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September 5, 2013 8:13 AM   Subscribe

What phrases are reflexively on the tip of your tongue?

Hi, I'm awkward. Over the years, I've learnt a few stock phrases to automatically say that make me appear like a normal, socially-competent person.

For example, if someone announces anything positive like a marriage, job, baby, car - I've forced my mouth to only respond with one word: "Congratulations!" From there, conversation usually flows normally, with the other person thanking and waxing about their new thing and everybody continues to perceive me in a positive light. Automatic congratulations stop me from saying stupid things like "Why are you marrying *him*?!"

Again, if someone's talking and I find myself wanting to chime in with *my* (potentially better) experience and/or to stop conversations being all about me, me, me - I've forced my mouth to only respond with: "How have you..." and adjust the rest of the sentence according to the subject.

Them: "And then I found a genuine Fabergé egg in a thrift store!"
Me: (Instead of "OMG I found the holy grail in a thrift store, too!") "How have you... got all the luck??" Or "How have you... managed to contain your excitement?!" "How have you... found dealing with Sothebys?

It also makes me appear interested re: stuff I couldn't care less about:
Them: "And then our safari was cut short, so we spent the rest of our trip in outer space!"
Me: (Instead of "You know, my hotel room was overbooked once.") "How have you... managed to keep the kids occupied in somewhere like space?" "How have you... felt about taking a safari again in the future?" "How have you... found dealing with the airlines over this?"

You get the picture. I can't be the only one who does this. Do you have any kind of automatic social lubricant phrases that you can share?
posted by Chorus to Human Relations (33 answers total) 51 users marked this as a favorite
I'd say you're doing OK. Keep doing it.
posted by zadcat at 8:18 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

yeah, keep doing what you're doing. Sounds fine, if you're more interested in appearing socially competent than being interested in what people you know are up to.

Alternatively, find people whose life updates you find interesting and you won't need stock phrases.
posted by sweetkid at 8:22 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Hey guys, just to be clear-

I use stock phrases because I do care about making the conversation a good experience for everybody. I wouldn't care about someone bragging their excesses, but I would care if someone went to space. They just don't need to know about my hotel being overbooked / me taking over the conversation.

Also, I'm not looking for people to say if this is good or not, or if I'm doing okay - I'm looking for any other examples of phrases that people (with crippling anxiety and a desire to crawl under a desk) might use.
posted by Chorus at 8:28 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

"I'm very sorry for your/their loss" is appropriate for pretty much every death announcement.
posted by rmd1023 at 8:30 AM on September 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

"I'm so sorry to hear that" keeps me from blurting out "that sucks" on a regular basis.
posted by telegraph at 8:32 AM on September 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

I like some variation of "Was/is it what you expected?" I find it applies to a wide variety of situations (We just got back from Fiji! I went skydiving this weekend! I just started watching The Wire! I went to see [insert band] last night!) by opening the door for the other person to talk about what they liked/didn't like or were pleasantly/unpleasantly surprised by. You can preface it with "That's amazing!" or "Oh, cool" or "I've been meaning to do that" or "I've never heard of them," as appropriate.
posted by rebekah at 8:35 AM on September 5, 2013 [12 favorites]

When someone tells me about a serious misfortune, health problem, or other hard and complicated life circumstance, I say "I'm sorry, that sucks." It helps keep me from saying the stupid, unhelpful things that come to mind at times like that.

Also, if I sense the words "Why don't you just..." arising to my lips, I clamp them firmly shut.
posted by ottereroticist at 8:52 AM on September 5, 2013 [4 favorites]

"Wow, that sounds great--how did you like it?" is pretty good.

"Outer space? Wow, that sounds great--how did you like it?"

It also makes me appear interested re: stuff I couldn't care less about:

That's the give and take of conversation. I don't care about 90% of my conversations--what happened over the weekend, where people are going on vacation, etc. The whole point is showing interest in the person by encouraging them to talk about whatever they want to talk about, not expressing your mutual interest in how their safari went. It's just a dance.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 8:55 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

"What did you like best about...?" (obviously apropos only when your conversation partner has broached the topic of a positive experience, and not when they're talking about their tonsilectomy or having to put their cat to sleep...)
posted by drlith at 8:56 AM on September 5, 2013

"Say more about that." Useful when you're not quite sure how to respond.
posted by prefpara at 8:57 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

Sometimes asking a question that makes the other person take a step back in the process ("Why did you decide on a safari?") especially if you can add an "I've always thought that would be exciting/cool/interesting," blows the doors wide open for listening to anecdotes.
posted by gnomeloaf at 9:03 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

prefpara jogged my memory on another one I use which is "Tell me more," usually softened a bit as in "Wow, tell me more!" or "That's so interesting, tell me more."

