Unpleasant Pleasantries

Conversation I overheard this morning from 2 women dropping their kids off at the local Yeshiva:

W1: Hey, how are you?
W2: Good. How are you?
W1: I’m good. What’s going on?
W2: Nothing much. What’s going on with you?
W1: Oh, not too much. What are you up to?
W2: Just dropping the kids off. How about you?
W1: Oh you know, the same. How are things?

I’m sure W2 responded in kind and proceeded to ask how things were with W1 but I had a train to catch so I’ll never know for sure. I couldn’t help but to think that these 2 women had likely repeated this ritual hundreds of times before. They pretty much ask each other the same question in 3 or 4 different ways until one of them has to leave. If there is anything remotely distinct about the weather, the “Weather Question” invariably will make its way in there at some point.

Exchanges like the one above make me very uncomfortable. I’d just as soon nod and give a simple “hello” than exchange 2 minutes of pointless social niceties just to fill the silence. On the other hand, in certain situations the silence can be equally uncomfortable. I work in an office and often find myself in this position: I’m waiting for the elevator alone. Someone that I see everyday but don’t really “know” begins waiting for the elevator with me. I begin to hope that a) 1 or more persons will come and wait for the elevator with us or b) someone will be on the elevator when the door opens and will be taking the ride up/down with us. I think all of this because in my mind, 3 silent people on an elevator is much less awkward than 2 silent people that kinda know each other by face but don’t talk to each other.

It’s all really quite trivial. Perhaps the amount of thought I put into these things is due to some flaw in my social conditioning. I dunno. Hearing that conversation between those 2 women this morning just made me keenly aware of it. Plus, it’s pretty cold in New York these days (it being, surprise, Winter and all) so there are an abundance of “Weather Questions” floating about. Just thought I’d share.

Y’know what I mean?

Ahhhh, yes. Yes, it’s cold outside. That’s why we’re all wearing coats and scarves and have red noses. Unless you actually have something to say about the weather, something interesting, please shut up. “Wow, it’s really cold outside!” does not qualify.

Yeah, I kinda do. Do you notice yourself having this type of existential nausée year-'round, or is it something you can plausibly chalk up to Seasonal Affective Disorder?

If it concerns you particularly, you might wish you consult your physician about whether you’re suffering from clinical depression.

As far as the elevator situation goes, I’ll sometimes say “Ever notice how everyone shuts up when they get on an elevator?” That usually gets a laugh and breaks the tension, sometimes it even gets a conversation going.

Though in one very odd instance, it prompted a conversation about the weather.

It’s year round but more noticeable during extreme weather turns. It’s not the weather itself. It should be cold during the winter and it should be hot during the summer. I’m totally at peace with these concepts.

It’s the ‘Weather Question’ that makes me grimace. I just went downstairs to get some coffee from the food cart and somebody that I kinda know asked me, ‘chilly, eh?’ I told him it was going to get worse.

A buddy of mine is a meteorologist and we have informative and enjoyable conversations about the weather. I’ve also done a good deal of research about weather patterns, storm systems, etc. So, if I’m in the mood, when someone hits me with an inane ‘Weather Question’ I can respond with some mind blowing insight into their ‘chilly, eh?’ observation. Though, rather than having their mind blown, they would likely just wonder why I didn’t simply agree.

There was once a sketch on Royal Canadian Air Farce; it started out with two cast members standing outside, talking about how cold it was. The word “cold” was in every sentence. A third cast member then joins and again the topic of cold is brought up. Then the fourth cast member shows up and says “Bus late again?” and the other three just look at him without saying a word. “They’re so slow, aren’t they?” the guy says, and again, the others just look at him. Then as a throwaway, he says “It’s so cold,” and the conversation jumps right back to life as the sketch fades out.

Three farmers are sitting in a bar.

#1 looks over at #2 and says “How’s yer crops?”

Ten minutes pass. #2 responds “Fine.”

More time passes. #2 turns to #1 and says “How are your crops?”

Another long delay. #1 says “OK.”

Ten more minutes go by. #1 turns to #3 and says “And how’re your crops doing?”

#3 looks over at the other two and says “Don’t drag me into your argument.”

The two women in the OP were handing each other opportunities to start a real conversation if either party wanted.

When I say “it sure is cold” or “how are you doing” to someone I don’t know well, I really mean “I would be willing to talk to you if you want.” I was very, very shy for years and now I’m not and I like to engage people sometimes. And people seem to like being engaged for the most part from what I’ve experienced. If I say “sure is cold” and a guy I barely know says “deep too”, then I’ve found a friend.

I hate the insincere "How are you?’ type questions. Like when you are checking out at the grocery store and the clerk always says, “So how are you doing today?” You know they don’t want a real answer.

If I responded, “Not so good. My mother had a stroke yesterday and I got into a big argument with my husband this morning.” There would just be an uncomfortable pause before the clerk commented on how the price of bananas has gone up

So what is the point of asking? I hate time-filling small talk. Why are people so uncomfortable with silence for the few minutes it takes to ring up my groceries?

The only thing I don’t like about my job is the required small talk. I get perfect reviews followed by, “And we want you to be more social with your coworkers. You know, say good morning and good evening when you come in or leave, make small talk in the break room, that kind of thing.” It took two rounds of this at the end of reviews being followed by my utter confusion because I do talk to people in the office to realize that what they want is for me to seek people out and talk to them. They want me to track down everyone in the office, not just those I pass by on my way in and out, and make small talk for a few minutes every day. To me this is silly and a waste of my time. To them it is an important part of making sure everyone works together well and knows one another. I do it because they want me to but it makes me really uncomfortable.

