendly to just jump right into conversation that isn't small talk because that isn't normal.

And because of that, the people who do converse in that mode often aren't people it's very fun to have conversations with, unless of course you want to hear about the threat of the trilateral commission, how Obama isn't a real American, stories about their sexual difficulties with their wives, and white supremacists getting a bad shake in the news. Things I've gotten mini-rants on frequently.

Violation of social norms is often a sign of someone who doesn't understand there are norms and that itself has an effect on their world view. It's particularly difficult to deal with in situations where one or both of you aren't free to leave the encounter at any time, which is why those are so frequently chosen as places to hold such "conversations". Pity the barista, bar tender, cab drivers and clerks who have to deal with that.

If one wants to be a good conversationalist, the most important thing, from my experience, is to be a good listener who pays attention to the prompts the other person is giving off, or not. Not everyone wants a conversation all the time or maybe any time. I love a good conversation more than almost anything, but hate a bad one in equal measure. I'm never yearning for conversation for its own sake, I can keep my mind profitably active without that kind of external stimulus. An unwelcome conversation is taxing for keeping me from something I'd much more enjoy.

Brief exchanges with strangers are fine, if you run into those same people frequently they can build into more satisfying exchanges for both parties as you get to know each other's interests and can build from previous knowledge. Good questions build on previous information that seems of interest to the person providing it and which is understood by the person hearing it.

That is also how you build trust and can actually have a meaningful impact on how someone else thinks, or they on you, as you get to better understand the history of the person and their thoughts and beliefs. I don't see a shortcut to that myself. Trying to skip past the history feels like treating conversation as purely entertainment, something to pass the time that doesn't mean much. I'm not here to entertain anyone, there's no quick way to explain my life's interests since they are built off of a long involvement in concepts that can't be explained quickly to someone who wasn't interested in them until they decided they wanted to talk.

Some people may like explaining the basics of what they do for work or fun even if their own interests are far beyond that phase, others find it more like work than pleasure, but may do it to be polite since they were asked. If you want to have a good conversation you have to have some basic knowledge of the thing you are conversing about otherwise it does turn into a lecture that may or may not be desired by the person giving it. It can feel like work if there isn't anything real behind it except the desire to be entertained. I mean that's how I feel about it anyway and I used to be pretty good at conversations back in my coffeehouse days while now I'm more used to a different sets of experiences coming from work connected exchanges which are a different animal entirely.
posted by gusottertrout at 3:49 PM on August 19, 2018 [13 favorites]


Conversations are difficult. I think there's some general strategies like "Be an active listener" that are helpful, but there are rarely shortcuts and techniques that will work for all situations. For me, I also have certain conversation bad habits that I have worked to cut down on over the years. These don't necessarily make conversations more enjoyable for me. On the contrary, sometimes they make conversations feel like work. But it's not always about me. I'm talking to a real life person and I feel that it's important that I don't leave a conversation where I've made someone's day worse. And if that means not engaging in a conversation at all, because I sense another person doesn't feel like it, I will do that too.
posted by FJT at 4:02 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


Violation of social norms is often a sign of someone who doesn't understand there are norms and that itself has an effect on their world view.

People need to understand how scary this can be when you're part of a marginalized population. Small talk = I can get a sense of what to expect from you. Some guy at the bus stop explaining in depth, unprompted, why aliens are real is expressing his authentic self, I guess, but I'm not going to sit next to him. I like having a socially accepted script. I like people who know which topics are safe and which are not. I often have to tiptoe around being gay and trans and anyone who pings my unpredictable radar is going to be avoided for my own safety. We've covered at length why women do this to men.
posted by AFABulous at 4:04 PM on August 19, 2018 [31 favorites]


On this site, in other threads, I meant.
posted by AFABulous at 4:05 PM on August 19, 2018


Yep.
posted by Huffy Puffy at 4:25 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I'm a person with anxiety who also makes friends easily and for those things to co-exist I need to make myself chill out about conversation rules and just sort of be in the moment with whoever I'm talking to and not make myself miserable. Which maybe isn't other-person-centered but is a much easier way to live (for me, personally) than constantly checking in with a list of being the best at talking in your head. I find it's kind of like, you worry what people think of you but most people aren't thinking about you at all? Ask vs Guess has always been baffling to me for this reason, there aren't just two kinds of people, there's unlimited kinds of people and conversation styles, on and on and on forever. And that is an interesting part of being alive.
posted by colorblock sock at 4:53 PM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


update i've now told 3 ppl about the stevia thing and they all think i am clever and interesting, the fools
posted by poffin boffin at 5:07 PM on August 19, 2018 [28 favorites]


"I would actually love it if people would start conversations by walking up and saying, "Give me the best argument you can come up with for/against [random position I might or might not actually hold myself."
You sound like someone who definitely didn't do enough dorm-kitchen philosophizing in college. Lots of people go through that phase ("lots of people" = me for instance), and stop eventually because it just rarely yields the hoped for results - not necessarily because no-one would jump at the opportunity (a dorm kitchen can absolutely be the right place for that kind of thing), but because people are rarely terribly original when they just say the first thing that comes to their mind and people who are so free with their opinons often tend to not consider them too deeply. But maybe it's something everyone has to try out for themselves.


