Being a bit of an extrovert (read that as a raging extrovert) I quite enjoy meeting people. However, whether it is my age or something else, I have begun to really struggle with small talk.
Let me give you an example.
I was at a party not long ago and after the initial introductions to a very pleasant lady we began the necessary small talk. The conversation began with a simple question from her: Do you have children? My heart sank as I responded that I didn’t and was given a big encouraging “Not yet”.
We proceeded to have a lengthy discussion about her children, life as a mother and the wonders of it all.
It wasn’t good to talk.
And it got me thinking. Why do conversations have to start with something that might distance us?
You see, I’ve been guilty of asking questions because I want to talk about what interests me. When I was a teacher, I probably started most conversations with new people by wanting to know what they do. This would allow me to talk about what I did because I was passionate about it, I felt secure in it.
Now, being a non-working childless woman, I’ve really been challenged to think about my small talk. Where have all the open-ended questions gone?
What do you do? Do you work? Do you have children? These are the most common questions I am asked.
My answer now is: I am doing life. This may make me sound like a serious criminal but it is my honest answer.
If you want more then try these:
How do you fill your time? How’s life? What are you passionate about? What are your hopes for your life? What’s your story?
Surely anyone can answer these and not feel judged. Not feel less than. These allow the person being asked to share what they want to. That might be the career they love, the children they adore, the cats they are besotted with (that is applicable) and it might just open up some fun talk.
So, I’m apologising to anyone who meets me at a party in the near future because my small talk might not be very good. I’m going to be looking for connection so be prepared!
And if in doubt, just ask me which actress would play me in the biopic of my life (obviously Zooey Deschanel and Ryan Gosling taking the Elis role).
'Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.' Ephesians 4:29
Thanks, Sheila. You raise a most important issue. I dislike the assumption from the second question we’re always asked, that we are defined most by our paid employment … and the awkwardness that comes when by choice or circumstance we don’t have any, I remember the pain it caused when someone in a church brightly asked a visitor, “What do you do”, and the young woman’s downcast reply was “I’m just a cleaner.” Thank goodness God doesn’t see us that way.
The challenge is in changing the question. For a while I tried “tell me about your hobbies”, but I found that failed with some people who clearly worked too hard. “What are you passionate about?” can work better, but often feels too threatening that early in a conversation. So I’ve tended to go for “What do you like/love about Stroud?” which is easier to reply to quickly, is positive, and helps people remind themselves of the good things around them. That works OK here, but wouldn’t in many settings.
If we have to talk about work, then “What’s the best part of working here / as an X?” can get people taking about passions, but without using the term.
What other questions do you want to try?
At the Northumbria Community’s house Nethersprings, they have a rule that you don’t ask people about where they’ve come from or what their job is, exactly because those questions can make people feel uncomfortable. You may ask “how was your journey?” but they advise that the best way to engage is to ask the person to whom you are speaking to tell you something about themselves.
It probably makes for far more interesting conversations with much less awkwardness.
As a single woman with very few relatives, I’m sick of being asked questions about people who don’t exist, for example: ‘where do your parents live?’, ‘what does your father do?’ (err…nothing….he’s been dead for 30 years), and even, when I met a visitor at church recently, ‘does your husband work?’. So I make it a rule for myself not to ask people any questions based on assumptions. I might ask ‘do you have any family?’, but I don’t just assume that they do.
Another question which always bothers me, often asked in middle class circles, is ‘where did you go to university?’ Fine for me, because I do have a degree, but not so fine for anyone who didn’t go to university. So I don’t ask that question either.
My answer is ‘no I have dogs’.
I didn’t realise just how awful the question ‘so what do you do’ until I took some time out of working.
Not sure about asking ‘what are you passionate about?’ to strangers
I sometimes ask ‘have you always lived around here?’ Much better than are you from here (Devon – Devonians can be quite passionate!).
Good blog – thanks.