How many times have you been at a party and found yourself stuck in a crap, surface level conversation thinking, “I need to get out of this, it’s not going anywhere.”
And that’s just when the small talk is bland – let alone when it’s making you actively uncomfortable thanks to the subject matter raised, or the type of questions being asked.
We’re faced with small talk constantly. Not just at parties, but in the lunchroom at work, before client meetings, in Ubers, at bars, at the hairdressers, at networking events, and more.
At absolute best, it can be insightful and perhaps lead to a new friendship, contact or opportunity.
And at the extreme end of bad, just five minutes of banter could leave someone feeling uncomfortable, anxious or in tears.
Unfortunately, this type of shit small talk is everywhere.
Laziness at the core
I don’t think bad small talk comes from a place of ill intent, but it’s certainly got a lot to do with making fast judgements and resorting to a passive approach.
When we meet people, we tend to do a quick guess of where they fit into society’s ‘typical’ structures. We look at their age, ethnicity, likely employment status, relationship status, personal style, or see a baby bump, then dive into a topic we think might suit.
The trouble is, a lot of seemingly ‘surface level’ subjects can actually be really personal and feel invasive.
Worse case scenarios
My partner and I were together for 11 years before we got engaged. The ‘obvious’ small talk topic for everyone seemed to be, “When are you going to get married?”
Enquiries were primarily directed at me. As a traditionalist at heart, who wanted my man to get down on one knee, I thought, “Why ask me and not him? What do they want me to do about it?”
I used to get upset, and at times extremely angry, as it was like poking a bruise.
But just after we got married it got worse. The small talk topic seamlessly transitioned into, “Are you having kids?”, or, “When are you having kids?”
After the wedding, I trained myself to deal with these questions, without feeling the road-rage I had in the past. But then, we had a miscarriage. These questions now felt like a stab in the heart. I would fight the urge to sob or throw up, regardless of who was around me.
I’d often have a brief desire to tell them the truth of what my husband and I had been through, and are still going through, to make the person feel my pain. But social norms meant I’d smile, give an evasive answer, and hide what was really going on inside.
You’ll have your own version of something that triggers you. It might be, “What do you do for work?”, “When will you meet the one?”, “What university did you go to?”, “When are you going to buy a house?”
Like we looked at in What if I’m not a family?, for the many people not fitting into typical social ‘structures’, questions like these can bring on a sense of displacement and severe discomfort or pain. Suddenly, while mingling with a wine, you’re reminded that ‘you aren’t there yet’ — wherever the hell ‘there’ is.
Often, we end up revealing more than we really want to, because we don’t know how to deflect the question, or we don’t like confrontation and are polite.
And while it’s also up to us when we’re the receiver of questions to have some skills to manage our reactions, with a bit more effort on everyone’s account, there’s no need for small talk to be a big nightmare.
Stepping up our skills
I’ve come to realise that when it comes to small talk, people don’t really know what to say, or how to manage a conversation.
But we need to recognise that our crap conversation skills could be impacting someone else’s happiness long after we’ve left them.
We all need to do a bit more work to make small talk, at the very least, a moment that ‘does no harm’. We can remember that not everyone’s fitting into social norms, and could have much better stories to share given the chance.
Asking the questions
When we’re asking the questions, can we steer away from putting people into pigeon holes and be a bit more creative? Can we allow space for people to bring up topics that are comfortable for them?
For example, asking “What keeps you busy?” is less assumptive than “What do you do for work?”
“Are you bingeing on a TV series you’d recommend?” is more lighthearted than, “How’s the dating scene treating you?”
“How do you know the birthday host?” or “What have you been up to today?” can keep you on neutral ground.
With open questions, people can jump into a conversation at whatever level of intimacy they choose. It gives them the platform to bring things up in their own time, on their own terms.
We can also try and ‘read’ the room by keeping an eye on people’s responses. If someone is evasive, just quickly move on. We don’t need to blunder into a topic, then drag someone in kicking and screaming to what we want to talk about!
As the recipient
Remember in my blog, Let’s Choose Happiness, where I said that people who are happy ‘now’ are the ones that take ownership of their actions? They don’t outsource the responsibility for their happiness to others.
Well, we can take this idea to small talk and be ready to make it add to our happiness, not deplete it.
This means having some self-awareness about the topics that can trigger our discomfort, and having some neutral/non-disclosing answers ready if awkward questions come up again. I now know how to deal with family questions without lashing out, or doing myself a disservice.
Small talk to great talk
When I see people in a once-or-twice-a-year kind of way, I want to have easy conversations and leave feeling good. And I don’t want to make anyone else feel uncomfortable and desperate to escape.
So let’s not be lazy. Let’s not make fast assumptions. Let’s ask open questions so people can jump into the chat in a way that suits them.
At the same time, we can be aware of what we’re personally comfortable talking about, and be confident in sticking to our boundaries, and protecting our happiness.