Several years ago, at my workplace with a typical open floor plan, my colleague BK would often ask me 'is the coast clear?'. I would scoot backwards — away from my desk — in my swivel chair, and peek at the common kitchen area. Then I would give him a nod yes or no. I had a better view of the kitchen. What he wanted to know was whether there was anyone else in the kitchen before he walked over to refill his water. Because if there was he would wait or else be subject to questions he didn't want to answer or feel obligated to make conversation. This type of obligatory conversation would likely involve small talk.
I don't recall exactly how we came to this arrangement about checking the kitchen. But I do recall having a conversation about the awkwardness of having to make small talk. And having to answer questions like what did you do this weekend or what are you working on. Avoiding that pain made silly strategies to find an empty kitchen worthwhile. I completely understood the desire for a small talk free kitchen because I felt the same way. I had never articulated this out loud to anyone including myself until then. There is a feeling of guilt and maybe shame with admitting that you actively avoid other people. Actually it's funny. And our kitchen arrangement was practical and humorous.
Another colleague DK was afraid of interviews. Not being interviewed for a job, but he was afraid of being the interviewer. Even though we teased him about it we could all tell that it was a real fear, it made him deeply uncomfortable. He would have to go into a small conference room and talk to someone he'd never met for somewhere between 30 to 60 minutes. And for some part of that time he'd have to make small talk. He'd even be in charge of filling the silence.
I wonder how common is the desire to avoid small talk. My observation is that it's more common than we collectively discuss. So what can be done about it? I’ve given this some thought over time. I have a short list of questions I like to use to get past small talk. It’s an ongoing practice.
Tips for Dealing with Small Talk
I came across this 8 min video on quickly moving through small talk. I admit I've studied this and taken notes.
This clip focuses on introverts and it resonates with self-identified introvert friends I've shared it with. But the tips apply to anyone whose goal for conversations is to arrive at a topic that both people care deeply about. Here are more of my notes:
-- You may feel like you don't know when to participate. Practice looking for subtle cues and openings to join in, there usually are some. Easiest way to move through banter is by saying how the other person's statement makes you feel.
-- You need to not answer the question you're asked sometimes. Instead answer a related more interesting question. Moreover, people will appreciate you not answering their literal question if it makes the conversation more engaging.
-- If you're worried about giving a lengthy answer / talking too much, periodically pause to allow opt-in. On the other end, if you want someone to keep going you can opt-in with follow-up questions and attentive body language.
-- "Have I got your opinion on X?" a good question to have in your back pocket since most people love to give their opinion.
I've also collected some of my favorite questions to skip the small talk. It's an evolving list and has decent results in most cases. Here is my current list:
-- What do you want to learn? If you could spend all your time learning something, what would it be?
-- What are some positive things that have happened to you in the last 24 hours, last week, last year whatever.
-- What topic(s) can you teach / give a talk on without any preparation? What do you understand deeply?
I've seen other similar questions like “if you knew you were going to die in one year, how would you spend your time?” or “if you were financially independent what would you work on if you didn't need to earn a living?” These questions are good too. They are hypothetical and sometimes people have a harder time coming up with answers to imagined scenarios. But these are still more interesting than questions about the weather or sport teams or inquiries of a person's profession/job title.
Online gatherings add another layer to this topic and not all techniques transfer. But in my experience online meetings have been a boon for introverts and anyone that wants to move through small talk quickly and engage in deeper conversations. It may be that we don't need to skip small talk but rather learn some techniques to move through small talk quickly. After all, there is no topic more universal than weather and sometimes it's fun to talk about it — in fact, it's 100F/38C for me as I write this! But after weather, we can aim to make a non-awkward transition to "so if you knew you were going to die in one year..."