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:

“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:

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, how’s it going?”
“Can’t complain. And you?”

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:

“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.

“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.”
“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:

“How are you?”
“Oh, my basement flooded over the weekend.”
“That’s tough.”
“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:

“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:

“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:

“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.

What’s New?

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:

“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.

Cross-posted on my personal blog.

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"Smalltalk" is a programming language. "Small talk" (with a space) is a mode of conversation. The article's title confused me because of this.

Thanks, I will add a space.

This is very useful.

Upon reading this, I immediately synthesized the following practical advice (with offline conversations in mind):

1) To be a better talker, you need to know off the top of your head what to do with a "what's new" or similar invitation. Being prepared for likely specific inquiries (e.g. "How was your weekend" on a Monday) is also wise, keeping in mind that a certain amount of redirection is acceptable ("Not too much--I was resting after [interesting intense thing] last weekend").

2) To be a better listener, you need to be able to ask specific questions. I, for one, would be highly interested in a list of conversation items to drill this on, since generating these on the spot has been my failure point more times than I can count. (I don't mean trying to prepare follow-ups to everything someone might say, but rather practicing to get better at generating.)

That sounds completely right - in general having a library of short stories about yourself and your life for various conversational openings/topics is helpful.

For 2, something that has helped me is realizing that it's okay to be greedy - except for possibly the very highest status people, who get more than enough affirmation, people often really like it if you are curious about something very specific about them, and only hold back on talking about it because they don't want to bore you.

For me, I think this was a case of reverse typical mind fallacy (I don't know if there's a standard name for this) - assuming that other people couldn't possibly be like me, because I'm weird and nerdy and like to talk an unusual amount. When I learned to be more socially adept, a lot of it involved suppressing things I wanted to talk about because there was no conversational cue indicating that it was welcome. It took a little while to realize other people must be doing this too.

This is certainly true, although I've seen it fall into one of two failure modes. 1) Both parties follow this strategy very conscientiously, with the result that one person asks about the other's life, is generally interested, but receives no detailed answer because the other thinks it's impolite to talk about themselves too much. (Of course, this lack of an answer can also just be a sign that this level of interaction is simply not desired, but that's not what I'm talking about.) 2) People overestimate the interest you actually have in them and grow more attached to you than you'd like. Neither of these failure modes strikes me as particularly worrisome, though. 1) is probably very, very rare, and 2) is, if it even is a failure mode, easy to fix.
I think you are right on target. My Dad taught me to ask about peoples' kids, work or hobbies, because people like to tell others about them. I've found it to be a pretty useful tip.
I'd add studies to that list, and possibly hometown / homeland / travels, if you are likely to be meeting students and travelers respectively.
With respect to (2) classical rhetoric has the topics of invention.

One interesting thing I've noticed is that if you greet someone with an unorthodox but still "within norms" greeting, it can break them out of this pattern.

For instance, I often greet people with "How do you do?". Most people of my generation don't really know how to react to this, and it makes them stop, think, and give a more "real" answer than if I asked "What's up?" or "How's it going?".

If you try to do this, though, be careful that you don't go too far-- I've seen people try to do a similar thing with stuff like "Good morrow" and it tends to look affected.

For instance, I often greet people with "How do you do?". Most people of my generation don't really know how to react to this, and it makes them stop, think, and give a more "real" answer than if I asked "What's up?" or "How's it going?".

This might backfire, though - at least in our English class, we were taught that the only acceptable response to being asked "How do you do" is to repeat "How do you do" back.

I hope you didn't take that instruction too strictly or did you have another protocol for getting out of apparent infinite loops?

I worded my comment carefully in anticipation of this question. Note that I said that the acceptable response when being "asked" it is to "repeat it back", not "ask the same question". Clearly the protocol specifies that the same string doesn't count as a question anymore once it's sent in response to a query initiated by someone else.

