This is an attempt to explicitly model what's going on in some small talk conversations. My hope is that at least one of these things will happen:
There is a substantial flaw or missing element to my model that someone will point out.
Many readers, who are bad at small talk because they don't see the point, will get better at it as a result of acquiring understanding.
I had some recent conversational failures online, that went roughly like this:
“Hey.” “Hey.” “How are you?” The end.
At first I got upset at the implicit rudeness of my conversation partner walking away and ignoring the question. But then I decided to get curious instead and posted a sample exchange (names omitted) on Facebook with a request for feedback. Unsurprisingly I learned more this way.
Some kind friends helped me troubleshoot the exchange, and in the process of figuring out how online conversation differs from in-person conversation, I realized what these things do in live conversation. They act as a kind of implicit communication protocol by which two parties negotiate how much interaction they’re willing to have.
Consider this live conversation:
“Hi.” “Hi.” The end.
No mystery here. Two people acknowledged one another’s physical presence, and then the interaction ended. This is bare-bones maintenance of your status as persons who can relate to one another socially. There is no intimacy, but at least there is acknowledgement of someone else’s existence. A day with “Hi” alone is less lonely than a day without it.
“Hi.” “Hi, how’s it going?” “Can’t complain. And you?” “Life.”
This exchange establishes the parties as mutually sympathetic – the kind of people who would ask about each other’s emotional state – but still doesn’t get to real intimacy. It is basically just a drawn-out version of the example with just “Hi”. The exact character of the third and fourth line don’t matter much, as there is no real content. For this reason, it isn’t particularly rude to leave the question totally unanswered if you’re already rounding a corner – but if you’re in each other’s company for a longer period of time, you’re supposed to give at least a pro forma answer.
This kind of thing drives crazy the kind of people who actually want to know how someone is, because people often assume that the question is meant insincerely. I’m one of the people driven crazy. But this kind of mutual “bidding up” is important because sometimes people don’t want to have a conversation, and if you just launch into your complaint or story or whatever it is you may end up inadvertently cornering someone who doesn’t feel like listening to it.
You could ask them explicitly, but people sometimes feel uncomfortable turning down that kind of request. So the way to open a substantive topic of conversation is to leave a hint and let the other person decide whether to pick it up. So here are some examples of leaving a hint:
“Hi.” “Hi.” “Anything interesting this weekend?” “Oh, did a few errands, caught up on some reading. See you later.”
This is a way to indicate interest in more than just a “Fine, how are you?” response. What happened here is that one party asked about the weekend, hoping to elicit specific information to generate a conversation. The other politely technically answered the question without any real information, declining the opportunity to talk about their life.
“Hi.” “Hi.” “Anything interesting happen over the weekend?” “Oh, did a few errands, caught up on some reading.” “Ugh, I was going to go to a game, but my basement flooded and I had to take care of that instead.” “That’s tough.” “Yeah.” “See you around.”
Here, the person who first asked about the weekend didn’t get an engaged response, but got enough of a pro forma response to provide cover for an otherwise out of context complaint and bid for sympathy. The other person offered perfunctory sympathy, and ended the conversation.
Here’s a way for the recipient of a “How are you?” to make a bid for more conversation:
“Hi.” “Hi.” “How are you?” “Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.” “That’s tough.” “Yeah.” “See you around.”
So the person with the flooded basement provided a socially-appropriate snippet of information – enough to be a recognizable bid for sympathy, but little enough not to force the other person to choose between listening to a long complaint or rudely cutting off the conversation.
Here’s what it looks like if the other person accepts the bid:
“Hi.” “Hi.” “How are you?” “Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.” “Wow, that’s tough. Is the upstairs okay?” “Yeah, but it’s a finished basement so I’m going to have to get a bunch of it redone because of water damage.” “Ooh, that’s tough. Hey, if you need a contractor, I had a good experience with mine when I had my kitchen done.” “Thanks, that would be a big help, can you email me their contact info?”
By asking a specific follow-up question the other person indicated that they wanted to hear more about the problem – which gave the person with the flooded basement permission not just to answer the question directly, but to volunteer additional information / complaints.
You can do the same thing with happy events, of course:
“Hi.” “Hi.” “How are you?” “I’m getting excited for my big California vacation.” “Oh really, where are you going?” “We’re flying out to Los Angeles, and then we’re going to spend a few days there but then drive up to San Francisco, spend a day or two in town, then go hiking in the area.“ “Cool. I used to live in LA, let me know if you need any recommendations.” “Thanks, I’ll come by after lunch?”
So what went wrong online? Here’s the conversation again so you don’t have to scroll back up:
“Hey.” “Hey.” “How are you?” The end.
Online, there are no external circumstances that demand a “Hi,” such as passing someone (especially someone you know) in the hallway or getting into an elevator.
If you import in-person conversational norms, the “Hi” is redundant – but instead online it can function as a query as to whether the other person is actually “present” and available for conversation. (You don’t want to start launching into a conversation just because someone’s status reads “available” only to find out they’re in the middle of something else and don’t have time to read what you wrote.)
Let’s say you’ve mutually said “Hi.” If you were conversing in person, the next thing to do would be to query for a basic status update, asking something like, “How are you?”. But “Hi” already did the work of “How are you?”. Somehow the norm of “How are you?” being a mostly insincere query doesn’t get erased, even though “Hi” does its work – so some people think you’re being bizarrely redundant. Others might actually tell you how they are.
To be safe, it’s best to open with a short question apropos to what you want to talk about – or, since it’s costless online and serves the same function as “Hi”, just start with “How are you?” as your opener.
I recently had occasion to explain to someone how to respond when someone asks “what’s new?”, and in the process, ended up explaining some stuff I hadn’t realized until the moment I tried to explain it. So I figured this might be a high-value thing to explain to others here on the blog.
Of course, sometimes “what’s new?” is just part of a passing handshake with no content – I covered that in the first section. But if you’re already in a context where you know you’re going to be having a conversation, you’re supposed to answer the question, otherwise you get conversations like this:
“Hi.” “Hi.” “What’s new?” “Not much. How about you?” “Can’t complain.” Awkward silence.
So I’m talking about cases where you actually have to answer the question.
The problem is that some people, when asked “What’s New?”, will try to think about when they last met the person asking, and all the events in their life since then, sorted from most to least momentous. This is understandably an overwhelming task.
The trick to responding correctly is to think of your conversational partner’s likely motives for asking. They are very unlikely to want a complete list. Nor do they necessarily want to know the thing in your life that happened that’s objectively most notable. Think about it – when’s the last time you wanted to know those things?
Instead, what’s most likely the case is that they want to have a conversation about a topic you are comfortable with, are interested in, and have something to say about. “What’s New?” is an offer they are making, to let you pick the life event you most feel like discussing at that time. So for example, if the dog is sick but you’d rather talk about a new book you’re reading, you get to talk about the book and you can completely fail to mention the dog. You’re not lying, you’re answering the question as intended.