I really enjoy hearing about other people's work. In particular researchers, but also other areas of work. If I am at a function and people start talking about their work, I am home free. I relax and respond to whatever they are telling me.
When the person I am talking to chooses another subject than work, it becomes slightly more difficult. Because we engage in some sort of dialogue, that I am not comfortable with. If we talk about his/her family or relationship issues I don't know if I am supposed to
- just listen and add one-syllable exlamations at strategic times
- offer my own opinion: 'I don't think it is that bad', or 'could they have misunderstood you'
- contribute with my own experiences in the field
When I follow strategy 1., the conversation usually dies. When I follow strategy 2., either I agree and act sympathetic towards the other person, and then the conversation dies; or I offer another perspective, which very often is not well received. If I follow strategy 3., I often monopolise the conversation, because I don't know exactly when to stop.
I like to run. The past 6 or 7 years I have run regularly with colleagues wherever I have worked. And while I enjoy the running, and in fact also the company, I dread the conversation. If somebody very talkative joins the running team I am relieved. Because then he or she can do the talking. If something interesting is happening at work (a poor manager, a merger), we can talk about that. But very often there is simply not enough to talk about for approximately half an hour. These days I mostly run with one person from work. This guy happens to be the person I also work with in the only project where I work with others. And while I have nothing bad to say about him, I have virtually nothing to say TO him. He seems a nice person, very laid-back. And not very talkative. I've started to dread the running. And it is nothing personal. I just don't know what to talk about. We can't talk about our common project for half an hour. And I am sure we've been around workplace issues and normal small-talk issues more than once. I sometimes tell the same story again in a sort of panic.
I've decided I need a longer list of 'safe' topics for small talk. Not only the running of course, but also for parties and other functions where I am supposed to talk to people I am not comfortable with. My list so far:
- The weather
- People's clothes, jewelery etc (not that I have any interest but it buys me some 30 seconds)
And there's someting else I would like to know: When I bake or cook for others and they compliment my results, they often ask for the recipe. Is this small-talk or do they really want the recipe?