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I have a problem with certain types of questions. Help me to understand why and how I can deal with my discomfort.
December 29, 2012 7:36 PM   Subscribe

I have been struggling to figure something out. There are certain types of questions I have trouble with, and I would like to understand what types of questions these are, why am I so uncomfortable with them, and what can I do to make dealing with them less unpleasant.

In general, I am not a shy person. I am more introverted than extroverted, so I'm one of those "I talk when I have something to say" types. When I do talk, if it's something I'm particularly interested in, I can go in great detail. I am comfortable discussing personal matters with close friends, though I prefer to initiate the conversation.

I'm not very good at small talk - I really don't know what to say to someone I have just met, especially if there's no context to work with. If I meet someone at an activity we just did together, I can at least drum up some small talk about the activity we just did, but if it's some random person I just met in a social situation, I'm tongue-tied.

So for the kinds of questions I dislike, it doesn't matter whether they come from close friends or strangers - I am vehemently uncomfortable with them and my mind goes blank, and I find myself at a loss as to what to say. I feel put on the spot.

Here are some examples:

* "Tell me about yourself." Argh, I hate going around a circle of people at a social event, a new job, or a conference and having to say a few things about myself. Hate, hate, hate. Adversely, I am OK talking about myself if I initiate it.

* "What are you doing?" This one seems rather insipid to me. If I'm on the computer, what does it look like I am doing? Should I give a full detailed list of what I am doing? "Um, I wrote some personal notes to myself, then I looked at Facebook, then I bought a jacket on Amazon, and then I sent an email to a friend, then I ..." I mean, I don't know what to do with this question. I do a lot of things on the computer within a given hour, and I just don't understand why this makes for interesting conversation.

* "What are you cooking?" Roommate does this, and I feel like it's such an obvious question. I understand she's just trying to make small talk. Intellectually, I understand why people make small talk, but I often feel it's an inefficient use of time. If I was cooking something complex, it wouldn't bother me so much, but why ask someone that when they're making bacon and eggs in the morning?

* "What have you been up to?" Now this one confuses me. I have a close friend who, when I visit her, her first question is "Now tell me all about you! What have you been doing? Who have you been with?" I know she reads my Facebook so she certainly knows when I post interesting things that happen in my day to day, so what exactly is she looking for here? Does she really need me to repeat back things she already knows? Does she want to know the insignificant stuff I don't post online, such as "I went to work and worked all day, then I went to the gym, then went to XYZ restaurant and ate a grass-fed steak with (X) and then I went home and got in my PJ's and watched True Blood?" I never know what to do with this one. When she does this, I kind of shut down, and she pushes and prods me, making hand motions like she's trying to drag something out of me, making "encouraging" faces at me like I'm some petulant child, which makes me even more uncomfortable and I clam up even more. When I say, "I really dislike that kind of question," she counters with, "But I just want to know what's going on with you! I'm just making small talk!"

Is there some category these kinds of questions fall in?
Is my personality type averse to these kinds of questions?

Anyway, I'd love to read some impartial input on what I've written. Thanks!
posted by matrushka to Human Relations (58 answers total) 30 users marked this as a favorite
 
They want stories.
posted by TwelveTwo at 7:39 PM on December 29, 2012 [8 favorites]


Is there some category these kinds of questions fall in?

Small talk.

Is my personality type averse to these kinds of questions?

It seems like you may be a bit socially anxious, and also take things very much at face value. Generally, when people ask questions like that, they just want to start a conversation. So if someone says, "What are you making?" when you're at the stove, they want to hear about the food, the dinner, what your evening is like, etc. It's not just factual, it's because they want to engage with you and connect on some level.

Lighten up and just chat, if you can. Or ask questions of your own. "What are you doing," can be answered with, "Not a whole lot, how about you?"
posted by xingcat at 7:40 PM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


* "What have you been up to?

Not sure how much help I can be to you for the rest, but for this question, my stock answer is almost always: "Oh, about five feet." (Which is my height. Adjust for your own measurements.)
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:42 PM on December 29, 2012


Yeah, these are small talk questions.

Based on what you've said here, it seems like you're putting too much thought into how you should answer these questions.

I'm by no means an expert at socializing and small talk, but generally I think these types of questions are intended to show interest in the other person. The asker does not expect to receive long stories or an itinerary about your daily life. However, the asker does expect to receive a brief reply and perhaps a short line about something interesting in order to facilitate further conversation. But, if you're mind draws a blank just turn the question back on the asker.

For instance, if someone asks you what you are up to/what you are doing then you can reply with:
"Nothing much, my day has been pretty long I went to work (the usual 9-5) and then hit the gym. What about you?"
posted by livinglearning at 7:47 PM on December 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Agreed with TwelveTwo, they want stories. Give a brief story, even if that feels a little pointless to you, then turn a question back.

What are you cooking? Oh, just spaghetti, but I'm trying to doctor up this sauce a bit. I got the idea from a blog post I read today... Have you ever tried it this way?

What have you been up to? Well, you know how I went to the gym yesterday? There was this guy there who took the most spectacular fall off the treadmill. Speaking of running, how's your marathon training going?
posted by dayintoday at 7:53 PM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


I think also these types of questions can be categorized as impersonal. Perhaps that's what bothers me about them?
posted by matrushka at 7:56 PM on December 29, 2012


It's what anthropologists call "phatic communication", in which social signals rather than specific information are being exchanged (linguistics has a slightly different definition of "phatic communication" but that's not relevant to what I'm saying).

"Tell me about yourself" really means "It's your turn to talk about yourself" in my experience.

"What are you cooking?" when you clearly have bacon and eggs frying in a pan generally really means "I see that you are cooking" and sometimes "Please invite me to have some of what you are cooking".

"What are you doing?" might mean "Can I interrupt you?" but it also might mean "I am bored and want to talk" or it might mean "Hi! Don't want to interrupt, but thought it would be polite to check in".
posted by Sidhedevil at 8:03 PM on December 29, 2012 [44 favorites]


This the formula you are looking for: Context + "And," + Objective + "But," Obstacle + "So," Conclusion + Return + "?"

