Don’t Talk To Me In An Elevator

Awkward

Awkward

Small talk is not something everyone is going to be good at. That’s fine, just making an effort in most social situations is good enough. However, I have one rule that I try to stick to as often as possible: do not engage in a conversation unless you both have an opportunity to leave at any moment.

This doesn’t really apply with close friends and family, because presumably you want to be talking to these people and hanging out in their houses. If you run into your best friend on line at the pharmacy, chances are they’ll want to talk to you. But with acquaintances/co-workers this is a different story. For instance, last week I got in the elevator at my office as I was first coming in, and another woman (someone I don’t work with) got in with me. It was just after 9 so I was still considering this ride part of my commute, and was mentally preparing myself for the day, when she begins talking to me about how my shoes match her shirt, and weather, and whatnot. There was nowhere to run, and it is a very slow, old elevator. It was my personal hell.

I’m not a jerk (I hope) so I made the required gestures and responses, but inside I was dying. It seemed to me accepted behavior to just nod at everyone in an elevator as you get on, unless you were already talking with someone you knew as you were both waiting. And if this isn’t accepted behavior, then dammit, it should be.

In a larger sense, why would you even want to conduct a conversation when you are literally trapped with the person? You have to know they are only conversing with you out of a lack of other options, not out of any sort of enthusiasm or interest. That’s just no way to treat someone.

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Small Talk That Doesn’t Sound Like Nonsense

Old movies often have great examples of small talk.

If you haven’t read “How to be Polite” by Paul Ford, please do so immediately because it is lovely. What struck me was this paragraph:

Here’s a polite person’s trick, one that has never failed me. I will share it with you because I like and respect you, and it is clear to me that you’ll know how to apply it wisely: When you are at a party and are thrust into conversation with someone, see how long you can hold off before talking about what they do for a living. And when that painful lull arrives, be the master of it. I have come to revel in that agonizing first pause, because I know that I can push a conversation through. Just ask the other person what they do, and right after they tell you, say: “Wow. That sounds hard.”

Which is really good advice and got me thinking about small talk. Small talk is a really important skill because it helps to make everyone comfortable in a situation where either the conversers don’t know each other well or you are somewhere where you need to watch what you talk about. As fun as it is to talk about sex and politics, it’s not always appropriate, which is where small talk comes in. Small talk also allows you to get to know someone so that you can then get to all the deeper fun conversations (or you can always follow my example and get really drunk and overshare- boom you are best friends!)

Talking about the weather gets a bad rap, but honestly, it’s something we all have in common, it’s easy to talk about, and with climate change, there is always something new and exciting going on.

A good way to build a chit-chatty conversation is to find something you have in common- usually something about the event or the place you are at. Then make a comment about how you relate to that commonality. Then ask them a question about the commonality and them. Then try to ask more questions and give more comments about yourself, trying to keep the questions and comments balanced so you don’t overwhelm someone with questions or bore them by talking about yourself. Extra credit: if someone walks up to you during this chitty chatty exchange, bring them in! Tell them what you are talking about! Ask their opinion! Talk for a few minutes then excuse yourself and go talk to someone else. This is called “mingling.”

Small talk is hard! It takes practice, so don’t be hard on yourself if you aren’t good at it. When I was a pre-teen, my mom actually got a bee in her bonnet about small talk and she would take me out to dinner and be like “okay, now give me some small talk.” I was so bad at it that I would be absolutely silent in the car over because I had to save up all the interesting news from my day to talk about over dinner! Jaya thinks this is bananas, btw, but it really did help. I didn’t get REALLY comfortable with it until going through sorority rush for a couple of years- as a chapter, we would actually practice having conversations for HOURS so that we didn’t sound awkward or weird to potential recruits. Then I got REALLY comfortable with it when I started going on a million first dates via OkCupid and had the same conversation a hundred times.

So practice on a friend! Practice in a mirror! Go out for drinks with strangers from the internet! Because when you have it, you can talk to anyone and make everyone comfortable and  they will call you charming.

