4 Personal Questions People Seem to Think Are Small Talk
Small talk gets a bad rap, most people assuming it's an activity reserved for boring assholes with a passionate interest in weather.
"We are having weather today."
And it looks particularly inane when we compare it to the sparkling and insightful conversations we have with our friends.
"We are having weather today."
But we're not always able to talk to friends, and whether it's business acquaintances, friends of friends, or the mirror, we often have to chat with someone we don't know well enough to have a hilarious and meaningful conversation with. Sometimes this is just to politely kill time, but for the sort of socially capable people who manage small talk well, they often find that it reveals something they have in common with this stranger, which leads to more interesting conversations and possibly a new friend.
"That was a fun chat."
"I was wondering if you'd like to move in together."
But for someone who's a bit less socially capable, small talk is a never-ending disaster, a tired old man falling down an up escalator. Every word spoken is an accidental insult or a massive overstep of personal boundaries, conversations filled with intrusive questions and awkward, minutes-long silences.
"We are having weather today."
-awkward, minutes-long silence-
"You monstrous, gaping asshole."
Here, then, presented with absolutely no judgment on what type of social skills a Cracked reader is likely to possess, are four of the worst examples of intrusive questions people ask without realizing it.
"How Did You Get That Scar?"
At its heart, small talk is just a series of questions you ask each other. "Who do you know at this party?" "Did you see that movie?" "Where'd you get those shoes?" These sorts of questions reveal small things about the person you're talking to, and if you trade enough of them back and forth, you'll often find something you have in common or want to explore deeper. At which point, bam! You've navigated small talk successfully!
Welcome to serious conversation land.
Really, the only tricky aspect of small talk is coming up with the questions to ask. This is where "How about that weather?" gets its bad reputation; aside from being a cliche, it's just about the dullest, least imaginative question possible, with no hope of starting an interesting conversation. Asking about mutual friends, some current event, or the other person's background should lead to far more fruitful conversational fields.
"How about you? How did you get into this field?"
On that basis, "How did you get that scar?" sounds almost reasonable. It's original, and it will likely reveal something interesting about the person you're talking to. Like how they got that scar. That's kind of the problem, because if you know anything about scars, you know they don't often come from fun times. Accidents, fires, and physical attacks are likely origin stories for that scar, and by asking this question, you'll almost certainly force this person to recall something unpleasant that happened to them.
"This? It was 1996, and the Macarena ... -breaks down sobbing-"
Really, there are a whole family of these intrusive questions I could have put in here, the defining feature of all of them being that something obviously painful has happened to someone, which you're now asking about, like some kind of idiot. "How did your father die?" "Why'd you lose your job?" "Why are you so good at the Macarena?" If you find yourself about to ask one of those, maybe just punch yourself in the beak instead, and give the other guy something awkward that he can't ask about.[subtitle]"How's [Some Co-worker's] Health?"[/subtitle]
When a friend is sick, asking a relative or mutual friend about their health is a very reasonable thing to do. So if you've been in that situation and done that, don't worry, that's not too intrusive. And if you haven't, what the fuck is wrong with you, robot?
"I express concern."
It seems like the same rules should apply when dealing with our co-workers, many of whom are more or less friends. So when a co-worker is away from work for health reasons, it's only natural to ask the manager for updates on how they're doing or why they've been off work, questions which, if answered, are almost certainly a violation of the privacy rights that person has as an employee.
"Also, seeing as he's not here, how much money does he make?"
Managers often have to be informed of certain details relating to an employee's health, to know when they'll be back to work or to adjust work duties to accommodate temporary or permanent injuries. So when someone is out sick for an extended period, yes, the manager almost certainly knows why, and roughly how they're doing. But sharing anything more than a "getting better" or "should be back in a week" could get that manager in big, big trouble.
"Don't answer. Just cough once if it's cancer."
"How's Your Love Life?"
This intrusive question is a classic at the Thanksgiving dinner table, and is most commonly delivered by an uncle with a history of head injuries.
"Obamacare means now I can smell numbers."
You can sort of see why Uncle Concussion here might think this is a safe topic of conversation. Family gatherings are basically all about relationships, and if you want to avoid yet another conversation about Aunt Brenda's hair loss, why not ask the person of a relationship-forming age what's new? Especially for a relative who doesn't know you well enough to ask about your actual hobbies and interests, asking who you're fucking seems a safe bet. Everyone's trying to fuck someone, right?
"Your Aunt Brenda is insatiable."
That said, it's unlikely the person asking this question is going through that reasoning; it's just an idiot being idiotic. In this case, it's someone who has forgotten how intensely awkward the process of forming relationships is, an experience all sorts of packed with humiliating setbacks and false starts.
"Thanks for asking, Uncle Terry. My new boyfriend's great, actually. He's, uh, robust. He has good legs.
He's a little oaky. And he goes well with meat."
Even when you do have a love life, with a boyfriend/girlfriend/both, talking about how it's going is often the last thing you want to do. What if it's not going well? That can hurt even to think about, much less discuss. And worse, what if your love life is going really well? Like acrobatically well? What kind of crazy person brings that up at Thanksgiving?
"Afterward there's just hair everywhere."
"When Are You Having Kids?"
This one is another favorite of idiot uncles, but unfortunately it doesn't stop there. When talking to someone newly married, almost everyone thinks this question is in bounds. Typically within about 10 minutes of getting married, and then every 10 minutes thereafter until you and your partner are knocked up, someone will sidle up to you and with a conspiratorial grin ask, "So, when are you having kids?"
"It's OK. I know how they're made. We can talk openly."
Again, we can sort of see why people would think to ask this. It's pretty traditional for people to have kids after getting married. (If you do it the other way around, they will become the Antichrist.) Asking someone about a reasonably foreseeable event in their future doesn't feel that strange, not much different from asking what they might have planned for a long weekend.
"Gonna drink eight or 20 beers by the lake, then have a couple kids. You?"
But oh shit, is this ever not the same thing. For example, if someone is trying to have kids but it's not working so good, asking them how it's going (even if you don't know) is about the most humiliating and painful thing you can do to them.
"Yeah, it turns out I have a condition called imploding testicles, so the kids thing might have to wait. Thanks for asking, though."
And then we have people who have decided they don't want kids. This isn't unheard of, but it's still probably not a common choice, which means that these people are very likely to have their decision questioned, derided, or dismissed every time they bring it up. What seems a pleasant little piece of small talk to you is for them starting an argument that they're tired of having.
"Why would I want to bring someone into a world with people like you in it? Why, Tim? ANSWER ME, TIM."
And of course this question is just loaded as hell when it's directed at women, and again, among co-workers it's potentially illegal. But even among friends and family, there's a lot more going on in this question than it might seem. The prime child-having years are also the prime career-building years, and doing both at the same time is difficult and likely to involve compromises in both. Consequently, it's not unreasonable for a woman to delay having children a few years while she's trying to establish her career. And yet there will be a significant number of people in her life who think (and are eager to tell her) that she has made the exact wrong decision. Again, our seemingly simple little question is opening a door into a land of fury, full of arguments that the person you're talking to is tired of having.
"No, Mom. I've told you before. The only 'children' I'm interested in supporting now are my career and my opiate habit."
So please, please please, don't ask anyone ever when they're going to have children. Ask them about their day, ask them about their weekend, ask them if they'd like to fight. Even ask them about the fucking weather.