"What are you cooking?"
Context: I was hungry.
Objective: And we have all this pasta.
Obstacle: But, all we have is pasta.
Conclusion: So, I'm making spaghetti.
Return: Are you hungry?

"What are you doing?"
Context: Someone asked whether or not they should eat something on AskMe.
Objective: And he really shouldn't.
Obstacle: But, for some reason he keeps wanting to eat the month old spinach.
Conclusion: So, I am writing this comment.
Return: That is what I am doing. What are you up to?

ADVANCED MODE
This formula can be readily adapted into a recursive process. Merely substitute "And," + Objective + "But," + Obstacle + "So," Conclusion, wherever there is a Conclusion.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:17 PM on December 29, 2012 [26 favorites]


They're sort of like, "how are you?" They aren't meant for you to answer them so much as to be conversation starters--you go with the most obvious conversational opener and hopefully that gets a conversation started. So treating them like requests for factual information ignores the social component of the question, which is to give you an opening to talk about whatever, then the asker can respond, etc. Communication involves lots of levels and facets, so if you're thinking it's only about expressing facts back and forth, you're missing a lot of it.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:23 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I like dayintoday's ideas on how to respond. I read an advice column many years ago on small talk and Abby or whoever suggested that you think of it as a tennis match. Somebody starts off with something general (how are you? what have you been up to?) and you respond with enough content to get the ball back over the net (I've been up to my neck in work lately and hey, how did that problem you had with your boss work out?), then they hit it back (bummer about having to work so much and I'm trying this to fix that problem . . .), etc., etc. That's really helped me--respond to these questions with a "meaty" enough response so that the person you're talking to has something to work with. No monosyllables.
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:30 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


These are just conversation starters. Don't be so literal. Cooking bacon and eggs might be obvious but there are deviations, scrambled, omelet, over easy, baked, etc. As a person who likes to cook, I'm always trying to improve my cooking. So, if you asked me about breakfast, I might explain that I'm trying to flip fried eggs by jerking the pan instead of using a spatula. Or I might just mumble something incoherent cause I'm hungry and kind of annoyed that I have to cook.

Tell me about yourself is usually context driven, if it's work related you give info related to work. I'm shoesietart, I work in accounting, I send out annoying reminders about TPS reports. I've worked here two years.

You're over thinking this. People just want to initiate conversation.
posted by shoesietart at 8:31 PM on December 29, 2012


I understand people just want to initiate conversation. I get that. I don't see a problem with that per se. Most people want to make connections with other people.

What I don't - and would like to understand - is why am I apparently in the minority of people who are uncomfortable with this and how can I become less uncomfortable?
posted by matrushka at 8:35 PM on December 29, 2012


They sometimes make me uncomfortable because I feel sort of on the spot to come up with something to say, and if I'm absorbed in what I'm doing, it's a bit hard to do that. If you want to, you can come up with some stock phrases to use over and over ("oh, it's just some recipe I found on the internet") and deflect the conversation away from yourself as quickly as possible ("what are you up to?")
posted by WorkingMyWayHome at 8:40 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I think you're uncomfortable because you don't see the utility of those conversations. You have to get through the impersonal stuff to get to the personal stuff. It's just the way people work.

For example, if you can successfully navigate a "watcha cookin?" conversation with grace and humor, your friend might be willing to try a more personal topic next time. If you can't, they might not think they can trust you with something more important.
posted by no regrets, coyote at 8:41 PM on December 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


I'm going to speculate on why they make you uncomfortable. If someone asks what I've been up to, it feel pretty personal. I have, however, tended to draw a blank, and then judge myself for having no life, then descend into social anxiety and be awkward, so the whole thing Becomes uncomfortable.

Now I try to have a few answers at the ready: I love my new exercise plan, or went to visit a friend, or am excited about the weather. It can be personal or impersonal, depending on how close I want that person to be. But the biggest difference for me is to feel comfortable going in by having answers ready. Then the social anxiety doesn't have a chance to kick in, and these "small talk" questions can lead to delightful conversations.
posted by ldthomps at 8:43 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


I don't have much advice except that I COMPLETELY get where you're coming from. For me it's "what are you reading?" (UGH! No! Look at the cover! Don't make me explain!) or "what are you cooking?" (...food? this is really intrusive and any answer sounds so fucking stupid why are you even asking)

Again, no advice, but you're not alone.
posted by dekathelon at 8:51 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


i think these questions are either really general and open-ended (tell me about you, what have you been up to) and therefore can be hard to answer or banal (what are you cooking, doing) and make you want to say "duh!". maybe in response just start talking about whatever interests you in relation to the question that you think the other person might also find interesting. lots of people abhor small talk for what it's worth. i agree about not taking the questions too literally. with your friend who asks what's up when she reads your feed she might want to hear all about that trip to NY you posted about. elaborate. i like the tennis analogy of just lobbing some responses back and forth before you find a subject to talk about and get in a conversational flow with the person.
posted by wildflower at 8:55 PM on December 29, 2012


"What are you cooking?" from a roommate sounds like a roundabout way to say, "Can I have me some too?"

"Tell me about yourself" I always just give them a few facts. Born in Nebraska. Live in Detroit. Work at General Widgets. Married to my beautiful bride for 17 years."
posted by JohnnyGunn at 8:59 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


I don't understand why some people are saying these questions aren't asking for real information, or aren't meant to be taken literally. "Tell me about yourself" is certainly asking for information. "What are you cooking?" is also asking for information, just more specific information.

Aside from the cooking question, they all have a similar quality which I can see why it would annoy you. They're all lazy. The asker doesn't seem to know much about you, and doesn't seem to be making much of an effort — but they're making you go to the trouble of thinking up something interesting to say "about yourself" or about "what you've been up to."

As I said, the cooking question isn't like that. The problem with the cooking question might be that it's nosy. Also, it seems likely to give an uninteresting response that doesn't go anywhere ("eggs").
posted by John Cohen at 9:02 PM on December 29, 2012 [5 favorites]


Ill take a stab at breaking down why these questions are uncomfortable for you and how you can become less uncomfortable with them.

First, these types of open-ended small talk questions can become overwhelming because, well, they are really open-ended! They don't tend to focus your attention on any particular part of the question or give you any context as to what the speaker would be interested in wanting to know from you.