Did your English class distinguish "How do you do?" from "How's it going?" etc? Katy seems to be making that distinction, but in my experience people eavesdropping on the masses, most people don't treat any of the variants as a question, but are substantially more likely to respond with another greeting, rather than something that can be interpreted as an answer.
This is actually true, at least in terms of what's 'proper' to say! However, very few people know about it anymore, at least in the United States-- that's what I was alluding to when I said that "most people of my generation don't really know how to react to this." In fact, I've legitimately never heard anyone other than myself make the "correct" response there.
I'm a 30-something American, and I only know about this rule from old movies about old times (like Pollyanna, set in the early 1900s).
I do the exact same thing, so far it's been working pretty well. It's a bit easier in German, because we have a larger range of expressions to play with, I wonder about how to do it in English properly. "How do you do" wouldn't work for me at all; if the other person is familiar with it, then it will function merely as a greeting; and if they don't and take it seriously as a request, it'll cause me to perceive them as uneducated. I've always felt that "How are you doing" is slightly more of a sincere question that "How's it going", and I am hereby asking for native speakers to confirm or deny this.
My newest idea, which I will try out: "I want to know how you are doing."
2Vaughn Papenhausen6y
Sounds odd to me as well. One that I just thought of that I'll try if I remember it is (after the "hello" pleasantries) "So tell me, how are you doing?" Still the same question, but with enough of a variation that it might break the pattern.
For what it's worth, it sounds odd to me. Part of that is, presumably, because "I want" instead of "I'd like to" in connection with something directly involving the interlocutor is rather forceful, likely inappropriately so. But even "I'd like to know how you are doing" comes across as weirdly and artificially sincere, which I suspect gets interpreted as evidence of low social skills, hence reflecting negatively on the speaker. I wonder if this is a trap that all attempts at solving this linguistic problem are bound to fall into.
Imagine it said by someone who is very relaxed, in a soft tone of voice, after the "hello" pleasantries, looking you straight in the eye.
I would agree, but I live in a community with unusual levels of depression/anxiety/etc. and/or openness about the fact, so my recent experience may not generalize.

When I was a kid, my Mom taught me something like the following: When asked a question (presumably in a conversation you would like to continue), respond with more than just the minimum requirement for data, and then finish your reply with a question for them.

Example we still joke about:

A: Do you play any sports? B: Yeah, I play baseball. I play second base. How about you? Do you play any sports?

I'm not sure of the exact logic behind this. It seems to me that (1) Ending with a question is the clearest indicator you want to keep talking to this person, and (2) giving a little additional information, even when not asked for it, can provide some potential for making a further connection instead of just a quick, content-free exchange. In other words, it gives you more to talk about.

Giving a little additional information yourself that was not asked for has another effect that you don't mention, or maybe it's what you mean by (1): It tells the other person that they are expected to answer your question with at least the same level of detail, i.e. it signals to them that they will not be impolite in doing so.
Datapoint: I follow this policy for IM conversations. [Edit: At least for people I'm not that close to yet. If it's someone I know well, I usually skip the negotiation protocol.]
Something I have noticed myself getting into: Whenever I or someone else ends an statement with a question, often someone (probably me) asks a question about the original statement as well as answering the question, essentially resulting in two simultaneous conversations. Example: A: Do you play any sports? B: I play baseball. I play second base. And you? A: I play volley ball. Which one is second base? B: The one opposite home. What position in volleyball? These simultaneous conversations proliferate online much easier, but they often happen in real life too. (for me)
It seems like that might sometimes lead to an awkward exchange. I suppose there is an art to remembering, and knowing when to use, the information you are asking for in a way that is logical and comfortable in conversation. Though anything tends to be better than... A. Do you play sports? B. Yes. A. Which? B. Baseball. Conversation failure mode. Of course, some blame fall to the questioner for asking closed questions, but good conversationalists can turn weak questions into strong conversations with good technique.
Closed questions bias the conversation in addition to making it clumsy. Doctors try to maximize the information they get from a patient by using open questions. Only after it's clear what the complaint is, they make precision strikes with closed questions. It's very easy to bias the patient and get a wrong diagnosis if you're not careful. I suppose in a casual setting the bias will be even greater because the other person is deliberately gauging what kinds of things you would be pleased to hear based on your questions.

Interestingly, in many topical online chats conversations like that are explicitly and actively discouraged. For example, if you have a math question in the Freenode ##math IRC channel and start with "hi" and/or "I have a math question", you will likely get a stern "just ask" from a regular, or just stony silence. Since people still need an outlet for more idle chat, the rooms with no-nonsense chat policies tend to have a satellite off-topic channel where people engage in the longer form of smalltalk you describe.

