Ask the grumpies: How do you make small-talk?

Leah asks:

Do you have any techniques for keeping conversation going without being overly personal or monopolizing the conversation? What do you do when chatting with really quiet people?

#1  A lot of this is going to vary by region of the country (or world, even!).  It’s polite to ask extremely intrusive questions in Los Angeles, for example, but you should MYOB about so many things in the Midwest.  Where you are will also determine if you volunteer information or ask direct questions.

We LOVE LOVE LOVE talking about the weather, like any true midwesterner!

#2:  We’re so introverted. I hate small talk. If people are really quiet, I leave them alone. I guess you could ask about books or movies, or comment on the weather? If you wanted?

#1:  My ability to keep conversation going has a lot to do with how much of my own introvert energy I’ve depleted.  One good thing to do is if someone asks you a question, to mirror it back to them after you’ve briefly answered it.  “So, what about you, [repeat question]?”  People seem to like that.  I will often leave really quiet people alone too, because when I’m really quiet it’s usually because I want to be alone or to just listen.  I may try a polite question/comment about the weather in case it’s just that they don’t know anybody, but if that ends up as a dead end, I’ll take the clue and move on.

How does the Grumpy Nation keep up civilized discourse? 

13 Responses to “Ask the grumpies: How do you make small-talk?”

  1. Miser Mom Says:

    I tell people I’m looking for an interesting book to read, and ask if they have suggestions for me. It’s an unusual, yet flattering enough question that many people really seem to enjoy thinking about it. And that can lead into really interesting topics of conversation, about something the person cares about. Plus, it often gives me a lead for the next time I have open space for leisure reading.

    Every once in a while, the person will just basically say, “no”. In that case, I figure no other conversational gambit would have worked either, and the person doesn’t mind being left alone.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      Hank Green asks people about their favorite bridge.

      To be perfectly honest, the only time I have to really make small talk is in academic settings like conferences and for that there are two questions: 1. So, what are you working on these days? 2. How are things at [your department/university]?

  2. Debbie M Says:

    Once conversation has started, I don’t generally have trouble keeping it going.

    I had to learn how to start it from PBS: If you’re both in the same place, you probably have something to talk about. At college: what’s your major? At parties: “how do you know the host?” My first try at this was an obvious question–I was accompanying a friend to a college interview for med school, and I just asked this other guy, “So, you’re applying to med school?”

    And then after that, conversation just magically flows. It really does just seem like magic to me, so I can’t explain it. I guess topics come up that can be easy to think of follow-up questions for.

    My first boyfriend could think of millions of questions to ask new people. I found I liked to just hang around listening to the interesting answers that would come out, especially if he found out someone was from a foreign country.

    Ideally, ask questions about which you are genuinely curious.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      One of my problems these days is just that I don’t have enough bandwidth to care about other people. I’ve been way better in the past.

    • Fiona McQuarrie Says:

      I really like that idea of “if you’re both in the same place, you probably have something to talk about”. “So why are you here?” might be a little too direct in some situations, but something phrased along those lines would be a great place to start.

  3. becca Says:

    When I was in Michigan during a particularly snowy winter, I loved chatting about the weather with the tech in our lab. He was native midwesterner, and we would talk about Real Things every once in a while (my Mom was in hospice and his Dad had been diagnosed with ALS), but mostly skirt around them because well, it just wasn’t His Way (also, too much emotion is hard at work). But we would always talk about the weather. He had been trained by his father to not *complain* about the weather mind, that was very much A Thing.

    The “whoops I went too personal with that disclosure” feeling is a common occurrence for me- my cultural family background was very high disclosure, and many academics are richer/more WASP culturally and so that is hard for me. Or possibly I’m just personally awkward.

    When I do fine with academics, it’s because I can talk about almost any area of biomedical stuff with some comfort, and if not can transition things to related-but-relevant conversation (like data management, or clinical relevance, or the drug development pipeline or whatever). I am reasonably good about making small talk about medical stuff with most people, though I often end up having to avoid telling them their nutrition/acupuncture/meditation/God/voodoo explanation is WRONG.

    My best friend as a teenager was absolutely astonishing at asking questions- she’d always have like a million and she got to know people really easily. It’s always struck me as kind of a super power.

  4. chacha1 Says:

    I guess I’m lucky, because my job very rarely (like, almost never) puts me in a position to make small talk with people who are not co-workers. With co-workers of course you have a built-in topic (in my field: the iniquities of lawyers and the failings of management). I’m not in education and I don’t have kids, so I don’t have to go to events where I’ll be meeting otherwise-strangers to whom I’m connected only by students/kids. Generally, the only situations I’m ever in where small talk might be indicated are situations like work where there is a built-in topic, e.g., a ballroom dance event. If you meet someone and have to say something, the dancing is the default subject. :-)

  5. crazy mama, PhD Says:

    “Got any fun plans this weekend?” Sometimes the answer is no, and then we commiserate about housework or nod together about how nice it is to just sleep in and kick back on the couch.

    • nicoleandmaggie Says:

      That’s a good one!

    • gasstationwithoutpumps Says:

      That one would annoy me a little—my plan for the weekend is 15 hours of grading (as it is almost every weekend). Every once in a while I can add going to see a play, or this weekend going to buy a mug from my favorite potters to replace the one the kitten broke 3 months ago. But I don’t really like being reminded that other people get to have fun every weekend.


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