Why my internet searching is no good for conversations in polite company

I was having a little pillow talk with DH about how I suck these days at making polite small-talk (this may or may not have been related to spending time with his extended family).

He was all, you’d think with that blog and all that time you spend on the internets you’d have plenty of topics of conversation.

And I was all, we-lllll, not really.

I mean, what do we talk about on the blog?

Feminism.  Nope.  Not in polite company.

Racism.  Nope.  Ditto.

Bragging about kids.  Not with his family (who have their own kids), not at toddler birthday parties, no siree.  Not a chance.

Money.  I wish.  I do get to talk about this with DH’s father, but for the most part this is not a topic of conversation to bring up with DH’s family because we’re doing really well and they don’t want any suggestions.  They really don’t.  Similarly taboo at toddler parties.  Back when we did parties in cities people would ask me about personal finance, investing, and/or the economy once they found out I was an economist, but that hasn’t happened in years.  Maybe because they know they’ll see me again and don’t want to talk about their own finances?  Or maybe because nobody wants to go near talking about politics in polite company (for good reason) in a polarized red-purple state.

There’s still food.  I can totally talk about food.  That’s like the one conversation I was able to participate in over break at DH’s (though I had several opportunities to discuss toddler poop, but chose not to– that’s all on me).  Food is what I talk about when I have to make conversation with a job candidate whose area of research I have no knowledge of.  I like food.  Food is awesome.

Books… I don’t normally talk about books because I sort of only read Spec Fic (and recently I’ve added regency romance).  It’s always exciting when I find out someone else is a Spec Fic reader, but I’ve had work colleagues I’ve known for years and it’s only recently that one of us has come out as a science fiction/fantasy reader.  That’s always exciting, but it’s something one doesn’t talk about.  I recently found out that my RA also comfort reads Georgette Heyer.  But romance reading is something one talks about even less than fantasy!  Most people seem to discuss book club books in polite company and I really don’t read or enjoy them.

In truly nerdy company I used to be able to discuss anime, but nobody watches it and what with the kids and all I don’t really have time to either.  (Though DH and I have been slowly making our way through the third season of Natsume Yujincho.  Apparently if you stop watching anime for a while new seasons come out!)

Interestingly, with the exception of anime, these are all topics I can and do discuss with my family on a regular basis, with politics added as an additional topic when my extended family gets together.  Families are all so very different.

Once the topic of weather has been completely exhausted, I’m a pretty dull person in polite company.  That’s why we have the blog.

What do you talk about when you make small-talk?  Is it anything at all like what you talk about on the internets?  Where do you get topics of IRL conversation?

61 Responses to “Why my internet searching is no good for conversations in polite company”

  1. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    I tell stories about myself until people go away.

  2. First Gen American Says:

    I hate small talk. How are the kids, good. How’s the house, your mom…good. How’s the job…good. If I say anything else you sound like a whiner. I did just have lunch with a friend who spent 5 years in China and just got back and although we talked about kids and work, it was way more interesting because of the whole moving across the world thing. I guess I don’t have trouble talking with friends because we have like interests but it’s harder with strangers with me. Most of the things that interest me are not small talk subjects either. Save there world stuff is only interesting to other community activists…so now I spend more time with them…etc. I guess in the end it’s not a big issue because I don’t spend that much time with people I have nothing in common with. I don’t feel obligated to go to every bday party my kid is invited to. (Only the ones my kid likes). This is not the norm though but I don’t really care.

  3. Taylor Lee @ Engineer Cents Says:

    I loathe small talk. At the same time, it’s rare that I put myself in situations where it is expected for me to make conversation with a relative stranger who cares as little about my life as I do of theirs. When I do though, largely at gatherings at SO’s family or business related, I usually just talk about the weather. There’s a lot of weather out here. Oh boy that weather. Occasionally I’ll also talk about travel, theater, or food, but that really depends on the crowd. Or I ask them banal questions about their life in something they seem excited about, nod a lot, then by the end of the conversation we’ll find it was a weirdly cathartic ritual for us both.