Note that in this case, unlike a two-party in-person conversation, lots of people are listening but doing something else. If there is no activity for a while, and then there is some activity, that attracts their attention. If the activity is not interesting, or more precisely not the kind of thing for which they spend time in the channel, these people may consider their time/attention wasted. (The same argument applies to "why do you care about off-topic when nobody is talking anyway?".)

I think that this is a perfectly good reason for it to be the conventional way to conduct a conversation in some cases and some media. Such rules also appeal to the "grow a thicker skin" culture, but that doesn't mean they're arbitrary.

It's not so much the number of parties, as smalltalk is OK in general chat, it's the off-topic noise that is discouraged, because of wasted time/attention, as you said, and possibly disrupted on-topic discussions.
I've known a lot of people to have as their chat status message.
It makes sense that forum etiquette would be different.

Another reason you didn't get a response to "how are you" is that the person wasn't that interested to talk to you.

They must have had an a-priori low expectation of the amount of value to be gained by chatting with you. Your redundant "how are you" lowered the average value-per-line of a conversation with you further.

But if they'd had an a-priori high expectation of the amount of value to be gained by chatting with you, they would have responded enthusiastically to "how are you".

This matches my experience. When I don't want to engage in conversation and someone asks "How are you?", I always politely counter with "Fine, thanks" and just carry on whatever I am doing. I assume the same applies for other people.

I think this is a pretty good model. I study these interactions every morning at work, when my goal is to get to my office as quickly as possible without being registered as aloof or unfriendly. I answer the 'how are you' as perfunctorily as possible, or sometimes I try to invest a little thought into an answer that is friendly and sincere but unlikely to add any more seconds such as, 'crazy busy!' or, 'trying to get some work done before my meeting at 2'.

When I'm asking the 'how are you', I hold my breath hoping the person doesn't make a bid for a more meaningful interaction. Sometimes it can't be helped -- if the person's basement flooded over the weekend, and they want to talk, I'll re-prioritize my morning a little. But I definitely don't want to get trapped small-talking with someone who just has more free time than I do.(Obviously this morning I have some free time.)

I have been on the other side. Last year I was in a tornado, and I wanted to talk about it with everyone, to try and get over the shock and put such a rare one-off event in perspective. I was amazed by the fraction of people who were able to dismiss this bid, usually just by sharing a couple sentences about the time they were somewhat near a tornado or saying, 'wow'. After just two exchanges, I saved face thereafter by choosing language that suggested I was only near a tornado, so the other person could talk about tornadoes only if they wanted to.

Last year I was in a tornado, and I wanted to talk about it with everyone, to try and get over the shock and put such a rare one-off event in perspective. I was amazed by the fraction of people who were able to dismiss this bid

(nods) Yup.
For about a year after my stroke, I was pretty much unable to talk about anything else, for similar reasons.

Eventually I got into the habit of letting people make conversational overtures, then dropping the stroke into my response (not unlike I just did, come to think of it). Some people would then talk to me about my stroke, some would continue along their primary path, and it all worked out reasonably well.

Eventualier this would evolve into a funny dynamic where several minutes into a conversation I'd make a passing reference to my stroke and they'd be like "WHAT? Talk about burying the lede, dude!" (Coming out to childhood friends is funny this way, also. "Husband? What? Huh?")

Is being in a tornado even remotely like it's portrayed in movies?