For instance, you pointed out the question "What have you been up to?" as a particularly odd question for you tackle. This question seems to irritate you because it really isn't asking you to speak on something specific. If an acquaintance asks this question, you feel uncomfortable because you may not know how much of your private life and comings-and-goings to share with this person and what type of response they want. If your best friend asks you this question, the opposite holds - you assume she knows all about your life because she follows your social media, you probably talk often, hang out, yadda yadda yadda. So what is there left to say?

As xingcat has pointed out, you may be taking these questions way too literal. I really enjoyed dayintoday's method of tackling these questions - think about the answer in terms of how you would engage someone. This is your chance to make the focus about you and your interests. What people are really looking for here is not for you to spill your guts or make a litany of your day-to-day activities but instead, to focus on one or two things that you have done and expound on it and possibly ask an interest question in return.

If an acquaintance asks "What have you been up to?" maybe have a stock answer to this question by focusing on what is taking up a lot of your mental processes - is it your job? is it a creative project? are you thinking about things you want to cook later? In this respect, you can have a quick and easy rejoinder that says something about your here and now activities without getting too personal or overcomplicated. Again, I really loved the way dayintoday structured their response. An example using cooking would be "I have been thinking about cooking something I haven't tried before like Indian food. Do you like Indian food?" Bing Bang Boom! You have hit the minimum requirement, focused the conversation on something you were thinking about doing anyway, involved and invited your interlocutor into your life and things proceed smoothly like a greased wheel.

Now when your best friend asks you this same question, they are looking for something different. They want to be more involved and get the "behind the scenes, in-depth" look at something you may have posted, said or did. Obviously your best friend has read your facebook posts but facebook, as you are well aware of, only gives the facts or a quick glib statement about something you post. When your best friend asks "What have you been up to?" this gives you the license to go ahead and get more personal, expound on deeper issues, and either dive into a more personal conversation or add an epilogue to something that is ongoing or that just happened to you - they are essentially, looking for more commentary/stories on things that you have done. The "What have you been up to?" question then takes on a more probative meaning and the same structure of response you used for acquaintances can be parlayed into a bonding experience with your best friend.

I hope that broke down or adequately addressed your question :)
posted by Dauus at 9:02 PM on December 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


nthing that they just want you to say something -- your reply doesn't need to be more than tangentially related to the question. If you feel like talking you can say basically anything. However I also hate questions like "tell me about yourself" -- they make me feel like I'm being interviewed and I can usually think of literally nothing to say in response. So I see where you're coming from!

but I think appropriate responses include
Them: what are you cooking?
You: you know, food. Oh man you know what I saw this totally sweet sweater at the store today that I think you would like.

Them: what are you doing?
You: oh, internets. I saw the Hobbit yesterday and I hated/loved it -- what did you think of it?

I think it's generally appropriate to avoid these vague questions by totally changing the subject, as long as they don't appear to be asking for any particular reason.
posted by oranger at 9:06 PM on December 29, 2012


It isn't that important what you say, they just want to start a conversation with you and talk to you. It's not a bad thing to talk to people. If you are asked "what are you cooking", say "I'm cooking eggs for breakfast. What are you up to today?" If you don't want to talk about yourself, which I don't usually want to do either, you can definitely deflect without being antisocial. It's a good life skill, especially since people love to talk about themselves.
posted by oceanjesse at 9:16 PM on December 29, 2012


idk why these are "small talk" questions. they seem generally interesting questions that could give insight to you and your present moment.

seems like you're looking for a finite singular answer which may not be the case. your answer could be different every time. you could see these as openings to conversations, an opp to be interested in teh other person, an opp to be creative/funny, an opp to answer the question.

Tell me about yourself: sure what would you like to know?

What are you doing: oh not much i just took the trash out. what r u up to?

What are you cooking: the usual bacon and eggs. want some?

What have you been up to: not much just work, made soem bacon and eggs, took the trash out. what about you?
posted by PeaPod at 9:35 PM on December 29, 2012


DISCLAIMER: I'm not suggesting you have Aspergers. BUT:

I have known a few people with Aspergers and they are often uncomfortable with questions like this because it seems like they have obvious answers or the questions are taken literally. People with Aspergers often lack the ability to identify social cues, which is what most of the questions are. It seems like you process interactions this way too.

As mentioned above, for example:

Question: What are you doing?

You think: I'm cutting my fingernails while I wait for the laundry to finish.
The question they are really asking: What are you thinking about/what are your plans following this conversation so that I may find a point upon which to base a conversation.

The conversations they are looking for go kind of like this:

Them: Hey, whatcha up to?
You: Getting ready to start dinner before I go meet Joe to go see a movie.
Them: Oh cool, what movie?
or
Oh, I haven't seen Joe in ages. How's he liking his new job?.....

Them: What's new with you?
You: It's been cold out so I've mostly just been staying at home catching up on Homeland. But I did just buy tickets for my vacation in the spring!
Them: Oh that's great! Where are you going?
You: I'm taking a week to visit Barcelona.
Them: I love Barcelona! My sister-in-law is from there originally. Let me give you some suggestions for where to eat......

Them: So tell me a little about yourself.
You: Oh, well, I just moved to New York last year from Atlanta and I've been working as a Project Manager for ABC Company. I always wanted to move here because I'm very much love with theatre. How long have you been in New York?
Them: I actually grew up here and started and worked with a small theatre company for 10 years before starting my career at this ABC Company affiliate.......

Them: What are you cooking?
You: Oh, just some leftovers because I'm trying to save a little money since the holidays were so hard on the wallet.
Them: Tell me about it! I budgeted $200 for gifts for my family this year but I ended up spending double that!
You: That's rough. Did you at least get some good presents in return?........

People ask inane questions in order to suss out a nugget or two upon which to spark a conversation. Conversations can just be conversations. For many people they are enjoyable, informal ways of learning information about others and sharing information about themselves and hopefully finding a connection, however brief. Conversations aren't necessarily just for relating data relevant to the current moment. Good luck!
posted by greta simone at 10:03 PM on December 29, 2012 [24 favorites]


When you were growing up, did anyone you know well tend to ask that sort of question? Anyone who made you feel vulnerable, or for whom expressing vulnerability seemed unsafe?