Speaking of making small talk! Come make small talk with us at our One Year Uncommon Courtesy Anniversary Party! Saturday, September 13 at Otto’s Shrunken Head, New York City. 7pmish. Add yourself to our Facebook event.

How To Avoid Rude Small Talk

Get it?

Get it?

Small talk! It’s weird and often uncomfortable, but we all have to do it otherwise we’d never make friends/would always be that person standing just outside of a conversation. You have to wade through the small talk to get to anything interesting! Or you can be like me this weekend and drunkenly start talking to strangers about their love lives before you get their names, but maybe you shouldn’t do that.

Here’s my theory: I don’t think you should open a conversation with a stranger/acquaintance with the most obvious thing about them. For example, if you meet a pregnant woman, don’t ask her about her pregnancy. Maybe she’ll bring up her pregnancy on her own, and then you can talk about it, but maybe she’ll want to talk about her job and her other interests because she’s sick of being asked about morning sickness. The same thing goes for someone getting married, on a job search, or applying to college. They may want to keep talking about it, but there’s also a good chance they’re completely talked out.

This doesn’t count for everyone. If you’re asking your own teenage son about how high school is going? Duh. Are you a Maid of Honor asking the bride how planning is going? Makes sense. But you have to make sure you’re close, which generally means friends-who-talk-constantly or close family (meaning you have a relationship outside seeing each other three times a year at whole-family gatherings). Below are a couple of suggestions as to questions/comments to avoid, and as always leave yours in the comments!

For an Engaged/Married Person

  • I’m so excited for the wedding!—Did you get an invitation yet/have the couple verbally confirmed you’re invited? If not, don’t assume anything, even if you’re close to them.

  • Are you dieting?—Usually followed by a weird stare if you say “no,” or a push for details if “yes.” Weird either way. Plus it comes off as you thinking the person in question should be dieting.

  • When are you having kids?—This is SUCH a personal question, and can often be painful to the person/couple in question. Maybe they have a medical condition that prevents them from having kids and don’t want to talk about it, or maybe they flat out don’t want kids. It should never be a question of “when.”

  • Unless you know for sure that one person in the couple is really into planning and the other is really not, ask both people the same questions and use plural pronouns. This is especially an issue with heterosexual couples, where everyone has a tendency to ask the bride-to-be about wedding planning and issues, and continues to ask the groom-to-be about his job, his hobbies, or anything else going on in his life.

For a Single Person

  • Any variation on “why are you still single?”—First off, single is not a “still.” Plenty of people are just fine with being single. And even if they’re not, this pretty much just blames them for their relationship status. Often this comes in the “But you’re so pretty/smart/interesting!” iteration, which both suggests that a) these are objective requirements to finding a partner and b) it’s somehow the person in question’s fault for not finding someone attracted to these things. Relationships aren’t science, and they take a heavy dose of luck.

For a Pregnant Person

  • Do you want a boy or a girl?—What is your expected answer here? “Oh man, I just want a boy so bad. If it’s a girl I’ll be so heartbroken. Nine months for nothing.”

  • When are you due?—True story: When I was in New Zealand I went shopping with another woman for sausage. This woman had a two-year-old daughter and still had some “baby weight” or whatever bullshit you want to call it. Anyway, the butcher gave me a slice of one sausage to try but hesitated giving it to her, joking that it was made with wine. She looked at him quizzically, and he gestured to her stomach in a “you know, because you’re pregnant” sort of way. She wasn’t pregnant. Do not assume anyone is pregnant.

For Kids

  • Where are you going to college?/Are you going to college?—This is specific to a certain class that assumes college is in the cards, but for the entirety of high school any adult talking to me only wanted to talk about SATs and college applications.

For Anyone

  • You look great! Have you lost weight?—Unless this person maybe lost 400 pounds and is super proud of it, no. Skinny does not necessarily equal healthy or beautiful.

  • You look tired today—I get this so much when I don’t wear makeup. It’s my normal face. My normal face looks bad to you? Ok.