One obvious difference is that you don't have an aerial view. Instead of seeing a well-developed twister moving erratically, it was actually too dark and stormy to see anything. A consequence of this is that the sensual experience of it was dominated by sound. First a peculiar roaring (is that...? What is that?) and then a realization of the path of the sound, and that it is moving towards you... A less obvious difference is how singled out you feel, it's a psychological impression. In a movie, you expect interesting things to happen to the main characters. In real life, it was really shocking to us that we were the main characters in this experience that felt like a movie. My family is religious but I was satisfied with how rational we were. There was some idle speculation or joking at first that it was an act of God, or God was trying to tell us something. But to whatever extent we were serious, it was more like a question or hypothesis that fizzled out when there weren't any subsequent 'messages'. Did you irrationally feel singled out with your stroke? What parts of the experience did you want to tell about?
Oo, that's a new question! Cool. Yeah, absolutely, the "singled out" thing is big. I think a lot of people react this way to traumatic events... it's different when it happens to us. A lot of my reaction to trauma generally is this kind of split-screen emotionally dissociative thing where I am simultaneously having irrational reactions and being aware that my reactions are irrational, and neither branch seems to do much to influence the other. So I was often in a superposition of "I am the only person to ever experience this singular event and it is all very very meaningful" and "I am one of many people experiencing this all the time and it's just a thing that happens." The parts of the experience I wanted to talk about varied... it was more that this was the most central aspect of my life for over two years, by a very hefty margin, so I thought about everything in terms of it. It's a little bit like teenagers in a new relationship, or a lot of people after a bad divorce, where everything connects to that experience. Which is entirely understandable, but tedious for third parties. I hear you about the religious family/act of God thing. My mom spent a lot of time agonizing over that. I eventually suggested to her that if she needed a narrative in which my stroke was a purposeful act, she should adopt the narrative that God sent me a recoverable-from stroke at 40 so I would start treating my hypertension and not have a fatal heart attack at 45. She decided that yes, that was a better narrative, and that was that.
Thanks for the data. The tornado thing sounds, well, really scary. I can imagine wanting to talk through that a lot of times - or not wanting to but needing to anyway. I'm curious why you felt you lost face by having your bid for synpathy turned down, that seems to reflect poorly on the other person, not you. Anyway if you want to vent one more time to a stranger feel free to send me a direct message.
I felt like I lost some face, because they were rude to me and thus revealed the friendship was not that sincere, etc; but mostly I felt that I was creating a situation where they lost face because I'm sure they would rather not appear rude, but I didn't leave an easy way out. ...This is why I actually stopped telling people I was in the tornado -- it is very difficult for a friendly person not to offer some support, as you just did. Fortunately, I've had lots of time discussing all the details with other people that are fascinated by weather, and now my emotional state has just modulated into an interest in all kinds of extreme weather.
"I don't find your distress worthy of my attention" suggests that the other person has higher status than the one in distress, since they can dismiss the bid without needing to expect censure from others.
2Said Achmiz10y
Uh, what did you expect / hope that they would say instead? Not being sarcastic — I'm genuinely curious, since "wow" seems like it would be my response as well. Is that wrong? If so, why?
At the time, I wanted to discuss everything about the tornado -- how it came upon us and what we were doing and how we survived, etc. I thought I had the most awesome topic of conversation ever, and had earned 10 minutes at least from every person I knew to discuss the details. I think people found the topic intimidating, because I would've had much more success seeding a conversation by mentioning if I had acquired a kitten over the holidays. It was the lack of any follow-up questions after the 'wow'.
7Said Achmiz10y
Well, to be honest, if someone came to me and said "I was in a tornado!", I'd love to respond by quizzing them about all the details, and listening with rapt attention. I mean, that sounds incredibly interesting. But in my experience, most people who go through "traumatizing" experiences, or whatever, don't respond well to such, instead preferring not to talk about it, or at most wishing to receive some bland platitudes to the effect that "wow, that must have been terrible! :( you must have felt so scared! :( ". Which would sound rather insincere coming from me (and maybe from most people? I don't know). So instead I just say "wow" or somesuch. Your disappointment makes sense to me now.
