5 Common Phrases That Automatically Kill A Conversation
Small talk is hard. That's why people at parties sometimes stare at their phones or get drunk instead of having conversations. Hell, it's why people avoid social events in the first place. There are so many people to meet and so many personality landmines to navigate. And it's not just the pressure of having to make small talk; it's knowing you'll be on the receiving end of moronic sentences -- and even worse -- knowing that polite society frowns upon bludgeoning boring people to death.
"Great party, Doris. Sorry I had to beat Lester to death with your fiesta bowl of salsa."
Anyway, over time society has come up with innocuous ways to make polite conversation. Things like, "How about the game last night?" Or, "Can you believe this weather we're having?" Or, "So, did you have a good weekend?" Those are solid phrases that are good at generating a couple of sentences of discourse without anyone getting hurt. But there are other statements that people seem to think are perfectly valid ways to engage in conversation that almost always kill it. And, for some reason, we keep using them even though they usually accomplish very little aside from making everything weird.
"I Saw Someone Who Looked Just Like You!"
I've gotten this one a lot in my life, and it's never led to anything other than an awkward conversation. Never. This tactic usually ends in disaster, because no matter who your doppelganger is -- good or bad -- there's just not a whole hell of a lot to say about it. Over the last 30 years, I've been told I look like everyone from the kid from E.T. when I was 10 to Mel Gibson when I was 18 to a gazillion different random people like Adam Richman from Man V. Food. These days, when someone tells me, "I saw someone who looked just like you," what they usually means is, "I saw a dark-haired Jew."
These people don't look alike or like me.
Most of the time, I can see why this still happens in conversations. If someone's comparing you to a good-looking person, that's complimentary. If someone's comparing you to an unattractive person, I guess they figure it's still cool to be compared to a celebrity and you must already know you're ugly. But how about when people compare you to a stranger. Where is that supposed to take the conversation?
"You look just like this guy I know!"
"Yeah, his name is Todd. He services my office's photocopier every Wednesday."
That's the only way that conversation can go. I mean, I guess if some wildly attractive woman says you look just like Ryan Gosling or some smoking hot dude says you look like Kate Upton then you know they're paying you a compliment, but it's still not going to lead to any more of a conversation than if they said, "So, do you like sex?"
"How's The Job Search Coming?"
Especially in this economy, many of us have known the joy of layoffs. And when I say "joy," I mean the exact opposite of that. Looking for a job when you don't already have one can be just as stressful and degrading as having a job -- if your job is being Shia LaBeouf's personal assistant.
The hardest part is complimenting his fashion sense.
So I get it. When you know you're talking to someone who's out of work, it's very tempting to bring up the job search. After all, you're showing compassion by caring about their struggle. You're showing interest in a topic that's probably consuming them. But you're also showing that you love grinding conversations to a startling halt as awkward and unpleasant as Kanye interrupting your acceptance speech.
Imma let you finish, but that was the worst conversation-starter in the history of words.
The point is, much like the subject of women and pregnancy, you never want to make any assumptions in this area. If someone out of work has found a job, odds are good he or she will bring that up in conversation affirmatively, and then you can talk about it. Too curious to wait? OK, how about asking, "What's new?" Or, "What's going on?" Or, y'know, "How are you?" Asking how the job search is coming is too much a setup for failure. You wouldn't go up to a sick person and say, "So, has that cancer gone into remission?" You just wouldn't want to risk it. If the person you're talking to is still unemployed, not only have you brought the conversation to a dead end, you've made him or her feel like an ass.
"The Funniest Thing Happened At Work!"
Of course, if the person you're talking to does have a job then you're almost certainly in for this conversation-killer that people still think, inexplicably, will get the verbal ball rolling: the dreaded "funny work story." I'm not saying nothing funny has ever happened at your job. I'm not even saying that none of your work stories will ever translate to people outside of your job. But I am saying that the odds of something happening at work that is both actually amusing and easy enough to explain to someone outside of your workplace are really slim. How slim? About as slim as Tommy Jenkins over in accounting. Oh, Tom's this guy at my work. In the accounting department. He's about 6 feet tall and can't weigh more than 110 pounds. That thin! (You see the problem?)