My dad used to ask "So, what you thinking?" which was guaranteed to drive thirteen-year-old me absolutely nuts. I'm sure he was just trying to start a conversation, but come on, he could have at least tried to give me something to work with! And at that point in my life, the last thing I wanted to do was open up about my innermost thoughts with my dad.
posted by xil at 10:31 PM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


To my mind these questions are not all in the same category. The last one is only as small-talky as you make it. She's really asking "have any important changes taken place in your life since I last saw you, that I should know about?" Something could have happened that you didn't put on FB. You can also say "nothing at all, my life is so boring, how about you?"

The first one is really annoying to me too, because it's so broad and you have to guess from the context what they want to know. But because it's so un-specific, you have some leeway in answering. Unless its a job interview, you can also turn it back to them quickly.

The middle two are a third category, obvious questions that are as annoying as the person asking them. If someone I really like asks me what I'm cooking, I don't mind at all, but if it's someone I find nosy or stupid or critical, that's how the question will come off. Maybe these bother you because you don't like these people, or because you can't tell if their motive for asking is one of those negative ones. If theyre not up to something negative, or even if they are, one option if you dont want to get into it is to answer these with a silly joke - "what are you doing?" "hacking into my bank and putting all the money into my checking account." "what are you cooking?" "chocolate cake!" (when it's obviously spinach.) but only do that if you can do it non-snarkily.

There's also something to the old "tell the truth, it's the easiest thing to remember" advice with that third category. You don't really have to know why they're asking to answer these. "what am i cooking? Breakfast." "what am
I doing? Working." actually even with the first one, depending on the setting, simple and honest can work. "oh, I'm not good at rambling on about myself - what kind of stuff did you want to know?"
posted by DestinationUnknown at 10:42 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


Introverts just tend to dislike shallow, irrelevant, non-personal conversation. Such conversations tend to be draining for introverts because they often have no 'point' (beyond the obvious) or because the questions are too big and are thus impersonal. Introverts tend to like more meaningful conversations because we have less stamina for conversation generally - and so if no one really cares what your answers are, why bother having the conversation in the first place? I've got things to do.

I think it is that acute awareness that the questions are non-personal that is the most depressing thing. That you're supposed to want to play along with such basic, non-personal questions is even more depressing.

People say it's about facilitating a connection - but see, introverts see such connections as false and superficial, and introverts tend to want to experience things more deeply and meaningfully. All of those questions could be asked in a more specific, personal way and therein lies the irritation. The generic is impersonal and boring.

The other thing that I've experienced is that some extroverts like to be the one to open you up as if it's a mission. So, your friend asks what you've been up to and she knows what you've been up to and she knows that asking such a question is going to make you shut down, so then she gets to be the one to coax you out of yourself and then she's accomplished something by getting the impossible to happen (she made the closed introvert open up to her). In that case, and because she's a close friend, I would call her out on it.
posted by heyjude at 10:45 PM on December 29, 2012 [14 favorites]


Part of the discomfort could have something to do with the intrusion of it.

If you think of a conversation as an exchange, this is a person asking you to offer something of yourself (your thoughts, your fears, your joys, etc.) before offering anything about themselves. Perhaps this feels like an imposition to you?

I'm sure there is an answer about being more mindful, and understanding that people want to connect with you, and are attempting to engage with you. But, another possible way to conceptualize it is to ask for what you might want, which is for them to start first.

So, no matter what people ask - what are you doing, what are you looking at, what are you cooking.....just answer ' Oh, nothing. What are you doing....(today, this afternoon, right now, etc.)?"

This passes the baton back to the other person. It lets them start talking - which perhaps they wanted to do anyway - and gives you more to go on. Which is that you get to talk after they have triangulated the conversation on something, like whatever they were up to before they spoke with you, or whatever they plan to do after they speak with you. You can then respond and engage them from that starting point.
posted by anitanita at 10:47 PM on December 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


They all sound like conversation starters to me, not really asking for information.

"Tell me about yourself." - On a social event, I assume the people asking you don't know you. I interpret the question as a polite and careful way to get to know you, while avoiding all possible faux pax questions. It is so broad and vague that you can't possibly take offense or be annoyed because 12 people before them asked you the same thing. "Tell me about yourself" leaves it to you what things you want to talk about. Tired of explaining what your job is? Reply with a story about your family or where you were born. Want to keep it professional? Reply with your latest work project. Don't think of it as a lazy, desinterested question. Think of it as giving you the power to decide where this conversation will go.

"What are you doing?" I translate this as "I have nothing to do and ask you if you are busy". Appropriate answers are "Still caught up with x, I should be done in an hour" or "Almost done with x, wanna go to lunch in 10 minutes". In other words, an answer indicating if/when you have time for them.

"What are you cooking?" I'd take this as an inquiry if they can help you with something ("I'm making breakfast, but we're out of milk, could you pick some up?") or simply asking if you made enough to share.

"What have you been up to?" That one confuses me, too. From non-close friends, I take it as a polite hint that they don't follow any of my activities elsewhere and don't want to walk into a "ugh, I got a divorce, it was ALL OVER FACEBOOK, how can you ask how my spouse is doing?!" situation. Give them the most important events since your last contact in a compressed version. If friends ask that... No idea. My friends don't ask me that. I guess if your friends do, they want to talk about something in more detail or on a more personal level than you would share on social media.

The questions that totally confuse me are "What's up?" and "How are you doing?" Most of the time, nothing is especially "up" and I'm doing "normal aka fine but maybe a bit bored" and neither the question nor the answer serves the purpose of starting a conversation. Which is screaming obvious to everyone involved. I can't help but wonder why they aren't asking something a little more specific or just something that won't result in a dead end answer with such overwhelming certainty.
posted by MinusCelsius at 10:51 PM on December 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


There are a lot of people who want to have what one could call "organic conversations", where one speaks face to face either short (in form of small talk) or longer by asking "What one has been up to". Being part of this very communicationy society we live in today is the reason for that and I think that is what is making you uncomfortable, because verybody is doing it and they seem to enjoy it, but it has mostly no value for you. Being social obviously has its advantages but not everybody likes it or makes it their number 1 priority and in my humble opinion that's very okay.