While I haven't actually tried this with other people, I think an appropriate response to show your interest in hearing about it would be along the lines of "Wow. Do you want to talk about it?" in a tone that doesn't sound like you're pressuring them either way. From the perspective of someone who has been through "traumatizing" experiences, clear indicators of interest/non-interest are important because the responses of potential people to talk to vary widely. For close friends I generally know how they'll respond (and therefore who to ask if I need to talk things out with someone), but other than that it's hard to tell. To give some concrete examples: Some of my biological family members have been and still are often extremely difficult towards me, especially in person, in ways that are not relevant to the examples. This makes visiting those family members, which I am still obligated to do on every family visit I make, very unpleasant for me. When the subject of my feelings about those visits comes up in small talk situations (or really any not-close-friend-who-knows-what-to-expect situations), I try to minimize the sudden unhappy awkwardness while still being honest and giving the other person an idea of what topics to avoid should they not want to hear about it, then leave it up to them to indicate if they want to hear more or not. (I could explain my reasoning for this approach if anyone's interested, but it's also not relevant to the examples.) In the past few months I had two conversations with other people, whom I shall call A and B, that illustrate the range of responses I get. I met both A and B in the same social group and had both conversations in similar contexts. At the time of each conversation, I considered my relationship with my interlocutor to be somewhere between "acquaintance" and "friend"; I saw them (in the "Hi"; "Hi" sense) about once a weekday, had conversed with them occasionally, and would have been willing to talk futher about my exper
4Said Achmiz10y
Interesting and useful, thank you. I think I disagree with you on "Wow. Do you want to talk about it?" as a good response in cases like byrnema's (and other cases I've personally run into). If you ask me that, and I take you up on it, the implication is that you're doing me a favor by talking to me about this; you gain status and I lose status. I, for one, would prefer hearing some response that implies that you're actually interested in talking to me about this, rather than that you're talking to me because I want to talk about it. Also, I strongly dislike Captain Awkward. I do not second the recommendation. (Others may not share my distaste, so ymmv.)
Can you elaborate?
1Said Achmiz10y
Responded here.
Interesting. I agree that responses that imply genuine interest in the topic are better than ones that imply willingness to listen only as a favor to the other person, but I am not sure how to create such responses without losing some appropriateness for cases where the other person doesn't want to give details. Could you give some examples of responses that don't imply the favor, and possibly guidelines for creating them? (For reference, the 4 cases I'm currently considering are: just mentioned it for honesty, only wants acknowledgement/platitudes, actually wants to talk about it, and other.) Also, I second Nornagest's request (in the sibling to this post) for elaboration on why you dislike Captain Awkward. I personally have found it useful, but if there's something to be wary of about it I'd like to know.
8Said Achmiz10y
Update re: my views on Captain Awkward: Having read a bunch of recent posts, I think that most of the things the Captain says (or has been saying lately, at least) are more or less reasonable. The undercurrent of eyes-narrowing, head-tilting, and nagging suspicion is mild to nonexistent for me, for most of these posts; and indeed much of the content seems like useful advice in general and potentially helpful to me personally. However, I did find an example of one of the things I remember strongly, almost violently disliking about her views: (Captain Awkward suggests a test to determine whether you should stay friends with a "mean" person) (then, says Captain Awkward, you should not be friends with this person.) This falls into the now-classic pattern of "I assert that you have spoken/acted Badly and Wrongly, and that I have been injured by your words/actions! You do not have the right to question that assertion; in fact, if you do anything other than meekly apologize and otherwise express your guilt and submission, you are a Bad Person." I have a very strong dislike of such thinking. As an added bonus, I find the word "mansplain" to be repulsive, and anyone using it to be a big red flag. In this case, the red flag is for views/behaviors that are evident in any case. ETA: This post, and the comments (including the Captain's responses in the comments), actually demonstrates even more starkly why I antirecommend this blog. ETA 2: The Site Policies page explains that misogyny in a comment will cause that comment to be deleted. In the next sentence, it's stated that talking about misandry will also cause a comment to be deleted. "Misandry" is apparently a "code-word" that indicates the speaker is a Men's Rights Activist (And That's Bad™). ("Misogyny", presumably, is not a "code-word".) It is clear, sadly, that this blog has far too much toxic ideology mixed in with the useful advice.
I didn't know about Captain Awkward before this comment, and after reading those links I antirecommend it too for similar reasons. I suppose just antirecommending her gender-heavy posts could mitigate the problem. Ideology and advice is a bad mix.
0Said Achmiz10y
Yeah, that's the problem. I have no solution, I'm afraid, other than to know the person you're speaking with, and being able to predict what they prefer based on your knowledge of their personality. As for Captain Awkward... I'm having a hard time verbalizing the reasons for my distaste... I will maybe read a post or two and see if I can elaborate/explain my view.
What I would say is something like “Wow! Is everyone at home all right?”
As in in the cellar of a house or something that was hit by it, or actually thrown through the air, or what? No tornados in this part of the world, not sure how they work.
We were in a first floor closet under the stairs when the tornado came upon the house. You actually know more about the event now than many people I work with and see every day. The difference in interest makes sense... but it wasn't my intention to derail the conversation. I will consider composing a comment in the open thread, about our reactions to finding ourselves in such a low probability event.