  4. sciliz Says:

    I just assume whatever is on NPR that is not depressing (e.g. their weekend stuff) is appropriate for all contexts. That, and getting people to tell stories about themselves.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hahahahaha! No. (Re: NPR)

      Stories about themselves is really easy in say, Los Angeles, but can be a land-mine in the Midwest where it can seem intrusive. Conferences are nice because you can ask people about their research or talk about your own.

      • The Frugal Ecologist Says:

        I also stick to NPR & food/restaurants in general social situations. Asking about new movies or music is usually good too. I find people usually love to talk about themselves but I have very little experience with midwesterners. But everyone else seems to like it (both coasts & the south).

        But I hear you – with my rural, ranching relatives its much harder (npr is definitely not on the table). I mostly try to ask about their kids and the weather. But there are lots of awkward silences…We only see them 1-2 times a year which doesn’t help with establishing a rapport.

  5. delagar Says:

    It is my theory that this is why people watch sports: so that they can small talk. However, sports bore me sick, so.

    I try not to know people I have to small talk at. That has been my solution. Only hang with people you can talk real talk with. (Caution: may not work for all users.)

    Another solution: Ask people about themselves and their interests. In my experience, people love to talk about themselves. The downside here, you have to listen to them about their interests, which may well not be all that interesting. (Once I had to listen to my father’s friend tell me all about his church politics.) But sometimes the things you hear *are* interesting, like when I heard all about bouldering, so it does balance.

    • Liz Says:

      Completely agree re sports. My partner is, in general, no better at small talk than I am, but because he watches a LOT of sports he always seems to end up in lengthy conversations with other sports fan strangers (and actually enjoys the conversations!)

      I tend to default to movies/TV, travel, or food. Or just inquire about people’s hobbies. One of my relatives, who works in a field where he needs to make a lot of small talk, told me that he follows popular TV shows just enough to make small talk about them, even if he really doesn’t enjoy the show.

    • Bardiac Says:

      I use Delagar’s method, asking people about themselves. The thing is, usually, there’s something interesting there; they know something interesting about local history, local agriculture, and so on. The key is to actually find other people interesting, and to step into their interests a tad.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Random other people used to be more interesting. I suspect they will become more interesting again in the future when my kids are older. They’ll probably be more interesting next year when I don’t have to talk to so many people for work.

  6. Holly@ClubThrifty Says:

    After working in the funeral industry for so many years, I was excellent at small talk. It was part of my job to make people feel comfortable and at ease, and I was good at it. Unfortunately, I lost almost all of those skills after working at home for two years. I can talk about travel if I need to, but my go-to subject is my kids because most people I get stuck making small talk with are family members and they probably care more than a stranger.

    For some reason, I feel like I am politics magnet when people try to talk to me, but I always try to change the subject.

  7. grrlpup Says:

    Pets are the best topic for me, especially dogs because there’s more variation than in housecats. Also, I don’t have kids so can ask what their kids are doing in school this year, and compare it to way back in the 70s when I was a kid. This gets me through it, but may not be super-rewarding for either of us.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Pets is a good one. Nobody seems intimidated by our cats! And I like hearing about pets and seeing pictures and stuff. And people like talking about their animals. I should keep that in mind!

  8. MutantSupermodel Says:

    Wow I am stumped. I am actually really good at small talk, I do it all of the time. BUT I have no idea what I talk about. I am trying to replay the last small talk conversation I had and… I want to say that I generally ask questions. So where are you from, what do you do… I also discuss pop culture news. Food. I totally talk about food. Upcoming events (do you have any plans for blahblahblah). Yeah basically I interview them. That way I can just listen.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I’ve noticed that that’s really common with people from LA too (probably also Miami, but I don’t know as many people from Florida!) Different areas seem to react differently to the interview style vs. sharing style of communication.