This seems extreme and more than a little abnormal. I work in a fairly large office. If every one of my co-workers tracked me down and engaged me in small talk for a few minutes every day I would a) not get any work done and b) say, “this is the fuckin’ Twilight Zone. I’m out.”

It’s a communication style. Probably not yours, based on your OP, but some people rather enjoy exchanging desultory pleasantries like that even if it’s not going to segue into a meaningful conversation.

It’s not my style, either, which is why in the past I’ve been accused of giving off a snobby or brusque vibe. I’m not (well, at least I don’t think I am)… it’s just that I’d rather get down to business instead of wasting time trading meaningless banter.

The thing is, my career and personal life aren’t going to do very well if most of the people I meet think I’m an unfeeling bitch with no social skills, so it’s generally a good idea to meet someone halfway by tossing out a few desultory lines like “man, it sure is cold out there”, “any big weekend plans?” and “how 'bout that junior hockey game!”. It takes a little effort sometimes, especially if it’s early in the morning or if I’m having a crappy day, but it’s either that or moving into a cave and becoming a hermit.

(In an HBDI assessment I did last year, the red quadrant was my weakest - that’s the one that represents creative/emotional communication)

I’m in a small office of less than 20 people (several of whom work outside the office most of the time) so it isn’t a huge deal. It just seems weird to me. If people started seeking me out for no reason to make useless small talk I would get really creeped out elsewhere but because I know it is expected here it doesn’t bother me too much.

You make a good point and I understand this completely. As such, I can play along and do it well if I’m in a good mood. I’m generally a very polite person and while that doesn’t mean I have to spend 10 minutes shootin’ the shit with everyone I meet, it does require a certain amount of interaction on my part to ingratiate the people I see everyday.

Some days I’m just more aware of it (and some, more bothered by it). Like the days when I absolutely needed 10 more minutes of sleep but had to get up anyway.

I leave work in about 10 minutes. I’m almost certain that the guard downstairs will tell me to, “bundle up! it’s cold out there!” Using my keen powers of foresight, I’ll have anticipated that it will be cold and will already be bundled up by the time I see him. I’ll smile, wave and tell him ‘thanks’ and ‘good night’. He’s a good guy, after all.

I just hate how “what’s up?” and “how are you?” are rhetorical questions now, or they’re expected to get the same question in response.

If someone says “How are you?” and I just say “Good” or “Fine” or “Great,” it feels like there’s a hanging moment where the other person expects me to add “How are you?” I don’t care how they are, and they don’t care how I am. I could have a knife protruding from my neck, and if someone called me and said “How are you?” I’d say I was great. Nobody answers that question in a negative way. It’s useless.

“How are you?” has basically become “Hello,” we all just seem to ignore its interrogatory nature at times. I often hear on radio shows or podcasts, the host introducing a guest, the guest will then say something like “How are you?”, and the host will continue on introducing the other guests. It was a question nobody answered, and nobody cares. Why are we saying these things? Make the hurting stop!

I like how it is in movies and TV shows, where conversations only contain what they need to. There are no banal hellos or goodbyes. Everything should be like how it is in the movies. And I mean everything.

There’s this one guy that cracks me up in my office. He’ll come in my cube and say “How’re you doing?” then immediately interrupt you and say, “Good, good, glad to hear it.” Then he’ll get down to business. I like him. :slight_smile:

I don’t mind small talk most of the time. I know that weird feeling of the elevator and the silence and the person you don’t know very well…

Host: With us this week is Guest1, who will be talking about growth patterns in agrarian society. Welcome, Guest1!

Guest1: How are you?

Host: Also joining us is Guest2. Guest2 comes all the way from Oxford university and is an expert on cheesemaking.

Guest2: Hiya.

Host: Guest2, let’s talk about gruyere.

Guest1: I asked you a question.

Host: How, exactly, is gruyere made?

Guest2: Well, it all starts with the milk.

Guest1: Maybe I didn’t make myself clear.

Guest2: First, we heat it to exactly 153 degrees.

Guest1: Hold on there, Guest2. Host, I asked you a question. Comprende? You listening? Hellooooo?!?

Host: I’m sorry. What?

Guest1: I asked you a question, you rude motherfucker. Answer the goddam question!

Host: Uh, what was the question?

Guest1: How the fuck are you, asshole?!?

Host: Um… Fine?

Guest1: Awesome. Carry on.

In my temporary office all of the engineers gather to drink coffee each morning for an hour and no work talk is allowed. I’ve started showing up a half hour early for work just so I can start my day without the crap. The worst part is my office is next to the break area so even on the days that I’m antisocial enough to not play i still have to listen to them. The funny thing is that the engineer whose spot I’m filling told me it is one of the reasons he loves this office since he only works 6 hours a day.

The women were engaged in meaningless ritualistic conversation, yes, but as women are usually the more chatty sex, it doesn’t mean anything profound and you shouldn’t worry about it. I’m not chatty myself, but I play along when this happens… When I worked in a big office and had to do a lot of legwork (walking downstairs to have a check signed, make copies, deliver an envelope) I would walk past the same people doing similar errands half a dozen times a day. “Hi Bob, how you doing?” “Hi Sue, love your new shoes!” “Hi Al…” blah blah blah, and I grew to dread it. I didn’t want to make eye contact any more or say anything any more. I worked out a brief smile and a head nod, and kept walking after the second meeting, but it still felt awkward.

Oh, I don’t know. Isn’t complaining about weather smalltalk almost as hoary as the weather smalltalk itself? Do you not rather suspect that I knew exactly where your OP was going as soon as I got to the second W1 and yet it went on for several more paragraphs?

Since we’ve apparently all got a yen for “interesting” conversation, why can you talk at length to faceless strangers you’ll never meet on the internet yet can’t indulge a little chitchat with someone you see everyday?