Handshakes, Hi, and What’s New: What’s Going On With Small Talk?

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.

Handshakes

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.

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:

“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.

Cross-posted on my per­sonal blog.