(in the context of "how's it going" and similar platitudes.)

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.

I'm driven crazy from the other direction. Such questions usually are insincere, and I hate having to come up with what amounts to a non-sequitur answer to a question someone doesn't mean in the first place. Checkout lines are a frequent offender. Sometimes I'll answer literally anyway, ju... (read more)

When I want to signal my presence and willingness to communicate, I'll often literally say "ping." It works well enough.

That doesn't sound like a good idea to me. The point of running any social protocol is to be able to perform common social operations with other people ("I come in peace"; "I acknowledge your status", etc.) without incurring the time expense and cognitive load of negotiating them through explicit communication. Rolling your own protocol is at best useless, and more likely actively off-putting: it adds another layer of inference, one that unlike the cultural standard won't automatically be dereferenced by the people you're talking to. Unless you already know them well, but at that point it doesn't much matter what idiom you're using.

Or it could work as a pretty effective bit of in-group signaling, recognized by a certain group of people even if you don't know them. Agree with you in general though.

A substantial supermajority of people I'm actually interested in talking to will get the reference immediately. I don't really object to just "hi," though, or anything similar. It's phrasing a social ping as an unmeant interrogative that bothers me. If anything, Benquo and those like him who actually mean it should agree; it confuses the signal, so if a person actually does want to know how I'm doing (or whatever), it comes across just like the fake version.
Personally, I tend to use "ping" for online scenarios where I know the people I'm talking to will automatically dereference that layer of inference. Otherwise I just use cultural standards. Because of the online context, for me "ping" tends to substitute for "Hi" in those scenarios; while it does signal "I'm present and willing to communicate" to recipients, what I mean by it is "I'd like to talk to you; are you available right now? If not, please let me know when you next become available." Since it's an inquiry about the other person's availability, it's also very analogous to the computer networking meaning of "ping", which may well make it easier for recipients to infer what I mean when they first see "ping" from me.
I've been known to use "ping" online as well, among people that I expect to understand it, but for me it usually means something along the lines of "Is your connection still up?" -- not something that colloquial English has an equivalently short phrase for. (I suppose something along the lines of SYN might adequately map to "hello", but that's a little nerdy even for me.)
Right now I'm willing to take the 1-2 character performance hit (in some cases the cultural standard that I'd otherwise use is "hey", not "hi") to make the nerdy joke. Somewhat related to "hi" vs. "ping": When would it be considered 'too late' to respond to a "hi" in an online scenario; i.e. what are the timeout rules for "hi" online? I haven't seen those rules spelled out explicitly and I hope other readers would benefit from seeing them explicitly too. (ETA: This is directed at any readers who wish to answer, not just Nornagest.) I find this related to "hi" vs. "ping" because often I want the recipient to respond when they get a chance, even if that's not until several days later. Due to other factors, I've often been using "ping" for such messages, but I don't know if "hi" would work (as opposed to timing out too quickly).
Well, I'm not exactly Miss Manners, but I imagine it would depend on whether you're using a synchronous or asynchronous protocol. Replying to an email (or an email-like service, like old-style Facebook messages) days later is common enough. I'd consider an IM to have timed out after a couple of hours or when the person you're talking to signs off, whichever comes first, and maybe less -- a message to someone marked as idle would have a longer timeout expectation than to someone marked as active. If you're looking at a moving IRC channel or something like that (player chat in MMO-style games would fall into this category), it depends how fast the channel is moving but we're probably talking minutes. I don't think exact content would matter as much as context, unless you're explicitly asking for a reply when ready ("You might not see this right away, but when you get the chance, could you..."). "Ping" would almost certainly get you the same results as a more conventional greeting, provided it's understood. For that matter, sending cat pictures would probably get you the same results.
Hmm. The times you've stated do broadly align with my own experience; the only major difference is that I expected the timeout in moving IRC and MMO chats to be in the low tens of seconds. I have updated accordingly. Thank you for spelling these out. I'm curious what the timeout would be for a 'semi-synchronous' protocol such as the text chats in Steam, Skype, or Google Hangouts. (These services mostly act like IMs, but all offer the ability to send messages to users who are currently offline, and some offer extended chat histories. This allows having conversations over days, and I have done so on these services.) Any opinions? (Again, directed at any readers who wish to answer.) I've never sent or received cat pictures and so have no experience with their timeouts. What evidence makes you believe that sending cat pictures would a) work as a greeting and b) have the same timeouts?
I think "Hi" works very well as "ping". It's universally understood and shorter to write.
There are actual plain text protocols (e.g. SMTP) that do use "HI" for initiating communication.
I believe SMTP uses "HELO", actually (or "EHLO" to enable some extensions). The server then indicates that it heard the HELO command, often with a cheery remark like "Pleased to meet you! I'm a server! :-D" This is one of the more charming aspects of the internet's plumbing.