  9. Flavia Says:

    Real estate: houses, old houses, fixing up houses, who does good restoration & repair work, neighborhoods, gardening (which I don’t really do but can nod along to), etc. Also uncontroversial civic matters, like building projects, highway redesign, revitalized districts. New restaurants, rehabbed libraries, city hall, theaters.

    But like lots of commenters, my real strategy is to ask lots of questions and be a good listener (or at least appear to be). Much less taxing as an introvert. Or I trot out funny self-deprecating stories about whatever, to entertain.

  10. Cloud Says:

    If you work in tech, sci fi books and TV and movies are VERY common topics of small talk. So I can talk about that.

    In general, I do fine with small talk in work contexts, because I can ask the other person about what they do (or want to do). I struggle more in more general contexts, such as events at my older daughter’s school. But then, we’re all at the same school so I talk about how their kid is liking school, etc.

    For really random people, there’s the weather. Although right now in California, that can actually lead you to a political conversation, which I generally avoid.

    Mostly, my goal is to ask a question that gets the other person talking, and then go from there. Of course, sometimes I am on the receiving end, and sometimes that is OK and sometimes I struggle. I really struggle with “what do you do?” sorts of questions in random contexts right now, because I never know how much of the story to tell. If I’m at a biotech networking event, I stick to the consulting angle. But out in the wider world… I don’t know. Mostly I stick to the consulting thing, because otherwise people start to look at me like I’m more than just a little bit weird.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      “what do you do” can be so fraught in parenting events because of the SAHP thing… sometimes they seem to think you’re implying that the only value to anybody’s time is work (even though “do” could be anything, including hobbies!) I guess there’s always, “What do you do for fun”, though I hate being asked that because my answers never seem to lead to more conversation mainly because my hobbies aren’t that interesting to the average person.

      I used to be more interested in people so it was easier to be genuinely interested in the answers to small-talk questions, but these days I have to fake it more and would rather just not talk or listen. I become more and more of a misanthrope in my old age!

  11. Leah Says:

    I make small talk daily, as we have discussions over lunch in the dining hall. We talk about weather plenty (oh, the midwest), geography, travel, music, plays, TV shows, the students . . . sometimes, it veers into politics, but that’s gotten somewhat ugly before. We talk about movies a lot, even if I haven’t seen the movie. I know about a lot of movies from listening to other people’s small talk. Food is a great topic.

    Sports! Sports is good for small talk. I follow enough that I can keep up with things, and people love to talk about their sports teams. Asking someone if they’re a packers or vikings fan here can easily eat up a good 10 minutes.

    I know the right people to talk about science with here, and that comes up a lot. All sorts — astronomy, medical science, genetics, etc. All popular science type stuff.

    That said, there are days when I’m not in the mood for small talk. That’s when I go home, eat lunch on my couch, and watch Gilmore Girls.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I don’t really have any problem chatting with students, but that seems more like teaching to me because I’m often giving lessons (see, correlation is not causation!) or advice (you can do it, go for it!) along with the chatter.

  12. Ana Says:

    Small talk is my nemesis. Awkward silences abound. My kids are young enough that I can just…hover…at parties. At work, I ask about what their research or clinical interests are. I have no clue about sports. Weather can only go so far. Food is definitely always good. Vacations/travel plans. Or if someone mentions a hobby I find even slightly interesting, I ask lots of questions (gardening, rock climbing, animal rescue…all of these came up recently)

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Even though it would smooth a lot of social situations, I cannot bring myself to care enough about sports to even know what *season* it is. (Though I do know the college season somewhat because college football dictates when we can go grocery shopping on weekends!)

      • Leah Says:

        One of the teachers here makes all his students do a bracket for March Madness so they’re at least vaguely familiar with basketball. Doing a bracket can be good bonding in some workplaces. I do one every year based on schools I like or places I enjoy visiting. Sometimes works well.