A hundred times this, for many reasons: answering this sort of question is work, and it's just fundamentally inconsiderate to demand that work from someone out of the blue; the belief in the profundity of these questions on the part of the asker usually derives from the immaturity of the asker, in that the difference between someone who thinks that "do you believe in God and why or why not" is a deep question and someone who doesn't think so is usually just a few years of having talked to human beings in the world; and, not to pull the "problematic" card, but I think the demand that all conversations be deep and meaningful is pretty culturally intolerant, since different people get different things out of talking with other people.

I agree with all the commenters above who have articulated some version of the notion that small talk is a great tool for establishing conversational protocol so that the conversation can proceed to more "interesting" topics on a mutually accepted basis, but honestly, it doesn't even have to serve that function. There are so many places where small talk is self-justifying as a small act of community building: maybe you're not going to head off to a coffee shop to discuss the finer points of determinism after bullshitting for a little bit with the person in front of you in the grocery store line, but in trading a few words you've acknowledged each other as people in the same place and context. Not all cultures share that mode of community building and that's fine too, but in many places it's a very useful tool for bolstering bonhomie and mutual goodwill. I don't say this to cast aspersions on people who have a hard time with the protocol of small talk, and part of the same conversational empathy that I'm advocating extends to habitual small talkers extending the benefit of the doubt to people who clearly don't want to engage in it, but unilaterally declaring it a waste of time seems to me to be pretty short-sighted.

Tangentially, as someone who really needed to put in a lot of active work to become a better and more accommodating conversationalist in a lot of different contexts, I've come to really hate the way that the advice to just ask people questions about themselves is offered as some sort of conversational panacea. Not only is it excessively glib in the sense that many people are actually reticent to talk about themselves, either due to disposition or power dynamics, but it also leaves out the fact that it's easy to ask a bunch of questions that the other person finds totally tedious. I wonder how many people have taken that advice as gospel and then come away disappointed in themselves because no one ever went on to mention to them that the questions themselves matter. Especially if you already have a hard time intuiting the many implicit protocols of conversation, you're unlikely to suddenly figure out the type of questions that people respond to well. Add to that the fact that if you unflaggingly take that advice, a lot of people will eventually come to see you as unforthcoming and potentially untrustworthy on that basis, and I think it becomes clear that that dictum needs significant revising.
posted by invitapriore at 5:47 PM on August 19, 2018 [12 favorites]


Pets. Can we agree to all come together on the topic of pets? That will be the universally-accepted conversation topic from now on. It is not trivial and boring. You do learn something about the other person, but it is not likely to make them feel too exposed. Almost everyone has had a beloved pet at some point in their lives... or at least likes a friend's pet... or there is a type of pet they particularly appreciate.

Bad Peopl-- um, I mean people who don't like pets--could wear some sort of lapel pin warning others they would prefer to talk about the weather or the existence of God. Normal people don't have to wear a lapel pin because they have fur on their clothing. Or a stray feather. Or one of their buttons has been chewed off.

Please sign the petition on your way out.
posted by nirblegee at 6:17 PM on August 19, 2018 [15 favorites]


> I am dying for ride-sharing applications to include a feature in the app that allow a user to indicate that they are or are not feeling chatty today.

I would love this for airport trips! I usually like talking to drivers. But something about taking someone to the airport makes a lot of seemingly otherwise lovely drivers suspend all the rules of small talk. They either interrogate you about your trip, work, family, travel history, etc. or tell you a rambling story about a drunken vacation they took in 1993.
posted by smelendez at 6:24 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I usually spend my trips to the airport trying not to think about the fact that the driver is going 90 miles an hour and we're in a Ford Focus so chatting is a good distraction. I get super anxious in cars when I'm not the driver and trips to the airport always seem super terrifying to me.
posted by octothorpe at 6:33 PM on August 19, 2018


I'd love to live in a world where normal conversation openers with strangers were things like, "Do you believe in God? Why or why not?"

This is not particularly unusual in my little church-oriented town and the conversations aren't nearly as interesting as you might think.