You also have an aversion against repetition. That's why you don't want to talk about what you have already written or said somewhere else, or you don't like to introduce yourself for the nth time in a new surrounding. I have no reason for that but it might be that you have resolved an issue (e.g.: your introduction) internally the first time it came around and see no need to deal with it a second (or third ...) time. All I ever want to say in this kind of situations is "look here" or "see above".

How to address this? You could try improvisational theatre or read books about it and try to integrate improv strategies into your everyday life. It might be very uncomfortable at first but it also might help you to circumvent the obstacle of repeating yourself (by telling it in a different way every other time; or even by telling something made up instead when you are in a small talk situation, where no one really listens to what the other one says...) and it takes the edge off of these too damn obvious questions.

At least that's my plan for 2013.
posted by KMB at 3:38 AM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I hate these questions. They're a to-do list type of question, they exhaust me. My mother asks them in particular, she likes to chat. I hate to chat. I like to talk about things, but just filling space with words for no particular reason and with no actual initial interest is awful.

I understand these are an effort to find a particular interest, and they're just empty social questions that normal people engage in to seek connections and all, but I'd much rather give and take on something specific than a general 'so what have you been up to?' not least because I don't even remember what I've been 'up to'--it's just a laundry list of life-items.

Anyway, I turn it around onto them with a content=nothing response "Not much, you?" or try to immediately swing it into a quick anecdote about dog, job, kid, partner and get the conversation into a territory of specifics where I can at least think straight. So I try to come up with at least one short specific response for whatever it is and then try to ask a question of the asker.

I'm not the world's most socially skilled person.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 5:23 AM on December 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


I loathe small talk as well, especially in unstructured social events, but I think your first question "tell me about yourself" is where the 30 second elevator pitch comes in. Have one prepared for work and for non-work events so that you always have something to say. Doesn't have to be your life story.

That aside, I definitely used to ask roommates what they were cooking or eating but in my case it's because I'm actually interested (I also ask people what they had at restaurants) - other people might just be trying to make less awkward silence for the two of you while in the kitchen. For that I would say just answer the question and not offer more if you don't feel like talking.

What have you been up to? If you haven't really been up to anything exciting just say that. I think you're over-thinking a lot of it. Also a lot of people are more eager to tell you what they've been up to but don't want to dive right in.
posted by fromageball at 5:46 AM on December 30, 2012


What I don't - and would like to understand - is why am I apparently in the minority of people who are uncomfortable with this and how can I become less uncomfortable?

A. You're not alone.

B. I was like this and would growl

C. Here's the story - I just discovered back in October that at some point in my life journey/experience I seem to have finally relaxed and picked up the small talk skills. I noticed it at a conference where it seemed to me that it was the first time I wasn't hanging out like a wall flower at the edges hoping and praying nobody'd come up to talk to me and that it all felt comfortable circulating with my drink and doing these mysterious things which all my life I'd never been able to.

So... how and where did this come from? (I'm in my forties)

I learnt to listen instead of talk. People *love* talking about themselves (not a value judgement here just an observation) and if you ask them lots of questions, they'll happily take over the effort of small talk for you. Then you're "saved" from figuring out all the answers to these awkward questions...

Q. What are you cooking?

A. Breakfast... what do you like to eat in the morning and how do you cook this bacon?

Throw questions back at them.

Q. So tell me about yourself?
A. Let's catch up with you first... bring me up to date with where we were last and then I'll know how far back to catch up with you on...

(heh heh my favourite that... ;p)
posted by infini at 6:13 AM on December 30, 2012 [5 favorites]


These open-ended questions make me really uncomfortable, too. I enjoy conversations if we're discussing a specific topic ("how did that big project turn out?"), but "How is everything going with you?" just makes me freeze up. It's a combination of social anxiety ("Oh my gosh, I'm totally boring them") and ADHD (not enough structure in the question).

I've gotten better. At first, I would just throw it back with a panicked, "Oh, you know, not much, how about you?" but I noticed that people seemed a little hurt or put off that I wasn't sharing more. So, now I've developed a standard response that's helped: Overall outlook, one line of detail. "I'm doing well—I just joined a gym!" We volley my response until that conversation is played out, then I ask, "What about you?" It works well.

The alternative, of course, is to be the one to ask the first question and make it a good one. Unfortunately, that requires a level of self-possession that is probably beyond me.
posted by Tall Telephone Pea at 7:54 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I hate these kind of questions too. I hate them from my family, especially: my mother loves to call and ask things like, "What's new there?" and I can never think of anything to say, and it drives me *up the wall*, and then she accuses me of "not talking to her," and "not telling her about my life," and on and on. Whereas if she asked in a different way, I might think of something to respond with (of course, at this point, probably not; this is a 30+ year engrained pattern now). My father does this also, although at least I usually haven't talked to him in months, so there's some chance there might actually be "new things" to report. Is your family like this too maybe? I'm pretty sure a lot of my aversion to these types of questions (and the constant, 'what are you doing?' UGH) comes from my interactions with my family. Personality-wise, my parents are both *extreme* extraverts, whereas I am the opposite.

And I am certainly nowhere on the autism spectrum, pace the commenter above. I do have a lot of social anxiety (diagnosed), though (so even when I can think of answers, I worry that people will think the answers mean I'm a boring/weird person and no one will like me, etc., etc.)

With people who aren't my family (I got a lot of this starting a new job this fall), I try to have some ready answers to these things (esp. the 'tell me about yourself' one), but really, I always dread them. I think it's really not that unusual, although my parents love them. Both asking and answering. Anyone, anytime. Ugh.
posted by lysimache at 8:01 AM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I would suspect what makes it so awkward is that it puts you on the spot and provides you with MacGuyver quantities of material to work with. At least that is why I don't like such questions. They want stories, sure, I understand that all they want is a story about their favorite local super hero and the fight against hunger, how the war wages, and so on, but they could at least open with a more specific question.

