How are you, really? The complexities of small talk

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Formerly published in The Other Press. Oct. 16 2012

It’s not the size that matters

By Elliot Chan, Contributor

Small talk doesn’t need to happen, but it does. Often overwhelmed by the awkward silence between two people, small talk manifests itself in various occasions from waiting in line for coffee to mingling at a social gathering. Since it’s too strange to smile at someone and not say anything, we might as well try to perfect the skill. Properly conducted small talk will make a big impression, but there’s the possibility that negative repercussions will leave you looking like either an obnoxious rambler or a disregarding jerk.

While some of us have busy lives and are eager to get things done, others are lonely and starved for human contact. The key is being able to identify which is which. So before you ask someone how he or she is doing, ask yourself if you even care. A simple “Good morning,” or “Hello,” might sound drab and boring, but it’s a polite way of putting the conversation onus on the other person.

Some people prefer entering a conversation with “How are you doing today?” and most of the time it’s harmless, but every so often you’ll find someone who just isn’t doing well and wants to vent. Sure, you might’ve helped that person relieve some stress, but they also murdered a chunk of your day. Is it worth it? If you don’t want to know how someone’s weekend was, don’t ask. If you don’t really care how their family is doing, don’t inquire about them. To avoid exiting a conversation early and leaving the person feeling rejected, it is important to understand what you want out of the small talk.

There’s nothing wrong with the classics. Talking about the weather has become a cliché or a bad habit, but why should it be that way? Why can’t we just embrace the topic? After all, despite all the science in the 21st century, weather is still an uncontrollable factor in our lives. It’s fascinating! Shouldn’t we talk about that? And since so few of us are ever correct about it, shouldn’t we take in everybody’s opinion? If even the professionals can’t get it right, then it seems like a very harmless conversation to have

Well-constructed small talk can be a very enjoyable experience. It doesn’t need to have a compelling anecdote or a passionate rant; it only needs to be mutual.

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