Related, here's a model of first romantic encounters which explicitly includes some of those "handshaking" steps:

Sociologist Murray Davis (1973), writing in the symbolic interactionist tradition, was the first to provide a systematic breakdown of the steps involved in making a successful overture. Both Trillin’s (2006) and Fowles’ (2003) accounts offer a sense of the tension and excitement involved in starting a relationship, but their accounts lack the “he said, she said” detail necessary to explicate the process delineated by Davis. The follo

... (read more)

I wonder how universal these verbal social grooming norms are. Do they vary from country to country, from culture to culture, from language to language?

If you get a chance to see the Russian film Brat 2, you can see them mocking Americans for asking people "How are you" in cases where we aren't actually interested in how the listener is doing.

Still, you will frequently enough hear the equivalent of "How are you doing?" -- "Fine, and you?" in Russia. What you see in this film has more to do with stereotypes about Russian culture (interestingly, they have a lot of stereotypes about their own culture); plus, friendship culture is a bit different in Russia than in America, as far as my experience goes. I don't know of any culture that doesn't have these verbal handshake rituals, and I'd be very surprised to learn that they're not universal. The more interesting question is this: are they universally ambiguous in the way they are in present-day America? I'v heard (form someone with first-hand experience) that they are even more conventionalized in some African cultures so that there is absolutely no ambiguity: you have a standardized question "how do you do?" that is definitely not a question about your condition, and a standardized answer. I don't know how they actually ask about the other person's well-being in contrast, though.

I occasionally encounter a related situation in the office, where for example I'll be making soup and someone will say something like "soup?" and I'm not sure what to reply beyond "yes".

I could give a brief reason why I'm making soup, or why I make soup frequently, but this seems like escalating too much, and it's more effort than I want to put in.

Perhaps tell them the type of soup?
Conversation is always about making choices. The questions allows you to answer with "yes" but it also allows you to tell them something about the type. Do what you want to do instead of just searching for what's the standard response.

Has this model obtained good experimental results so far?

By the way, excellent post. I appreciate the large number of illustrative examples.

What tests would you suggest? Here's what I've observed: Since I've started paying attention, I never or nearly never observed anyone starting a vocal conversation without verbal handshakes, except when coming out of a larger group's conversation. This is true regardless of how well I know them, whether we've agreed in advance to talk, and whether they have something urgent to discuss. I have slightly better success starting personal conversations and connecting with people relying on hints they offer than by asking whatever questions I want, and when I drop hints they are often noticed and taken up.

“Hey.” “Hey.” “How are you?” The end.

In that example you are expecting that someone gives you a significant answer after you wrote 4 words without any substance. You are requesting that they invest more energy into the conversation than you even through you started it.

If you contact me online, I usually have a choice between continue doing what I'm doing or switching my attention to the conversation.

Most of my online conversation happens for a purpose. I might contact someone to arrange a face to face meeting. I might contact someone to ask them for inf... (read more)

This seems interesting and mostly correct. I will think about this more and write something about it when I have thought enough.