E.g., a few weeks ago, I was approached by a woman who asked if I "had a church" while trying to hand me a brochure. I said no thank you to the brochure and told her I was an atheist. She told me she "felt sorry for me", which is more of a conversation than I usually have in these situations.
posted by she's not there at 6:34 PM on August 19, 2018 [4 favorites]


@octothorpe that makes sense too! It feels like an option would be a good idea, although they would have to phrase it correctly so that drivers didn't feel compelled to make small talk when they don't want to. I guess you'd want a "quiet car" option or the default play it by ear experience, similar to Amtrak quiet cars
posted by smelendez at 6:36 PM on August 19, 2018


My experience with dating in particular is much like AFABulous relates: I almost never get asked questions about myself.

Most dates have consisted of the guy talking about himself endlessly.


If it’s any consolation, it is not merely dating situations; the former taxi driver with his preloaded conversations I mentioned upthread is not only prepared to talk about himself to other guys, he is reluctant to let the conversation stray too far from the topic. If someone begins to relay funeral details for a mutual acquaintance named Tom, he will discourse about Tom Petty’s guitar collection, or how he has a cousin named Tom who now works in Australia. Or occasionally he will scorn any kind of connective tissue however flimsy and just tell you about a TV show he downloaded and what his problems with it are.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:13 PM on August 19, 2018


I'd love to live in a world where normal conversation openers with strangers were things like, "Do you believe in God? Why or why not?"

I live in a medium-sized city where people ask "Where do you go to church?" which is not that different. Although many atheists here do go to church (at least in part) to avoid having to answer "I don't." Most non-UUs don't really get the implications of going to a UU church.

Anyway, after all of this discussion I was in the elevator with a stranger and I made a comment about the weather. He made a short response and I observed his expression - his eyes flicked forward immediately after responding, and he didn't make a follow-up remark. So I thought okay, not someone who wants to get into a longer, deeper conversation, and I didn't say anything more. In that case my small talk about the rain was a *ahem* weather balloon for medium talk.
posted by bunderful at 7:17 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


But something about taking someone to the airport makes a lot of seemingly otherwise lovely drivers suspend all the rules of small talk. They either interrogate you about your trip, work, family, travel history, etc. or tell you a rambling story about a drunken vacation they took in 1993.

I got this a lot when I travelled for work regularly. And don’t forget the quizzes when you are being picked up there. Mostly demands to know where I was from and what brought me here, but I had a heavily-accented Russian driver pick me up once in Vancouver. When I told him my destination for my lodgings, he interrogated me on the place, asking about amenities and cost. I answered as best I could but admitted I didn’t know that much about the price as I had a complimentary stay due to my job.

He: “So you are stay free?”

Me: “Yes.”

He: “And your company — they are also pay for your flight?”

Me: “Yes, of course.”

He: “And meals?”

Me: “Er, yes.”

He: “How about hoook-air?”

Me: “Sorry?”

He: “Hook-air. Prostyityut. They are pay for this?”

Me: “...”

I thought, ‘well, I have never actually asked the accountants about this. I suppose if I had a receipt...’ Anyway, I wouldn’t have minded the talk being a bit smaller at that point.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 7:27 PM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


If it’s any consolation, it is not merely dating situations; the former taxi driver with his preloaded conversations I mentioned upthread is not only prepared to talk about himself to other guys, he is reluctant to let the conversation stray too far from the topic.

Yeah, but that's a fairly brief encounter; you're not trying to suss out whether you want to be friends or hang out more. If I meet someone at a party or class or work social, it's weird that they don't want to know anything about me.
posted by AFABulous at 7:30 PM on August 19, 2018 [3 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder if the divide in small talk yes/no is actually people who have/have not worked with the public.
posted by blnkfrnk at 8:51 PM on August 19, 2018 [2 favorites]


The person who you're jumping on and asking the meaning of life, what are they getting from that interaction?

An interesting conversation about the meaning of life, without having to make it through a politeness test first?


This sounds like you're doing the other person a favor with this gift of a politeness-free conversation. I think this is deeply flawed and problematic thinking.
posted by Maaik at 8:59 PM on August 19, 2018 [5 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder if the divide in small talk yes/no is actually people who have/have not worked with the public.

You might be on to something.

I'm for instance a bit of a couch potatoe. When I do engage in some sport-adjacent activity after all, I often forget about warm-up. People who do sport more frequently seem to me much less likely to do that!
posted by sohalt at 9:03 PM on August 19, 2018


I think about how I can only imagine what this is like for people who are permanently, visibly disabled. The same line of questioning would be horribly inappropriate: "How long until you can walk again?" "Uhhhh, the rest of my life."
posted by limeonaire


Oh God limonaire, I'm in a wheelchair permanently and I get this question all the time. The worst thing ia when the questioner REFUSES to accept that it is permanent and insists that it could be fixed if I just ate the right diet or used a certain esoteric herbal formula or a regimen of physical therapy or they try to hook me up with their own surgeon (Here let me look up his office for you on my phone- I'm sure he could fix it). I am SICK of being told I could fix it if I would only try harder! It's bad enough when friends pull this shit but from strangers it's infurating.