This guy. Get it?
You can kind of understand why people keep making the mistake of bringing up funny work stories. Most of us spend a majority of our time at our jobs, so that's where the anecdotes are from. But when you try to tell it, it usually goes something like this:
"So, anyway, Friday is the day we typically turn in our project evaluations. (Project evaluations are these things due weekly where we estimate time devoted to various tasks and make predictions for time to be allotted to future tasks. It's to help with budgeting.) Anyway, last Friday, Jimmy comes in, like, super hungover and two hours late, and he's freaking out because Henderson (that's our boss, well, not technically my boss, because I'm in a different group that works in a separate subsection but still within the same corporate structure) is roaming the hallways collecting the reports. Anyway, Jimmy's on probation because his last project evaluation was off by so much they had to reconfigure the budget at the last second to account for his projects, and he's so nervous that Henderson is gonna fire him that he throws up. But here's the thing, he throws up on his computer, and I dunno how but it seeped into the hard drive and shorted the whole thing so all his data was lost. And I'm like, 'Lucky bastard!' ... I guess you had to be there."
Work stories just almost never work, because they almost always require a similar mindset and shared experience. What gets a smile at the company cafeteria just doesn't translate to your friend's party unless your friend is even more socially inept than you are.
"You Look Great; Have You Done Something Different?"
OK, I almost didn't put this on the list because, unlike the other entries that at least seem inoffensive on their face, this one is, quite clearly, insulting. It's really not much better than, "Hey, you don't look like a dirty whore today," or, "Say, Steve, why aren't I as aware of your fecal-like appearance as I usually am?" But I'm including it because this is not just something uncouth boobs blurt out on their way to tapings of American Idol. I hear this all the time (directed at other people, of course).
"Say, Henry, my vagina isn't instantly drying up like a slug in a salt mine at the sight of you. What's different?"
I get why this happens. Someone looks good and you want to give them a compliment. People like compliments. And people like talking about themselves, so sure, all you're trying to do is get the ball rolling. But just look at that sentence. It's a diss. "You usually don't look this good" is implied. So if you see your buddy at a party looking better than usual and you want to pay him or her a compliment, you have two choices: a) actually notice what is different, or 2) just say, "Hey, you look great!" That's it. Is that so hard? Hell, you can even cheat. If you have no idea why your friend looks so suddenly spectacular, just take a guess and they'll likely correct you without anyone getting insulted. Like this:
"Margaret! You look like a million bucks! Did you get your clitoris laminated?"
"No, just got bangs, but thanks!"
See? You're welcome!
"I Had A Dream About You!"
People dream. It happens. And people, like prophets, like to share their dreams. But unlike the visions of prophets, people's dreams usually suck. They are random slices of someone else's psyche. You might be in their dream, but it's not you. It's their vision of you. Or what you represent. Sometimes you will have a tail, or your teeth will be falling out, or your fingers will be octopus tentacles.
"If you think that last sentence was weird, you should hear what he says when he's on my couch."
Look, we all know the obvious exception. Sex dreams. If someone you want physically tells you they had a sex dream about you, that's a good thing. But if someone is brazen enough to admit to you they spent last night dream-boning, then odds are pretty good (like in entry #5 above) that the next sentence is going to be, "Hey, let's have sex," so that's not really what we're talking about. We're talking about folks sharing their dreams under the twisted conception that hearing something like this would make you want to talk to them:
"So, you were in my dream last night. I was at this amusement park, but instead of tickets, you got on the rides by paying them in fingers, so I kept giving my fingers away until I had no fingers, and I was on a roller coaster, but I flew out and I couldn't hold onto the track to keep from falling because I had no fingers, and when I fell to the ground I landed in the lake by the water flume and you rowed up to me and gave me new hands."
No one wants to hear that. But dreams like that are rare, so there's another reason no one wants to hear they were in your dream. Because it usually goes like this:
"You were in my dream last the night."
"Oh, doing what?"
"Nothing. You were just there."
And somehow that dream is almost more disturbing. And if not disturbing, then certainly boring.
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For more from Gladstone, check out 5 Actors Who Weren't Acting In Their Most Iconic Scenes and 5 Things You Learn After Getting Shingles.