In general I've tried to train myself to respond with questions, and the advanced level of that game is to respond with open-ended questions (too often I fall into the trap of asking "Did you have fun?" or the like).
posted by telegraph at 9:09 AM on September 5, 2013 [2 favorites]

"You must be excited about that!" works for most happy (or possibly ambivalent, e.g., surprise pregnancy) news.
posted by dlugoczaj at 9:10 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

And a "danger sign" - any time I start a sentence with the words "well, technically..." or "actually...", this is a danger sign that I may be about to say something that will make me sound like an asshole. Not all the time, but it's often the beginning of something where I'm nitpicking or rules-lawyering to the detriment of actual conversation and communication. So I keep training myself to pause and think "will this actually help the conversation?" before I actually say anything when I realize I'm about to start a sentence with something like that.
posted by rmd1023 at 9:28 AM on September 5, 2013 [9 favorites]

Complementary to at-hand phrases, there are responses I try to automatically stop before they get vocalized.

Other person: "I'm so proud of my kid making honor roll!"
Me: "My kid made honor roll too! Blah blah blah."

I try to replace that response with a question about the other person. Not always successfully.

For at-hand phrases I try to think in superlatives. Best, worst, longest, most fun... That helps me ask clarifying questions. What was the most fun thing you did on vacation? What's the best thing on the menu of that restaurant you went to? Etc.
posted by The Deej at 9:33 AM on September 5, 2013

I'm not a very good listener and I have bad hearing. My stock phrases usually are:
"Fair enough. [add laughter if appropriate]"
"What did you do next?"
"How did you feel about that?"
"What did X think when you told them about this?"
"Was that the best/worst [trip|adventure|experience]?"
"Ha. Don't think I could top that, tell me more!"
"Now tell me the long version!"
"Did you ever look at X the same again after that?"
"What do you think about that today, now that time has passed?"

(To be fair, I often honestly want to know the answers to these questions, even when I've listened and understood. But they're handy phrases when one or both of those things were lacking, too.)
posted by iamkimiam at 10:26 AM on September 5, 2013 [9 favorites]

I ask people about their vacations: "What was something really good you ate while you were there?" As a food nerd I find this inherently interesting, and people seem to like responding.

BTW I seem to get less hemming and hawing and more interesting responses if I don't ask in terms of superlatives—"something really good" vs. "the best thing."
posted by ottereroticist at 10:27 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]

"Ah, cool."
"Oh, that's great."
"Oh, that's unfortunate."
"Huh, interesting."
"Ah, I see."
"Oh yeah."
posted by limeonaire at 10:37 AM on September 5, 2013

Standard response to people saying anything positive about you: "Thanks!" or "Thanks, and you have a similar positive quality!" That is really all that needs to be said, even if they are possibly wrong or joking about the initial compliment.
This is useful to avoid a mortifying spiral of conversation about whether or not your hair looks good.
posted by steinwald at 10:51 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

People often make polite statements about how they hope something positive will happen in the near future, such as "I hope you have a great weekend" or "Have a safe drive home." A good standard response to this is a variation on "Thanks, I hope you (similar positive thing) too."
posted by steinwald at 10:59 AM on September 5, 2013

"Tell me more!"
"Oh, really? That sounds [nice | wonderful | awful | shocking | unexpected | interesting]..."
"And then ...?"

I really like "Was it what you expected?" upthread.
posted by RedOrGreen at 11:50 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

That's how they get ya is my standard response to general mild grievances from strangers, since it keeps things lighthearted while still acknowledging their angst, but without necessarily inviting more conversation. During my time as a cashier and frequent user of public transportation, I found that there was a certain type of older man who needed to say something, and they generally reacted favorably to the phrase.

Good call is a phrase in my arsenal of agreeing with people without being redundant.

Fair enough is another useful phrase; it's conciliatory without giving ground.
posted by redsparkler at 12:55 PM on September 5, 2013 [5 favorites]

"That must have been ${ADJECTIVE}" has been a good template for me. It's open ended and allows the other person to take things into a positive or negative direction by confirming or disagreeing.

"To outer space? That must have been fun!" would allow them to respond as they wish/feel comfortable with such as "Yes, I really enjoyed being weightless!" or "Well, you'd think so but being weightless made me throw up."