I try to tell these people that being in the wheelchair is freeing, I can go where I want to without pain. So please, just lets talk about the weather or how awful traffic is.
posted by a humble nudibranch at 9:18 PM on August 19, 2018 [16 favorites]


I mean, I'm probably part of the problem, because I used to have people answer the Proust Questionnaire back when I still taught conversation classes (English as a second language). In my defense, I had people pick whatever questions they felt comfortable answering. I would then collect the answers people were willing to share - there was always the option to share nothing - and have people guess who wrote what. This however turned out fairly difficult, because my students regularly managed to answer these questions purportedly desigined to reveal someone's true nature in a manner that just wasn't all that revealing, and I wouldn't necessarily chalk that up to the language barrier alone.

Turns out lots of people's idea of perfect happiness is spending time with family and friends, their greatest fear is the loss of a loved one, they like honesty and deplore lies, their greatest loves are their kids and the living person they most admire tends to be their mom. (If it's not their mom, they don't pick that question).

There are other questions that would probably elicit more varied answers, but people rarely picked those. No one ever answered "On what occasion do you lie?" (I certainly wouldn't, for a conversation class). But also "historical person you admire" or "what sort of person/animal/thing would you like to be reborn as?" rarely found any takers.

I eventually changed the exercise into printing out celebrity answers and then have people guess the celebrity.

I've been lucky enough to have my share of meaningful conversations, but never when I tried to force it.
posted by sohalt at 10:04 PM on August 19, 2018 [1 favorite]


I was in the elevator with a stranger and I made a comment about the weather. He made a short response and I observed his expression - his eyes flicked forward immediately after responding, and he didn't make a follow-up remark.

This could well be because you were in an elevator: you're in close proximity to a strange with no way for them to flee, so you're forced to violate that stranger's personal space. Attempting to strike up a conversation while in this area suggests an intimacy you don't really have.
posted by Merus at 11:09 PM on August 19, 2018


timely topic! last night i was listening to a string band play at one of those candlelit wine bar places people like me like. a younger woman sat down next to me and asked me what sort of beer she should order. we talked. i said something about the mandolin player, how i heard he was broke but so damn talented... she said he had been awkwardly trying to make conversation with her earlier. she said she was a journalist, having recently written some pieces for the new yorker, but now was stuck in some entertainment industry gig. really? i was a reporter once too! back in the day. city hall, in 04. but it was 10 cents a word, i couldnt make ends meet, so i ended up in law school. she looked puzzled. like, literally 10 cents? well.. yeah, that's what they paid, i said. i told her i was on the state's side in criminal law now, even though i have deep reservations about the US justice system generally. the talk turned to politics ... i griped about the outrage of the day. she looked puzzled. what, you mean trump? he's no worse than the rest. she said, i'm a socialist; it's only out of touch coastal liberals like you with "small little lives" who pretend he's any worse. with that, my small talk engine failed. there was some uncomfortable chortling... i stammered, so.. uh.. what's that book you're reading? she turned the cover over: joan didion, have you heard of her? sure, i said, but i havent read that one, what's it about? she asked, have you ever read shakespeare, ever heard of othello? yeah, i said... i think you're being a bit condescending. no no no! she waved her hands, i meant we're ALL leading small lives, not just you. i turned back to my drink having fulfilled my small talk with a stranger for the month.
posted by wibari at 11:22 PM on August 19, 2018 [10 favorites]


The last "deep" conversation I had with a stranger was at a party, and it involved a guy trying to tell me at length that black holes don't have mass.1 I haven't really felt a keen need for that kind of thing in the years since then.

1More or less the equivalent of saying "Prince had no guitar skills".
posted by Mr. Bad Example at 3:35 AM on August 20, 2018 [6 favorites]


Do actual scientists ever go out of their way to excitedly bend the ear of people not involved in their fields at parties? Cuz it seems to me like everyone I've ever heard go on at length about some vital science "fact" they deemed of great importance was always wrong about some part of what they said.
posted by gusottertrout at 4:11 AM on August 20, 2018


Sometimes I wonder if the divide in small talk yes/no is actually people who have/have not worked with the public.

