How to Avoid a Common Pitfall During Small Talk

Small talk is a dance in which initial impressions of the conversation you have with another individual are set. 

That dance includes using many seemingly thoughtful and personal questions as trivial rituals to get into the meat and potatoes of a conversation. The behavior of small talk thereby reassigns personable questions to simply serve as a meaningless verbal handshake of sorts. 

“How are you?” 
“How have you been?”
“Everything going well?” 

We can ask questions such as the ones above to a stranger we couldn’t care less about, or a sibling we haven’t spoken to for a few weeks. In both of those scenarios, we would ask such questions with different intent propelling them. 

As you are likely to deeply care about your sibling, a simple, “How are you?” can serve as an introduction to a thoughtful back and forth about the recent happenings of each one of your lives. 

If you ask the same question to a stranger, you’d likely expect a “good” and not much else from them. The question wouldn’t be so much an inquiry as much as a simple verbal handshake. Your inquiry into a stranger’s wellbeing will be an extension of your greeting, not an investigation of what’s been going on in their life. 

This article is about people you small talk with misinterpreting your trivial use of seemingly personal questions by going on to answer with seriousness. Your incorrect reaction to such answers can ruin initial impressions of the conversations you partake in. 


The Middle Is Where the Issues Lie

It is difficult to be sure of people’s reaction to anything you do or say to them. The assembly of all possible social interactions in life has an unpredictable, grey, middle ground with a thin, but vibrant, edge. The vibrant edge of the pool of possible social scenarios are those in which we’re sure of the outcomes to the things we say and do to others. 

For instance, you can be relatively sure that going in for a hug the next time you see your parent(s) will be well received by them. On the other hand, you likely have an understanding that berating a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop isn’t bound to amount to favorable results. 

Strategizing about other less predictable future interactions however, is bound to leave even the most skilled with a certain unsureness until things actually play out. 

There are people who aren’t exactly strangers and are definitely not siblings too. They can be your acquaintances or colleagues. Your interactions with such individuals often fall within the grey middle ground;  giving rise to an abundance of possible miscommunication pitfalls to fall victim to. 

Since you’d know a colleague better than a random stranger, but not as well as a sibling, your anticipation of their responses to the triggers you present is difficult to get right. Ironically, interaction with total strangers often prove easier to anticipate than interactions with people we walk by in the halls at work. A difference in your mutual interpretation of personal questions amidst small talk is where disappointment can foster. 


A Scenario in Which Rigidity Is Poison

Your inquiry into the well-being of your friend can be sent out with the expectation that they’ll simply gloss over it. In doing so, you’ll likely have a succeeding point to the conversation you began with them. That friend, however, can interpret your inquiry into their well-being with seriousness and answer poignantly. Their father may have died, or their dog may have had to be put down in recent days. 

During such a case, you’ll already be primed to gloss over their answer without empathetically being there as someone to listen. You’d have entered the conversation with a vision that wouldn’t have anticipated a thorough answer to your trivial piece of small talk. 

Though you may express a, “Damn, I’m sorry,” to any news you hear from them, your act of moving on from small talk to things you decided to start the conversation about in the first place will be a stab in the heart for the individual. They would have misinterpreted you to have been authentically inquiring into their being and would have answered your question with vulnerability and truth. 

In such a case, the inability to prioritize new information you learn from the individuals you speak with and morph the conversation you began around that information is a mistake many make. You should be quick on your feet in the face of someone’s misinterpretation of your attempts at small talk. Receiving a serious and in depth answer to a question you didn’t ask with the intention of generating such seriousness should be a thing you react and morph to, not ignore and move past. 


Let Them Assign Meaning to Your Small Talk and Tag Along

The best way to clear yourself of the issue in not aligning in interpretations of small talk is to allow those you speak with to assign their own meaning to it. Rather than entering conversations expecting to breeze past the small talk into topics you really want to talk about, ensure you remain present and focused as you exchange the seemingly trivial verbal handshakes of small talk. 

An important goal in small talk is thereby to match your interpretation of that small talk with the people you’re small talking with. If you notice someone seriously answering the question you ask out of habit at the start of every conversation, you should readjust the seriousness with which you listen and interact. 

You’ll take your communication skills to a new level if you make a habit out of tagging along with others’ interpretation of your small talk and morphing your conversation with them on the fly. This habit depends on developing a skill of prioritizing information quickly and comparing its importance to the subject matter you initially entered the conversation to discuss. 

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Disclaimer of Opinion: This article is presented only as opinion. It does not make any scientific, factual, or legal claims in any way.