  13. Debbie M Says:

    My craft group mostly talks about books, terrible things happening to them at work (too much travel, bosses trying to get them to do illegal or immoral things, co-workers with over-the-top imperfections, etc.), other kinds of bad news (health issues, family and pet deaths), female issues (how to find a good bra, what hot flashes are like), and of course craft topics. Mostly books and work. Oh, and food. Basically, we stand around the food getting things off our chests. Then we move on to doing crafts and talk about more fun things.

    With my boyfriend I talk about everything.

    With my friend we’re taking Spanish with, I talk about new stuff we’re learning in Spanish a lot (and easy ways to remember it or sources of better explanations). I love when there’s suddenly a new common interest with friends. We also talk about frugality and dancing a lot.

    At big parties, I’m mostly stuck with asking them to catch me up on their life and trying to remember cool things from my recent life. So topics include travel, books, movies, TV, current job or job prospects, work stories, and of course what the best foods are at the party that we should make sure to try before they’re gone.

    Oh, and I learned from PBS when I was in college that wherever you meet somebody, you have something in common. Of course at college you could ask what their major is. At parties you could ask how they met the host. If your kids are in the same day care or private school, ask how they picked that place. Often the conversation just takes a life of its own after that.

    Of course with some people you also have to try to stay away from certain topics, which is a whole other skill. There’s one gal who, to this day, I still don’t know how she broke her arm that one time because I learned to never ask her about anything that could lead to complaining. I also try to never let people talk to me about their computer problems, but I suck at that, especially when they’re on their computer when they call me and then start experience said problems.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I think some of my problem is just the not caring enough to put forth the effort to ask questions to which I don’t care about the answer. I have become a horrible person who should not be let out outside of work hours!

      On the internet it’s easy to participate in conversations that are interesting (to me) and nobody thinks it impolite to decline to participate in uninteresting (to me) conversations. IRL… sometimes it’s a choice between an awkward silence and hearing even more about toddler poop.

      • Debbie M Says:

        I also love being able to ignore things on the internet in ways that you just can’t in person.

        Ideally you can think up questions for which the answers have a high probability of being interesting. Ugh, asking about things I already know I don’t care about? I could not do that. (Well, at gunpoint I could.)

  14. Linda Says:

    Small talk with family members whom you have little in common with is a challenge. I struggle with suitable small talk mainly with my father and stepmother, but they’re old enough now that I usually ask about their health and just listen. We also talk about dogs, since they have two and I have one, and other relatives and how they’re doing.

    Since I’m new to this area, when in small talk situations I can ask people for their suggestions on stuff like dry cleaners, salons, restaurants, etc. That’s usually good for some conversation. At knit night last night I mentioned a book I’m reading (The Girl in the Road, which I’m really enjoying and would prefer to be reading right now!) and a podcast I’m listening to (Guys We F****d), but I wouldn’t mention the latter to relatives. ;-)

    I can’t add anything that others haven’t already chimed in on for general small talk situations: pets, movies, home stuff, hobbies.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      I used to have more in common with some of DH’s family members but there’s definitely been a growing apart as we go one direction with our lives and his siblings’ families go another.

  15. J Liedl Says:

    I do try and trawl the news on a weekly basis for fodder – topics that are interesting but fairly banal in terms of politics or personal beliefs. For instance, Ontario’s debating ending the beer store monopoly – everybody has an opinion, even the non beer drinkers! I’m then rewarded by a lively discussion in which I have to participate only lightly.

    Beyond that, I’ll bring up some books and blockbuster movies if I think there’s a chance one of those topics will “take”. I’m not good on celebrity gossip and my other viewing choices are pretty idiosyncratic but because I publish and teach on some topics that intersect heavily with pop culture and current interests *cough* history of crime *cough*, I can usually get people talking about Sherlock Holmes or Star Wars if nothing else.

    • Linda Says:

      Ontario without beer stores???!!! Wow! What about LLBO? Will they keep those around, or are they already gone? (It’s been a while since I’ve been in Ontario.)

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        That one obviously works!

        I can do pop culture, but oddly a lot of the people I talk to either can’t or their opinions are so -ist that I just can’t even, you know?

