By Brenda Miller, columnist
It is an introvert’s worst nightmare. A friend drags you to some gathering you did not want to attend, and one look around confirms that you know nobody beyond that one friend.
Then your friend gets called away, leaving you alone with two options: stand there awkwardly until they get back or make small talk with random strangers.
Small talk is used for a variety of reasons, none of which make much sense. In fact, small talk is quite often counterproductive.
Ironically, it is easier to talk to someone you have just met than to someone with whom you are already acquainted. When you first meet someone, you greet and talk a bit about yourselves, quickly picking up on commonalities.
But when talking to someone you have already met, this crutch is gone. You know each other well enough that these topics have already been exhausted, but not well enough to carry on an interesting conversation.
So you resort to small talk.
While there is nothing wrong with wanting to strike up a conversation to be polite, the problem comes when no one says anything substantive. The response to “How are you?” is typically a predictable “Good, how are you?” to which the other person responds “good” as well. After these brief exchanges, the conversation trails off or stops short.
An awkward silence is certainly uncomfortable. But worse than an awkward silence is awkward silence punctuated by brief conversational fragments, leading to additional silence in which both parties struggle to come up with something to say.
Although well-intentioned, small talk more often inhibits conversation more than it promotes it. By trying to keep the conversation easy and lighthearted, no one ends up saying anything memorable.
The effort to keep conversation light also causes many people to give that same expected response, even if it is not true. Their car broke down, they missed their first class and then they found out they failed a test, but they say that they are good anyway because all of those things would bring down the mood.
If I ask someone a question, even something as simple as a typical “How are you?,” I really do want to know. If I don’t care to know, I’m not going to ask. Why ask a question if you just want the expected response? It doesn’t make sense.
I understand that small talk is a courtesy. But, as an introvert, I find small talk stressful. What do I talk about when I have nothing to say? Talking for the sake of talking feels like a waste of time and energy when neither person cares about what was said, and the exchange will most likely be forgotten anyway.
There is no reason a lighthearted, polite conversation has to consist of obligatory space-filling fragments. Instead of responding with a one-word “good,” what is wrong with giving a brief summary of something interesting that has happened recently? The exchange is still light, but it opens up more topics of discussion and is more engaging than the programmed responses we are all accustomed to.
Conversations with even mild acquaintances can be interesting, and we can learn a lot about people even through brief interactions. But we will never know unless we step outside our scripted exchanges and go beyond traditional small talk.