I doubt it. I'm vehemently anti smalltalk (not because I prefer another kind of talk, just that I'd prefer not to talk, thank you) despite having worked in various customer facing roles in retail and hospitality. Many of my former colleagues from those positions are absolutely in favour of smalltalk (and conversing with strangers more generally) but not all of them.

No, much as you might try and find a way to suggest that being against it is in some way a deficiency born of lack of experience if the world, I suspect it is in fact simply a case of personality and preference.
posted by Dysk at 4:27 AM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


Do actual scientists ever go out of their way to excitedly bend the ear of people not involved in their fields at parties?

It depends on how obscure their field is, I think, or how much knowledge they seem their conversation partner to have. I've certainly had astrophysicists and computer science people get excited at me about particular new discoveries/papers in their field when I've indicated some interest and passing knowledge of the subject. Not so much with the theoretical mathematicians or computational biologists, but that could likely be because I have neither knowledge nor interest there.
posted by Dysk at 4:33 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


This could well be because you were in an elevator: you're in close proximity to a strange with no way for them to flee, so you're forced to violate that stranger's personal space. Attempting to strike up a conversation while in this area suggests an intimacy you don't really have.

That's interesting. In the same elevator I've had some people strike up really lively (though brief) conversations with me - it's in my apartment building so while many of us don't know each other there's a sense of commonality - and some just ride in silence. I assumed he was an introvert or just not feeling chatty, but I can see how for some people the setting could have an impact on their willingness to talk.
posted by bunderful at 5:21 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


Do actual scientists ever go out of their way to excitedly bend the ear of people not involved in their fields at parties?

When I was in grad school it seemed like half the times I mentioned what I was studying, people would excitedly start lecturing me about some misunderstood or totally-made-up "fact" in my field.

And I was sort of like (a) normally I get paid to correct this shit, right now I'm off the clock, and (b) nobody likes being corrected in front of their friends, and in fact some people are huge dicks about it. So a lot of the time I'd just let them go on until they got tired and then change the subject.

I do think there's sort of an art to talking to a person about an interest of theirs that you don't share. Some people were able to hear what I was studying and ask really good conversation-starting questions. "What do you like about it?" and "When did you know that that was what you wanted to do?" are fun ones. Or — power move — there were people who would be like "So can you explain in small words what you're working on?" and then actually listen with interest and engage with the answer. (But I definitely wouldn't start explaining my research to someone who hadn't sincerely asked.)

But then other people heard that I was working on something they didn't understand and treated it as an awkward dead end, or (worse) as a status threat they had to defeat by bloviating at me. None of this seemed to correlate with education or class: I've talked to construction workers and people in retail who were great at turning my weird field of study into a mutually-enjoyable conversation, and loads of engineers who were terrible at it.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:03 AM on August 20, 2018 [7 favorites]


Yeah, but that's a fairly brief encounter; you're not trying to suss out whether you want to be friends or hang out more.

I may have been unclear: I am not talking about his chatting with fares on a ten-minute drive; I am speaking about his singular incuriosity about others in general. I have known this guy for thirty years or more, as classmates, housemates, bandmates. After twenty years, he still did not know how to spell my last name.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 9:36 AM on August 20, 2018 [1 favorite]


It boggles me when people are like, "small talk is so BORING, who wants to talk about the weather or the traffic when we could talk about GOD"

We have literally been talking about god for all of fucking human existence and frankly, we're making little to no progress on the topic. Meanwhile, if we talk about the traffic I might learn about some kind of new city development or learn someone's extremely useful shortcuts. If you think chatting about the world around you is boring, it means you think the world is boring, and in that case we are just not going to get along at all.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:05 AM on August 20, 2018 [19 favorites]


Maybe the divide between those who like small talk and those who don't has to do with which seems like harder work to you - emotional labor or intellectual labor. Small talk, done right, is pretty much all about emotional labor - reading the other person's body language, tone of voice and facial expressions, noticing how they respond to what you say, conveying positive emotions, trying not to make them feel uncomfortable, etc. Just the thought of doing all that work exhausts me (not to mention my uneasiness at the thought of making my conversational partner engage in the same work.)

Other people in this thread have talked about the hard work of responding to non-small-talk questions. That feels less like work to me. If a co-worker (or even a stranger who seemed basically normal and in touch with reality) got into an elevator with me and asked, "What do you think the meaning of life is?" I would both perk up (not just the usual filler chat!) and relax (a conversation with a clear topic and purpose! I know how to do this!) I would be set at ease by the fact that the other person had disregarded normal politeness rules in starting the conversation this way. It would mean I could disregard them too; I could just relax and talk, without worrying about accidentally causing offense. Actually answering the question doesn't feel like hard work to me. (Short answer: "I don't think there is a meaning. We just happen to be here and as long as we are, we might as well enjoy it. What do you think?" Plenty of more complicated thoughts I could go into if there were time.)