When I'm not sure if I'm reading the other person correctly I might substitute with more neutral than "fun" so I don't accidentally step into something, e.g.: "That must have interesting".
posted by Hairy Lobster at 1:39 PM on September 5, 2013

Similar to "Was it what you expected?", I tend to say, "What'd ya think?" for past event commenting,

"I saw X movie." "What'd ya think?"
"Just met my cousin's boyfriend." "What'd ya think?"

When I am chatting with someone online, especially if they tend to go on, I use "right", or, when I want to be a little silly, "Really? That's nuts."
posted by chainsofreedom at 2:45 PM on September 5, 2013

Hello, fellow awkward person! Below are some of the stock phrases I employ most often.

If someone describes some trivial problem (and you are SURE that it is trivial), you can respond with, "Oh, that's unfortunate!" or "That's too bad." I'm talking a problem or misfortune like having to wait in line for a long time, being stuck in a little traffic, forgetting your Wifi password, etc., not losing something valuable, having a pet die, etc.

If someone describes a more serious problem or graver misfortune, you can respond with, "I'm so sorry" or "I'm very sorry to hear that" (I believe this one's already been mentioned above).

If someone presents you with some small gift or trinket, you can respond with, "What a nice surprise!" and then follow up with a thank you.

If someone does you a small favor, you can remark, "How kind of you" or "How thoughtful of you." If you ask them for a favor and they agree, these also work: "Thank you so much, that's very kind of you."

I've also taken time to store lists of adjectives in my mind (yes, I'm this awkward) so I can respond with something more substantial than, "That sucks!" or "That's cool!" when the situation warrants such a reply. For example, instead of describing something as awesome or cool (what I hear most often), I might describe it as thrilling, exciting, exhilarating, intriguing, fascinating, etc. if the experience actually merits such a descriptor. If someone tells me about their once in a lifetime trip to the North Pole: "That sounds fascinating!" is a much better reply than, "Cool!". (If someone tells me about the amazing club sandwich they had at lunch, well...that's another story.)
posted by pecanpies at 3:15 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

Some British stock phrases I enjoy are Good for you / Right on / Brilliant / Interesting / Amazing / Bravo / Lovely / Nice one.
posted by yoHighness at 4:11 PM on September 5, 2013

When someone says thank you for something you did or like if to made dinner, my standard response is "I'm so glad you liked it."
posted by dawkins_7 at 6:04 PM on September 5, 2013

"What prompted you to....[try that restaurant/quit your job/fly to Europe/buy that Chevy/etc.]". Surprisingly versatile and is nicely open ended to let them fill the gap in conversation.
posted by Pomo at 10:30 PM on September 5, 2013

I recently discovered "Take care!" which I now use as a quick close to phone conversations, especially if the other party has just said "thank you," which is otherwise my default close.

Also: "How did that work out?" or "...turn out?" or similar.

And the word "Likewise." As in: "I like your bicycle!" "Likewise!"

(I'll have to study this list. Phrases like these are what get me through the customer service portion of my workday.)
posted by sibilatorix at 12:12 AM on September 6, 2013

I use "How do you feel about that?" or "How are you feeling about it?" or something similar when someone tells me something and I'm not sure what my reaction should be.
posted by MadamM at 1:16 AM on September 6, 2013

"How's that working out for you?"

edit: oh snap :)
posted by anagrama at 1:41 AM on September 6, 2013

"it happens to the best of us."

When someone complains slightly, or talks about something dumb they did, and I don't want to chide them and do want to keep the conversation flowing, this is pretty perfect, and at this point is my automatic go-to phrase. This is taken pretty much directly from The Story of My Baldness. In the book, this phrase makes the main character immediately likable to many people, if I remember correctly.

At work, when I want to communicate that I understand something fully without having to resort to full-sentences, I say "gotcha," or "sounds good," or "that makes perfect sense."
posted by taltalim at 9:23 AM on September 12, 2013

Thinking over my own conversational tics, I use "I wouldn't have thought of that" a lot (where applicable).

As a Recovering Interrupter I've trained myself to flag conversational tangents with "You'll have to tell me more about that [too/later]" which a) avoids derailing the story the person wants to share, b) gives you both something to go back to during any lulls and c) gives the teller an out should they be bored of repeating the same tale to different people.

Whether intentionally or not, when meeting up a friend used to always greet the group and open with a compliment for someone present. There's always something noteworthy to call out so it didn't ever come across as artificial the way it might in a one-to-one situation. Took me ages to even notice!

It goes without saying to avoid falling back on seemingly-random quotes, I know. I've garnered plenty of blank stares with "How was it kitten, was it magic?" in my time, but I'm king of the social scene when I remember to strip it down to "How was it...?"
posted by comealongpole at 9:07 AM on September 14, 2013

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