The Humble ‘Yeah?’

[Related to: Getting Past Small Talk]

Two things are true of most people I spend time with:

1) They want to avoid small talk.

2) They don’t want to make people feel forced into uncomfortable conversations.

This is how to do it.

Or at least, it’s one solution I keep using, that seems to generalize without forcing everyone to play the Reveal Your Darkest Secrets to Strangers Game. Because, even as there’s the annoyance of small talk conversation (I live in California, the weather is always nice.), it serves a role. You acknowledge that you’re not ignoring each other, figure out how you interact (flirty? casual? professional?) and whether or not one of you wants needs something (Do you know when dinner is? Do you have that file I need?) without being abrupt.

Sometimes the answer to “How are you?” is too complicated or private to discuss upon first meeting. Sometimes you do want to get away with claiming everything is just fine, thanks, when your eyes are red. Or you’re really happy, but the reasons are confidential. A social norm of skipping the small talk doesn’t usually give the plausible deniability that distant pleasantries allow.

But how do you get from How Are Yous to personal discussion, without forcing it?

I’ve been yeah?-ing at people.

A: Hey! How are you?

B: I’m pretty okay.

A: Yeah?

And at this point, there are two options for B.

Option 1: B’s been having an unpleasant amount of relationship upheaval, and could use some ears and tissues and hugs. It’s a bit tricky (not to mention socially frowned upon) to hand any passing stranger your problems, so B didn’t lead in with this. A, on the other hand, just lobbed the conversational softball towards B, with the obvious option of elaborating on “pretty okay”.

B now can take the next step towards explaining what’s up. Perhaps she says “You know, things have been rough with Emma lately.”…at which point, A can offer platitudes (“Man, that’s rough.” “That’s too bad, but I bet you’ll work through it.”) in order to avoid an emotionally heavy conversation. Or, A can continue down the road of signaling further interest, arriving at our destination: The Land of Definitely Not Small Talk.

Option 2: B’s not interested in sharing further details. Perhaps she’s concerned about ruining her mascara before the next meeting, or emotionally wrung out, or just doesn’t think A will be very helpful in these circumstances. For whatever the reason, she can respond in a similarly opaque way:

A: Hey! How are you?

B: I’m pretty okay.

A: Yeah?

B: Yeah, you know, lots on my plate.

This choice between Options 1 and 2 rests squarely in the hands of B. A number of the techniques I’ve seen to do the same thing: get after people’s current emotional state, without stopping at small talk, take that control away from B.

“You look sad, is something wrong?” “Is everything okay?” These mean either denial (true or false, still deeply uncomfortable), or feeling the social pressure of discussing what made you upset whether or not you wished to do so. “Tell me about yourself!” or “What’s your life plan?” (a popular intro line at a conference I recently attended) does all but point a literal spotlight at your conversational partner, often before they’ve relaxed into chatting with you. Escalate the intimacy slowly, and give everyone an out.

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