  16. NZ Muse Says:

    Hopeless at it. Prefer to let the other person talk while I listen, wherever possible.

    Colleagues often seem happy to talk shop, one in particular always has complaints about work.

  17. OMDG Says:

    I have a similar problem, only in my case when talking to people who are not in health care, I have to suppress a desire to correct every idiotic thing they say about health/science/medicine, and also avoid telling patient stories (people outside of medicine do NOT get this). I spend so much time suppressing these things that I have a hard time coming up with topics that are socially appropriate. Lately I’ve been asking people their opinions about schools, which I realize is a loaded topic, but I don’t freaking care anymore. I also ask them if they are moving to the suburbs, if they have family locally, etc.

    I like the strategy of asking other people what they are into, but of course I also run into the problem of not giving a crap when they tell me what that is. Which happens frequently.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh, I don’t suppress these things. I just correct. I’m a real blast to have around. Which is probably why people avoid these topics around me! Back in the day people used to ask me about the economy and about personal finances when they found out I was an economist, but these days I just get uncomfortable silence if I’m asked what I do. Actually, more likely they ask me what I teach and I say, “usually statistics” and that kills any conversation. Unless it’s a medical research doctor (our biggest party throwing friends are a married MD couple) in which case they start asking me how to do stats that they should be asking a psychologist to do and not me. (“I do more large sample stuff… you really need to talk to a psychologist for anything beyond a simple t-test.”)

      The not giving a crap is my biggest thing. It’s like, I know *how* to make small talk about things other people care about that I don’t care about but I don’t *want* to.

      • Revanche Says:

        Yesss this is a huge problem for me. I can genuinely be interested in some things but just cannot muster the energy to care if they’re into celebrity crap or stuff like that. I need something somewhat substantive and not at all connected to paparazzi.

      • Linda Says:

        I feel that way about sports and celebrity stuff, too. I simply cannot feign any interest in them at all. If I MUST try to say something pleasant in a small talk setting about these things (such as when it’s a work social/mixer thing) I either make myself sound a bit apologetic that I don’t know anything about it, and/or try to turn the conversation. I may nicely ask why it interests them so much, too (“Do you like basketball because you played it in college or high school?”). If it’s not a work or professional thing I simply say something like “I don’t follow sports,” or “I don’t follow celebrities.”

      • jlp Says:

        I’ve led two lives, and both lead to dead silence after someone asks me what I do/did (practicing psychologist; statistician). Though there was the one time that the woman thought I said “aesthetician,” and started asking me all sorts of beauty advice questions. That was confusing and entertaining.

        Oh, and having been in both professions, I’d recommend you start directing to them to statisticians, rather than psychologists. =)

    • Ana Says:

      Yes, but if you don’t suppress the desire, it quickly becomes awkward, because they will counter that their “xyz homeopathic/herbalist/yoga teacher/sister in law etc…” said so and their opinion is AS VALID as yours so we will agree to disagree and I want to kill someone. Its different with medical/health stuff for some reason, EVERYONE IS AN EXPERT and they will differ to no amount of training/knowledge/experience.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        I never agree to disagree. I just lecture. ;) I do avoid these conversations with DH’s relatives or anybody I will ever have to see again though.

  18. Revanche Says:

    I’m basically awkward as all get out when it comes to making actual small talk. My life is much easier when they talk about themselves until I spot an in…though I didn’t really think about the “asking about them” style being more interview/interrogative when I use it. I do remember meeting up with a blogger back in ye olde days who used it inquisition-style and I was so creeped out I never spoke to them again. I like to know about people’s lives, genuinely, but mostly so I know if they are awesome or terrible. Some are in between.

    I prefer talking about pets, and now that LB is here folks who are family planning all want to talk about hir, but I’d rather talk pets. Dogs are great. Cats are hilarious and interesting.

    Sometimes I’ll ask about their work and try not to let my eyes glaze over if it’s a bad choice. People can go on about work like wow.