Or you could see it as a divide between people who feel like the main purpose of conversation is emotional connection with other people (or at least that's the main thing they want to get out of it) and those who feel like the main purpose is to convey information (or at least that's what they want to get out of it.) I would guess that it's generally the introverts who hate small talk and want to get right to a real exchange of information and the extroverts who enjoy the emotional connection of small talk without even feeling like it's work. I'm an introvert. I find it interesting to learn things about other people. (Amy smokes a little weed every night. Deb claims not to be afraid of death. Joe hated school when he was a kid.) But I don't enjoy trying to intuit things about them through observing subtle cues during our social interactions because I'm not very good at that. And if the only thing that comes out of our conversation is some emotional connection (or a sense that I messed up an opportunity to make an emotional connection), that's not a huge reward for me.
posted by Redstart at 10:15 AM on August 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


The only positive result of those years was what psychologists have described as 'cognitive giftedness in perceiving the intentions of others.' In plain English, I developed an unerring perception of what was in the minds of total strangers by observing facial mannerisms, tone of voice, or body language.

I have an essay that has been in the works for some time which is titled I Am A Very Good Moderator Because I Had A Very Bad Family. I'm not sure I have an opinion on small talk because I am forever trying to suss out other people's feelings about it. I live in a small town and I got a lot better at managing small talk in general when I realized that it was more or less expected, that it was more or less normal, and that I could do what I wanted with that information except pretend I didn't know it. My parents came from two different conversational cultures (Church of Interruption vs. WASPy standoffishness and carefully measured conversations about Topics We All Agree About) and were both non-neurotypical and man it made things confusing. I adore my simple "Hey how about this weather" conversations with people at the dump, they're so non-fraught!
posted by jessamyn at 10:36 AM on August 20, 2018 [9 favorites]


Maybe the divide between those who like small talk and those who don't has to do with which seems like harder work to you - emotional labor or intellectual labor.

Literally dozens of people have written on this thread about the value of small talk in ensuring their social/psychological/physical safety in the presence of a stranger. Reducing this to some kind of "feels vs smarts" battle is more than a little insulting.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 11:14 AM on August 20, 2018 [12 favorites]


Small talk: The stuff you talk about to kill the time while you're waiting for the drugs to arrive
Big talk: The talk you have while consuming the drugs.

Boom.
posted by some loser at 11:26 AM on August 20, 2018 [9 favorites]


A personal example: no sober person ever told me about the time they had to shoot a kid who was charging their position in Georgia (country), looking at me with eyes that were pleading for understanding and possibly forgiveness.
posted by some loser at 11:32 AM on August 20, 2018


Reducing this to some kind of "feels vs smarts" battle is more than a little insulting.

I wasn't really thinking of it as "feels vs. smarts." I didn't think "intellectual labor" was quite the right phrase but I couldn't think of a better one. There are plenty of smart people, like my husband, who aren't good at explaining and justifying their thoughts on the fly and hate feeling put on the spot by being asked to talk about anything complicated. That on-the-fly organizing and explaining of thoughts was the kind of work I wanted to contrast with the emotional labor of small talk.
posted by Redstart at 2:30 PM on August 20, 2018


I would guess that it's generally the introverts who hate small talk and want to get right to a real exchange of information and the extroverts who enjoy the emotional connection of small talk without even feeling like it's work.

I don't know. I'm a card-carrying introvert, but I find small talk with people I honestly don't know--random elevator connection, waiting for a train, old lady watering her flowers--relatively easy to handle, because the stakes are low. Even if I stumble over my own social awkwardness, well, we don't know each other anyway, it's not going to affect anything, and we're not talking about anything emotionally volatile. So I end up relaxing and making conversation more fluently and enjoyably than I can with people I actually have an ongoing connection with.
Also, as some people have pointed out above, "big talk"/exchange of serious information can also carry a freight of emotional labor--if you're talking about religion or family or politics or just about anything to do with human relations...depending on the company and the content. Being able to have these big conversations in a meaningful emotional context, not just reciting your ideas at someone, takes a good deal of emotional labor just to create the context itself, not to speak of expressing yourself and being receptive to what the other person is saying without unneeded pain or conflict.
posted by huimangm at 2:41 PM on August 20, 2018 [14 favorites]


"It seems strange to me that people ever developed the custom of "small talk first" because it's such a sad waste of our short lives. Imagine what it would be like if every encounter with another person was a chance to learn something new and interesting about what life is like for other people or get something new to think about."