If you want to dig deeper then it may be that people demand cause and effect stories for purposes of stimulus-response learning. We are a species quite good at learning, we can even do it vicariously through stories, and the larger the input the more precise our predictions later, so the more stories the better. Even repeated trials of obvious cause and effect relationships are of benefit, as they balance the frequency distributions so such things as lottery wins aren't regarded as common. So, you might be playing a keenly strategic game to minimize the learning of those around you for your own gain, or you've accidentally conditioned everyone around you by only telling them the novel events and so they assume all events pertaining to you are novel.
posted by TwelveTwo at 8:14 AM on December 30, 2012


These types of questions are only annoying if you carry some sort of expectation that you'll answer them particularly factually, or in a way to benefit the other person's agenda (which is generally to start a conversation). But, you can also look at them as just an opportunity. Someone came up to you and said "My mind is kind of blank, but I'd enjoy conversation with you now." You have the opportunity to do with it what you want.

If you have a pressing problem on your mind you'd appreciate help thinking about, mention it. If you would enjoy company for dinner, casually note you'll be cooking enough for two. If you don't feel like talking just say "Not much." and most everyone will get the hint. If you are in a hurry and don't have time for it right now, just say so. I sometimes pause when given these questions, but not because I'm looking for the right answer so much as pondering what topic I'd enjoy talking about at that moment.

If you think these conversation openers are tough, just imagine if the person came and stood nearby looking at you and smiling, but waiting for you would speak first. Now that would be awkward!
posted by meinvt at 9:01 AM on December 30, 2012


Asperbergers my ass. Lots of people are uncomfortable with silence. They prefer meaningless babble rather than just to be silent. This seems to be especially true when only two people are in the room. For me, a couple of courteous sallies usually meets the social requirement.

Howya doin' ?

Ah, I'm just jumping up and down, how about you?

Me too. I guess I'll just sit here in silence until the bus comes.

Good. I was enjoying my daydream.

Say, is that a GalaxyIII?

Yeah.

My son has one. He says they are the cat's fucking pajamas. How do you like yours?....


(and so on). Most times it doesn't get past the "me too" part, because neither of us has anything to say. Well on a good day, anyhow. Sometimes a natural opening happens, and you find that you and the other person actually have something to say to each other. That's good. I'm not really clear on why you are uncomfortable during these situations--could be a variety of reasons I guess. For me, I'm just sort of more annoyed by the unseen forces that seem to make people babble when there's nothing to say. Anyhow, courtesy isn't supposed to turn people in to blitherers, so it doesn't hurt to have a throwaway line to simply acknowledge that someone has just entered your reaction bubble. Jumpin' up and down, how about you? works for me.
posted by mule98J at 10:21 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


* "What are you cooking?" from a roommate might be "I'm hungry, wanna share?" or, "I don't recognize what this is going to be," otherwise, see below.

* "Tell me about yourself."
* "What are you doing?"
* "What have you been up to?"
are all questions that mean, in essence, "I would like to have a conversation with you; perhaps we have some common ground; I am showing interest in you.."

* "Tell me about yourself." Make it easy for people to learn your name, and give a little bit of information that will help people have a conversation starter if they sit next to you at a conference session/ lunch, etc. My name is Matrushka; it's a Russian name for wooden nesting dolls. I'm not from Russia; I was raised on a cactus ranch in Arizona, and now I live and work in San Francisco.
* "What are you doing?" can also mean "Are you busy, or can I interrupt you?" Give a general answer, and a conversational hook. Catching up on email and a few websites. Did you know John Boehner's on of 12 kids? (some random piece of news)
* "What have you been up to?" What's new and interesting in your life? Maybe you've just started a new project at work, or got a new bike, or are completely enthused about a movie you just saw. I just saw The Man Who Would Be King. It's an old John Huston movie, blah, blah, Or, maybe there's a lot of stressful crap in your life, and you aren't up to discussing it. Pretty much the same old crap. What did you think about the Mayor's proposal to line every street with parking meters? (some random piece of news)

If it's someone you want to have a close relationship with, share a little more. Someone you're unlikely to see again, share little that's personal. The asker is throwing out a conversational ball; it's your task to volley back with some information and a conversational opening.
posted by theora55 at 10:35 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Nthing the hatred of lame small talk initiators. I reply according to my level of familiarity with the asker. If I don't know them well I follow the example many have posted and turn the question around to the other person as soon as possible.

Often this is exactly what they want, as they only started the conversation as a means to tell YOU something, brag, or otherwise launch a passive-agressive salvo toward "the real issue." I have zero patience for these. Just ASK THE QUESTION. Grrr. When I recognize this behavior I instinctively do all I can to not play along. I refuse to enable such people.

Sometimes you have to play... this is usually at work or family functions where there is no alternative that does not come across as outright rude. As soon as you can, talk about the weather or the last movie you saw (or ask them about the last movie they saw).
Venturing too far outside these safe topics is risking way more interaction than you want.
posted by I_Love_Bananas at 10:50 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


For me, sometimes I feel put on the spot by open ended questions about myself because I feel uncomfortable with self-disclosure. Sometimes it makes me freak out a bit and feel like I don't know what to say. Maybe it's different for you because it sounds like you feel annoyed with people for asking or something.

It sounds like most of those questions are just people's attempts go get to know you or find out what's going on in your life. I wouldn't hold it against them that they are engaging you in what you see as tedium. What questions do you ask others to get to know who they are and what they value in life? It's an honest question.
posted by mermily at 11:32 AM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


People in these situations aren't so much looking for information ("efficient use of time") as they're looking for human interaction and to build a connection with you.

I know those feels, bro, but people just like to talk to people and it's more fun for everybody if you can learn to enjoy those interactions for their own sake.
posted by cmoj at 11:37 AM on December 30, 2012


I said very clearly that I do not think s/he has Aspergers. I only mentioned it because often people with Aspergers have similar issues. I said this to illustrate that there are others like him/her who have similar aversions.
posted by greta simone at 11:42 AM on December 30, 2012


For me, what helps is to look at conversation itself as a skill. Think of the days of drawing room interactions, before TV and Internet and all else -- all we humans had to do was talk to each other. So one should be able to turn any opener into an interesting conversation.