  19. sophylou Says:

    I’m not great at small talk; being a non-foodie in the academic world is sort of an ongoing low-grade problem in that area. I actually sort of like to talk about academic work — that of others. My actual job, I’m not that interested in talking about because it can get into “oh, you’re a doctor, will you look at this rash on my arm?” territory quickly depending on who I’m talking with.

    The relatively innocuous question “So where are you from?” recently became exponentially difficult for me. I used to just say “St. Louis” because no one’s ever heard of the suburb I grew up in, in nowheresville, St. Louis County. Now, however, I get blinky and nervous, because by now EVERYONE ON THE PLANET has heard of where I grew up. Which sometimes leads me into interesting conversations. And other times, um, does not.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Oh gee. I actually had that problem a few years ago for a different but similar reason, though thankfully now everybody is back to “where?”

      • sophylou Says:

        Sadly, I have the feeling that it’s going to be a LONG time before people say “where?” about Ferguson.

        I had a long, fascinating conversation with a student after a class where I’d mentioned that I was from Ferguson; she was from a town that had been the site of a spectacularly awful act of racial violence, and so had also experienced having her town become a buzzword. We had a great long talk about race relations in our towns (she was African-American, I’m white), and what it was like to have a town you’d been DYING to get out of as a teenager b/c of its backwardsness suddenly be in the spotlight — all the complicated, mixed feelings, because it’s where you’re from, after all, but it’s also someplace you wanted NOT TO BE when you were actually living there.

      • nicoleandmaggie Says:

        Yeah, it’ll be a while longer than it was for me before you get to the, “Now where have I heard that name before?”

      • sophylou Says:

        That’s actually something I talked about in my instruction this semester, how words, place names, etc. become keywords — “Ferguson” may become a keyword along the lines of “Selma,” for example.

  20. Thisbe Says:

    I don’t love making small talk but I think it is necessary so I learned to do it.

    There is the Interesting Fact method – before going to whatever event, learn a few things that are cool but not controversial.

    I have a friend who was a public radio producer and at an impressionable age, I watched her amazing natural skill at getting her interlocutor to be maximally engaged and fascinating in five minutes or under. That formed in me a deep belief that if a conversation is boring to me, it is at least as likely that I am being boring as the person with whom I am speaking.

    If people have interests that I don’t know much about (most sports; most tv and movies; their kids; etc) I just tell them that I don’t know much about that and encourage them to teach me about it. This is rarely as boring as one might fear, and helps me expand my horizons a little bit.

    But maybe what all of this boils down to is that I generally don’t find other people boring, I am just shy and have to work at talking to folks.

  21. Comradde PhysioProffe Says:

    Ok, I’ve figured it out! Sharks! Before you go to a party or whatever, Google up the latest shark shittio. Like, who wouldn’t want to talk about this f+cken cougar that grabbed a shark out of the mother*cken ocean??


    Everybody is interested in sharks! Because, SHARKS!

  22. chacha1 Says:

    I am trying to think of a situation where I needed to make small talk. :-) I guess my human interactions are so limited that it just doesn’t arise very often! I mean, I’m either at work (where we talk about work) or at home with the husband (where we talk about what’s for dinner and what new stupidity his family has come up with) or we’re doing something with friends (where we talk about what we’ve all done since the last time we saw each other).

    In gathering-type situations with mostly acquaintances – as at a friend’s annual New Year’s Day party – I seem to be good at prompting conversations that are threatening to die. Generally I’m content to just sit and listen, and contribute the odd comment. In situations like that, with people who are not really close friends but with whom we want to maintain a cordial and civil relationship, we are nearly always in a “common interest” group (dancing or fitness or whatever) which gives us a built-in default topic.

  23. Making friends as a professor or as an adult | Grumpy Rumblings (of the formerly untenured) Says:

    […] friends are conference buddies.  I see and socialize with people I like and enjoy talking with (small-talk even!) a few times a year.  Sometimes we email in between, sometimes we don’t.  Sometimes […]

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