First, I don't think it's a waste of time more or less than almost literally anything else. I can't even think of how to begin quantifying whether any given bit of time was "wasted" or what even is the alternative? Time passes regardless of your evaluation of it. If anything, analyzing the worth or value of time is a waste of time in that your body has already decided on the reality while your brain dances around telling itself stories to contextualize reality for its purposes.

There is also a finite amount of care one has to spare for others, someone just now has entered the building and I have zero interest whatsoever in finding basically anything about them. There weren't here a minute ago, they won't be in a few more, and we'll never see each other again -- in fact, he has never seen me at all. This is fine, this is good.

"You should feel comfortable saying anything to a complete stranger, right? I mean, in a hypothetical world where saying anything that came to mind was normal?"

No, not at all. Information is a form of power. In your hypothetical hellscape, a stranger could quickly become an antagonist. There are a million ways to exploit the person who blathers out every thought that comes to mind. The entities who would most stand to benefit from your hypothetical world would be advertisers and I don't see that as a good thing. You'd also have people making strong judgements of you, I know there are already plenty of signifiers in others that let me know I need not consider their opinions, perspectives, or in some cases their lives as worthwhile. Part of the dance of civilization is pretending we value one another equally even though that has never and can never be the case. Politeness and small talk are shields we need, too fucking bad if you aren't good at it or don't like it or whatever.
posted by GoblinHoney at 3:08 PM on August 20, 2018 [9 favorites]


I don't particularly enjoy small talk, although I've developed enough skill at it to be comfortable with discussing recent weather, the morning commute, and whether Starbuck's coupons are worth looking for.

I'm perfectly happy to skip those and move on to the "serious" topics - the fascist brigade that's leading our country off a cliff and trying to drag half the planet with it; the atrocity that is extended copyright law; my intense distaste for celebrating non-Christian holy days on the nearest weekend; what was wrong with AD&D and has never been fixed in editions 2, 3, 3.5, 4, or 5; why Clint/Coulson is hot even though it's a very problematic 'ship; why I can't think the word "Nestlé" without mentally following it with "those babykilling bastards;" how to react to rapists and abusers if you don't have the authority to kick them out of a given space.

These are not what most people want to talk about when stuck in a car for forty minutes with a colleague. The purpose of small talk is (1) Establishing compatible communication styles without a need to sort out topic details, and (2) create pack-bonding feelings with people with whom you may have very little in common.

I can understand the idea of, "well, if you don't have anything on common, why bother talking to them?" But if you're stuck in the same office and you'll be spending several hours a week in each other's company, you may need to have an amicable communication base in order to discuss job-related issues when they arise. That base is not likely to be "the racialised stigmatization and suppression of marijuana use."

(I know the article was about personal details, not "political" topics. But all the ones I mentioned are deeply tied to personal details for me, which I'm not likely to be comfortable discussing directly in a professional setting. On a date, though... look, if they don't agree that Disney is sucking the soul out of the creative potential of the US, we're not going to last long as a couple.)
posted by ErisLordFreedom at 5:12 PM on August 20, 2018 [5 favorites]


Literally dozens of people have written on this thread about the value of small talk in ensuring their social/psychological/physical safety in the presence of a stranger. Reducing this to some kind of "feels vs smarts" battle is more than a little insulting.

Only if you assume one of those things is superior to the other is it insulting, I think?

I liked Redstart's formulation, but I'm the opposite of the formulation so I think it can expanded -- emotional labor is often less work for me than intellectual labor (to use the given framework), and emotional labor on big topics is way easier for me than emotional labor on small topics. I don't care enough about traffic or the weather to have a reasonable emotional response to it. So I like big, deep topics because it's more comfortable for me to have reactions to them. I think it's reasonable to assume that people enjoy conversations with strangers that seem most in their comfort zone.

I am also someone to whom strangers often tell their life stories or open up about their current major stressors while we're waiting in line at Starbucks, even if all I've done is smile distractedly (and I'm a socially anxious introvert, so it's rare I do anything more than look generally pleasant to people I don't know), so while I would never in a million years direct a conversation that way, I've had a lot of practice receiving that level of intimacy from strangers and I've ended up kind of liking it.
posted by lazuli at 6:54 PM on August 20, 2018 [3 favorites]


I really think trying to link this to a simple binary is a mistake, as is any suggestion that somehow "big" topics are more free from the chance of causing offense. Places I've lived, the most common encounter with "big" questions is when someone asks you about your belief in life or god, not out of idle curiosity, but out of a desire to convert you to their belief set. Offense in such situations is not only possible but may be likely depending on your beliefs, but that may just lead to them doubling down on trying to save your sorry ass soul rather than storming off if you seem amenable to their efforts. And if you are fine with that, great! But that is asking for more than just a feeling/thought, either/or assumption.

