I’ve never been a fan of small talk. As the name suggests, it’s decidedly unambitious. Now I don’t need to always be engaging in deep-meaning philosophy, but I do like something a little more meaningful than, “How about that weather?”
Of course, small talk isn’t really about the talk itself. It’s really an attempt to connect, to find a safe, agreeable topic or something more comfortable to do than staring vacantly into space.
I’ve always had trouble with it and I think I’ve recently discovered why. It’s an exercise in truly listening. Because the words alone can’t be relied on for meaning. You have to go deeper than the trite, surfacey conventions to figure out what the person really means.
Here are the three small-talk starters that give me trouble.
1. What’s going on in Chicago?
I hear this when visiting people out of town. It’s always confounded me. What are they really asking? Why do they care? So I talk about the Blackhawks or Rahm or the blizzard or some other issue of the day, but I realize that that’s not really what they’re interested in. Apparently this is just their way of asking Annoying Question #2.
2. What’s new?
This one has always flummoxed me. I never kept a running list of “new” things going on in my life that I could report on when asked. It’s especially tough during those times of your life when, let’s face it, your days amount to, “Get up, go to work, come home.” If you’re in your ’20s you might insert “go out” in the series just before “come home” (or if you’re lucky, the “come home” part is completely skipped).
I think when you get older you get, not necessarily busier, but busier with more consequential things — you have the opportunity to make more of a difference at work or you may have a family, for instance. My life the past few years has offered a range of new experiences to report, but I still get caught off-guard all the time. I’d prefer to answer a specific question like, “How’s the book going?” (though most people simply ask if I’ve sold a lot of them which, frankly, is the last thing on my mind — I’m focused on doing all the little marketing things necessary to create sales).
But not all specific questions are equal, which brings us to #3.
3. Do you have any auditions coming up?
I realize this isn’t very relatable for non-actors, but it’s annoying on several levels. First, it’s as bad as the question unemployed people dread the most: “How’s the job search going?” Most likely, it’s not going well and people would rather not be reminded of that when they’re out trying to have a good time. (Again, the question is meant as a way of connecting, but a better question would be, “How can I help you with your job search?”) Similarly, if someone’s not auditioning, they’d rather not talk about it.
The second issue is, auditions aren’t booked months or weeks or even days in advance. For commercials, you generally get less than 24 hours’ notice. The other day I got a call at 5 pm for an audition the next morning at 9:30 am. And I only audition a couple or a few times a week. So chances are, at the moment you ask me, I don’t have an audition lined up, thank you.
So once again, what are they really asking? What they probably intend is to show some interest in your career, but they have no idea how to do that or what to ask. So I’ve taken to answering the bigger question. “No auditions tomorrow, but I just did a print shoot last week” or “I’ve got a commercial that’s running right now.”
Once I dig a little under the surface, I’m a little more successful in these interactions. Still, as should be evident by now, I am not someone you want to get stuck in an elevator with.