In other words, if you think the question about eggs is boring, take charge of the conversation and ask a more interesting question back. A poster upthread mentioned learning to be a better listener, and I think that's a big part of it, particularly being an active listener. As someone is talking, think: do I fully understand what they are saying, or do I have follow-up questions? Have I read anything related to that topic? Have I had any experiences related to that topic?

This stuff does not come naturally to me at all, and really stresses me out, but I have a profession where conference-y small talk is very important. So forcing myself to look at opening lines not as an imposition, but a chance to ask interesting questions, has really made things much easier.
posted by lillygog at 12:01 PM on December 30, 2012


Sorry, and I meant to add: I have a very good friend who hates hates hates small talk -- it makes him angry and annoyed -- and it's honestly made his life more difficult. He can't make connections at parties, conferences, work, etc., and actively dreads those situations. So I wish he'd look at it more as a skill to master, through improv or other things mentioned in-thread, rather than something that causes personal affront. (I'm obviously projecting onto you here, so could be totally off-base.)
posted by lillygog at 12:10 PM on December 30, 2012


A friend of mine handles dead space in conversations by asking really out of the blue but specific questions. Like "If you could go anywhere in the world but you had to leave in two hours, where would you go?" It sounds like it could be sort of artificial, but he makes it work, and it leads to some interesting chats. When he's around I find out new things about people I thought I knew pretty well.
posted by shattersock at 12:31 PM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


So you are bothered because these questions are not personal — but people are asking these questions because they don't know enough to *be* personal. You can help them solve this problem by just telling them things you wish they know / things you would like to talk about. It will take a little, but that's pretty much the answer. They are trying to do what you want. Maybe you can help.
posted by dame at 12:49 PM on December 30, 2012


I am reading and processing. Forgive me if I don't reply quickly, I just need some time to sort through all this input and figure out how I feel. Keep it coming - I am listening. :)
posted by matrushka at 12:59 PM on December 30, 2012


You are also sort of (unintentionally, I think) expecting a lot of everyone who talks to you. You expect the "tell me about yourself" people to know or guess enough about you to ask more specific questions, to have good enough social skills to know what to say to make you feel at ease. You're expecting your roommate to notice/know/care what that food in the pan is going to end up being, or to have something more important to talk about. You're expecting your colleague (or a passer-by) to understand what you might be doing on your computer and adjust their comments accordingly. You're expecting your friend to read all of your Facebook posts and remember them and feel comfortable bringing them up with you in person.

But you readily admit you don't have all these advanced interpersonal skills, right? It's a bit conceited, if you think about it. Now I'm not saying at all that you are conceited. I think you're just concentrating on yourself because these questions catch you off-guard and you're thinking "Oh no, what do I say?" and you don't want to get it wrong. I think also you're assuming that b/c you have trouble with this stuff, these other people do not, and that may not be the case. They might be asking these silly questions because they feel like they should say something, but don't know the right words.

You can take some responsibility for your own responses or even initiating conversations too, rather than putting it all on them. I know that's really, really hard if you're used to being on the defensive in conversations. I'm not saying it's easy. But it might actually make you feel better than the put-upon feeling of "Argh, why is everyone always putting me in these difficult positions?"
posted by DestinationUnknown at 1:11 PM on December 30, 2012 [4 favorites]


I would like to understand what types of questions these are

They're small talk, but you knew that.

why am I so uncomfortable with them

This is a good question, and of course we can't give a definitive answer. Here's a guess. The language you use ("inefficient," "insignificant") makes it sound like, in your life, conversation is a device for conveying information. This is obviously one thing conversation is good for, but not the only thing, and for most people, not even the primary thing.

There are people who see food solely as a means of getting energy into their body, and are not interested in the taste of food, the culture of food, the smell or presentation of food, etc. That's fine! Food really DOES get energy into your body. But I think if that person were constantly in a position of having to deal with other people talking about the dishes they're cooking and their favorite restaurants, you would find it kind of alienating and uncomfortable, because every such conversation would remind you that you held non-standard views and that those views, though they're not in any way incorrect, cut you off from certain kinds of interactions with other people. It's natural for this to be troublesome even if these are not interactions you want to have.


and what can I do to make dealing with them less unpleasant.

I think the best thing you can do is to try to drop any sense of judgment. The things people are saying to you are not insipid, or insignifcant, or annoying (except in the particular sense that they annoy you.) And your lack of interest in joining those questions isn't hostile, or passive-aggressive, or obnoxious. You just want different things from what most people want. OK, so be it. You can choose to fake it (a good course if you're e.g. in a job where participating in these discussions is important) or you can just smile and mm-hmm.

But always in the spirit of "there is nothing wrong with people behaving towards me in this way." I think that will weaken the annoyance.
posted by escabeche at 1:31 PM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


Oh, I found one more question in your post:

I know she reads my Facebook so she certainly knows when I post interesting things that happen in my day to day, so what exactly is she looking for here? Does she really need me to repeat back things she already knows? Does she want to know the insignificant stuff I don't post online,

If it's really true that everything interesting or significant in your life is posted to Facebook, you're posting to Facebook too much! More seriously, this speaks again to the idea of conversation as information-transmission, which is no more accurate for social media than it is for face-to-face conversation. Just because you posted something on Facebook and she sees your feed doesn't mean she saw it, and just because she saw it doesn't mean she knows it. You should answer that question as if there were no such thing as Facebook. Actually, that's pretty good advice for most questions.
posted by escabeche at 1:34 PM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


I'll also add to the above response that if you know about Facebook's formula for arranging your News Feed, you'll know that people who have hundreds of friends are actually unlikely to see all or even most of your posts unless they have you marked as a "Close Friend", and maybe not even then. Even if I have posted a big announcement like "I'm pregnant!" which got 80 "Likes" and comments (thus high Facebook priority in News Feeds), there will still be a significant percentage of my friends who did not see the announcement.

Anyway. My humble opinion is that you're being too critical of those who are trying to strike up a conversation with you, and you're responding like a curmudgeon. Forgive me, but think about this:

Them: Hey, what's cookin'?
You: Look in the pan! That's what's cooking!