The idea of small talk, like it or not, is that it can act as a segue into a conversation that is neither about something of minimal interest or something grand and nebulous, but something in between that is of interest to both parties. Starting a talk about the weather can lead to talk about national parks, the fire season, life on the west coast, and from any of those, if they strike a common note, to further commonalities. Talk of that sort can be as personal or impersonal as seems fitting. Some people will bring up their own histories and relate anecdotes from their life while other may just speak of what they know of the subject and connect it to other things they've heard or read, leaving their personal life less open to scrutiny. Both are fine and can flow together when common interests are found and needn't be seen as fitting a thought/feeling binary.

Of course small talk can fail and commonalities not found, but little risk has been assumed in such cases and one moves on. Big topics in the right circumstance, where some commonality of purpose and interest is shared can be great too, but those circumstances aren't so readily available in many situations for a lot of people. Context matters in these things. The framing can be different for parties than for work, for momentary encounters versus those where you'll be sharing the same space with someone for an extended time and so on. Trying to simplify conversation too much will leave out more than can be covered. It's unquestionable that people do differ in their comfort and preferences when it comes to conversation, but that doesn't mean there's only two types of people or method involved where you figure out which one you are, most of us are more complicated than that.
posted by gusottertrout at 11:27 PM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


I've had a lot of practice receiving that level of intimacy from strangers and I've ended up kind of liking it.

this is also true for me, and the opposite has been sometimes true as well. That is, I've shared stuff with complete strangers that I'd never burden my regular network with. Maybe it's a pre-social network thing but I've gotten great value over the years from my random interactions with random strangers, specifically because there is no record, it can be incredibly intimate.

strangely similar to Metafilter now that I think about it


... but without the favorites.
posted by philip-random at 11:41 PM on August 20, 2018 [2 favorites]


I'm great at small talk for, I guess now, 2 reasons. 1) a mother who was unpredictable and lashed out* and 2) smoking. It may be absolutely terrible for my health, but damn if I'm not great at making 10ish minute conversations. With smokers, that usually where it ends because the smoke break is over (until I see them again the next time!), but with others, I can segue into deeper topics.

*From this thread I learned why I am constantly trying to manage emotions (mine and others). It all makes sense now!

I recently moved to a country where I don't speak the language but many people speak English as a second language. This is really put a damper on my small talk efforts. Because I don't speak the local language, I mostly avoid talking to people at all.
posted by LizBoBiz at 4:21 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


These discussions fill me with anxiety.

I really wish there were a pill or hypnosis or surgery that made me enjoy and seek out conversations, and/or a skill set that made them productive. I have a face that constantly looks either angry or tired, which already puts people on edge before we've even exchanged a word. I try to soften my face, overcompensate by being polite, it doesn't really help.

I am introverted, but I don't want to be standoffish or isolated. I wish there were some kind of ARG type app that would let people interface with me in a way that would be comfortable for them, instead of peppering me with questions I don't know how to answer in more than one word, or taking an aggressive 'running start' at me, because I'm so "intimidating"

I'd hoped that being in the IT world would allow me to flourish despite such isolation, but the field has exploded, and like every other field, "Networking" (the verbal kind, not the kind I have a degree in) is the most important skillset, and it depresses me to no end that my future is being held hostage by my inability to navigate real-time conversational trees while simultaneously tracking micron-level facial changes and adjusting on the fly.
posted by Uther Bentrazor at 6:19 AM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]



Only if you assume one of those things is superior to the other is it insulting, I think?

No, the insulting part is the assumption that ensuring one's personal physical/emotional safety is, like, just a random preference based on how much energy one feels like expending. It presumes a level playing field in which 0 participants are harmful and 0 participants are vulnerable.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:15 AM on August 21, 2018 [6 favorites]


I think it's reasonable to assume that people enjoy conversations with strangers that seem most in their comfort zone.

But is it unreasonable to assume that for many people, the comfort zone is "whatever establishes and assures this person won't harass/stalk/harm me"? I would love to expend my emotional energy on something other than that but currently that would be a stupid thing to do. Like I honestly have no idea what kind of conversation I'd rather theoretically have with strangers because currently the kind I like is the one I walk away from safe and intact.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 10:27 AM on August 21, 2018 [2 favorites]


this just popped up on my Facebook
posted by philip-random at 6:08 PM on August 21, 2018 [1 favorite]


There's a thing in some forms of partnered dancing where you just slightly move back and forth with your partner before you do any real steps, just to sort of synch up with each other. Small talk can be kind of like that.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 6:32 PM on August 21, 2018 [5 favorites]


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