Sunday, 11 November 2012

Small talk

Small talk is difficult. Much worse than sudoku. Because there is not one solution to the problem. And when I've managed to small talk for twenty minutes I am awarded... some more small talk.

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

  1. just listen and add one-syllable exlamations at strategic times
  2. offer my own opinion: 'I don't think it is that bad', or 'could they have misunderstood you'
  3. 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:
  1. The weather
  2. Food
  3. Holidays
  4. 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?

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