Them: What's up?
You: I know you read my Facebook feeds! Don't play dumb with me!

Hopefully you're not actually responding like that. But that's sorta what you're saying up above is your internal response, and to me, that just sounds terribly grouchy and rude. So I'm thinking "what could make you so angry about an innocent question like 'what's up?'" - based on what you wrote, I'm thinking that you take offense at these because you want a more interesting or specific question to answer.

It seems you're misunderstanding the utility of these questions in conversation. As others have noted, no one wants to hear a list of what websites you're visiting on the computer - they're looking for an appropriate starting point for conversation, they're trying to gauge your mood and how you're feeling at that moment so they can continue conversing with you in an appropriate way. These types of questions are good, standard conversation starters precisely because they are open ended and allow others to respond in whatever way they see fit at that moment.

People do not walk into a room and open a conversation with a question like "So, how's that romantic relationship you just started up with Dave? Things getting hot and heavy yet?" or "I know you follow politics, so what do you think about the type of laws we should be passing for gun control right now?" Those questions are very personal, probably too personal - and they're very specific. They reveal that the person asking has some personal knowledge of you. But they're extremely awkward as conversation starters, because they force the other person into a topic that they may not want to talk about at that moment, and they come out of nowhere - they are what some would refer to as "apropos of nothing."

This is already quite a long answer, but I'll add one more item: to balance your response you need to know when to stop. This has been used as an example several times above, but you only need to respond with one desired thing or story in response to these questions, whereas your example answers tend towards a list format and could go on and on. Either respond with another pleasantry/stock answer, or respond with a specific answer/story, but don't give an answer like "I did X and then Y and then Z and then A and then B!" Make a brief calculation of what the most important/relevant/interesting of X/Y/Z/A/B is and limit yourself.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 5:36 PM on December 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


So you are bothered because these questions are not personal — but people are asking these questions because they don't know enough to *be* personal.

And the "Tell me about yourself" open-ended conversational gambit allows you to guide the conversation where you'd like it to go, rather than having them stumble on something that's awkward or embarrassing for you, i.e. "So what do you do?" "I was a widgeter, but I just got laid off." Or, divorce, death, etc.
posted by gladly at 6:20 PM on December 30, 2012


Today someone asked my husband and me what we've been up to. I'm pregnant with our first child and we just sold our house and are in escrow on a new one, and he just released a big product last month. We looked at each other, shrugged and said, "Not much."

It's really hard to think of what's going on when you're on the spot like that.
posted by town of cats at 6:50 PM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I tend not to like these questions, either - not because they're impersonal, but because they feel too personal, in a way. They put me on the spot, and they put the conversational burden entirely on me.

For some of the getting-to-know-you-style questions, like "tell me about yourself" or "what have you been up to," I feel like I've been suddenly roped into a job interview, and I have to give an impressive answer. I feel like I'm being evaluated, and it's uncomfortable.

The "what are you cooking/reading/doing"-style questions can bother me because they're usually interruptions. I'm engrossed in cooking/reading/doing a thing, and it takes a little bit of time for me to gracefully transition from there to interacting-with-people mode. It's jarring, and my first impulse is usually to brush the person off.

For the former category, it helps me to translate these questions to "so, what do you like talking about?" and I try to pick something relevant that the other person might find interesting. Like "I've been doing a lot of yoga lately" or "I'm trying to read more, got any book recommendations?" For the latter, it helps to take a quick pause before responding, so my brain can warm up first. For both, I try to keep in mind that the person asking me isn't trying to invade my space or dig up any intimate secrets - they're asking because they like me and just want to spend some time chatting.
posted by Metroid Baby at 7:52 PM on December 30, 2012 [3 favorites]


So I thought about this a while, and I think I have an idea. Some other people touched on it: the questions are nosy, and they put you on the spot to just toss off an answer that you won't be judged for, and then explain everything about it, which is awkward. It is setting you up for an embarrassing reply. Like, for me, when someone asks what I'm reading, my thoughts immediately go to "but how do I explain why I'm reading this? And how do I talk about it without it seeming weird?" Or with cooking oh my god it is SO HORRIBLE to have to explain that I read these blogs with recipes, see, and what if those blogs are uncool, and what if you aren't supposed to find recipes there, and augggghhhh can't you just let me cook and judge silently?

That said, very few people seem to get where I'm coming from, so....
posted by dekathelon at 9:05 PM on December 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


I just need some time to sort through all this input and figure out how I feel.

And there's your answer to why these type of questions bother you! You're not a think-on-your-feet type person. (Not a slam. I'm not either. I'm a think-and-reflecter.) So you need to come up with a couple go-to strategies for these questions so they don't make you feel so put on the spot. There are some good suggestions above, and it may also help to remember that you're just playing the improv game of "yes and." Give some response that gives the other person somewhere to go. "Yeah, I'm cooking bacon. I loved it before the Internet said it was cool." "Eh. Same old, same old. I did get these cute new shoes at Target, though." Lather, rinse, repeat and suddenly... the small talk, you're soaking in it!
posted by MsMolly at 9:23 PM on December 30, 2012 [6 favorites]


I hate these kinds of conversations too. And it's not about "thinking on your feet," I mean how hard is it to tell someone what you're cooking? I just really hate pointless conversation. If you're like me, you probably also really dislike "getting to know you" conversations where people will ping-pong back and forth who knows whose cousin and whose mother-in-law went to your friend's friend's friend's high school etc. It's taxing and inane to me.

If it was up to me to decide, I'd tell you there's nothing wrong with you, only the fact that you happen to be more observant about how worthless the information gleaned from these conversations actually is...when most people are just happy to be talking to someone else, they don't care about what.

Alternate "what's wrong with you" answer: I've found in my own "why do I hate small talk?!" research that some reasons could be Asperger's, ADHD, and (obviously) introversion.

I know these conversations stink, but just try to make them worth your time. What are you cooking for breakfast? Eggs, and isn't it funny that there's an egg marketing board? At least there was, in England, when they made commercials for Eggs when breakfast cereal first came out...the ultimate contender...
posted by lhude sing cuccu at 3:07 PM on January 1, 2013 [1 favorite]


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