They don't ask, so I don't tell
June 23, 2016 5:41 PM   Subscribe

I’m starting to think that I don’t know how to make small-talk properly, or else people tend to find me very boring. Or maybe both. Most of my conversations (aside from those with close friends or family members) revolve around the other person. Should I do something differently?

My method of making small-talk involves listening attentively, showing (or feigning) interest, dropping the occasional compliment, and asking follow-up questions. This system works, I suppose – perhaps only all too well. I find that people rarely reciprocate. So at the end of a typical small-talk session, I’ve found out a significant amount about the other person, but they learn almost nothing about me. I find this imbalance to be frustrating. Let me give two examples.

I recently started a part-time retail job that involves a lot of downtime. The employees tend to stand around and talk to each other, because there’s nothing else to do. My co-workers talk a lot about themselves and their interests. In truth, I encourage it, by saying such things as, “Hey Sharon, last week you said you were going out for a special anniversary dinner with your husband. How did that dinner go?”. Another example: “Hi, Chris. You said that you’re taking a class in jewelry design. Did you make that ring? It’s beautiful!”. The end result is that within just a few weeks I learned a lot about my co-workers, but they still know almost nothing about me. As I said, I don’t volunteer information, and they typically don’t ask me anything.

OK, I should back-track a little and say that people ask questions sometimes, but they don’t seem very interested in my answers. How do I know they're not interested? Well, they don’t seem to listen very intently, they typically don’t ask any follow-up questions, and the conversation usually turns back to them and their interests.

Another example: Yesterday, I was in a grocery store and ran into an acquaintance whom I hadn’t seen in about ten years. In the space of a few minutes, he filled me in on his new home, his trip to Europe, his daughter’s job, his recent argument with the church warden, and the passing of his daughter’s beloved dog. He asked me exactly one question: “How are your parents doing?”. I answered the question but otherwise didn’t volunteer any more information. We soon went our separate ways.

I could give other examples, but you get the picture. Aside from family and close friends, people just don’t show much interest in me.

Am I doing something wrong? It occurs to me that maybe I should be more assertive about talking about myself and my own interests, but doing so would make me feel uncomfortable. I don’t want to bore people, like they often bore me (I really didn’t need to hear a detailed critique of every single course that Sharon and her husband ate at their anniversary dinner).

Another thing I’ve tried doing is steering the conversation toward non-personal subjects that may be of mutual interest – such as movies, books, vacation spots, current events, etc. – but this strategy doesn’t work well. People seem intent on talking about themselves, rather than on some neutral subject (or so it seems to me, anyway).

I dunno… I suppose this isn’t important in the big scheme of things, but I find it frustrating and a bit hurtful. Hey, I’m an interesting person. I’ve traveled, I’ve had varied careers, I speak multiple languages, I did some exciting search-and-rescue work (I have good stories about this), I have hobbies and interests that (perhaps) may be interesting to some people. But I don’t usually get a chance to talk about any of these things.
posted by alex1965 to Human Relations (25 answers total) 45 users marked this as a favorite
Good for you for becoming a skilled interviewer. As for why comments you make about yourself don't go far -- I doubt it is that people don't care to know more about you. But you do need to volunteer information to people who don't know you well, because most people are hesitant to seem intrusive, and also aren't as good at you are now at asking questions. In addition, what tends to keep people interested in what is up with you or your experiences is being entertained. So you'll want to think about how to disclose your experience or what is up with you in an entertaining way. It helps a lot, also, to relate whatever you are telling about yourself to what the other person has been saying. For example, if they tell you about their new home, respond by comparing it to where you are living as well as asking more questions about their experience.
posted by bearwife at 5:47 PM on June 23, 2016 [5 favorites]

You're just more thoughtful and compassionate than average. It really doesn't take much. Most people already have busy, full lives and don't have time or emotinal energy to care about others. Most people want to vent and move on. Caring about others either occurs in:

1. Unusually compassionate people (very rare, more common amongst spiritual/helper professions)

2. Unusually lonely people without much going on in their lives, who are new to a group or want to make new friends and are consciously trying to be nice.

That's really it. Your average businessperson with a full life and many friends just doesn't have the inclination to learn about every new person they come across, which is a shame, but that's life.

You could cultivate a funny storytelling persona- this works well for some people.
posted by quincunx at 5:50 PM on June 23, 2016 [11 favorites]

"mal de coucou n. a phenomenon in which you have an active social life but very few close friends—people who you can trust, who you can be yourself with, who can help flush out the weird psychological toxins that tend to accumulate over time—which is a form of acute social malnutrition in which even if you devour an entire buffet of chitchat, you’ll still feel pangs of hunger."

Spend more time with your good friends. Give of your heart to those who will nurture it, and take comfort in the way that you have made so many acquaintances and near-strangers feel heard. That is a gift.
posted by MonkeyToes at 6:09 PM on June 23, 2016 [22 favorites]

If you want people to know more about you, I think you need to be more proactive in telling people. Using your examples from work, how about at the next down time say something like, "Boy my feet are killing me. This past weekend I hiked up Blue Mountain then on Sunday went to the city to do some window shopping."

If you wait to be asked what you did recently or what your interests are, you are in for a long wait.
posted by AugustWest at 6:11 PM on June 23, 2016 [6 favorites]

Perhaps instead of "Hey Bob, you said you were going to dinner at X restaurant, how did that go?" try "Hey Bob, I remember you telling me that you were going to dinner at X, I just read a great article about the chef there.....and then talk about the chef, article, chef's signature dish, etc".... Or, months after them telling you they were going there, you can say *you* went there and talk about the art on the walls or the appetizer you had that was the best ceviche you've ever had.

Basically try to get some conversations going about something or somewhere vs someone.

And quit feeling bad about talking about yourself! These people are all talking about themselves! Jump in there. The fact you are cognizant about trying not to be boring is great.... talk about stuff that is at least tangentially associated with things they have told you about themselves and you're a leg up already. Or, since you are retail, just talk about the customers because I have been there and I know you have some unique individuals that you've all encountered!
posted by CoffeeHikeNapWine at 6:13 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Try using Ask Listen Connect. Ask a question:what did you do this weekend? Listen to them say: I had to mow my lawn, it was so hot I was dying! Connect: You can can connect with the feeling and say Oh man I hate getting sweaty! Or you can can connect with the with the idea: It's so hot this week! What's the forecast? Or you can connect with the experience: oh man once I had a three acre lawn to mow all summer long. I'm glad I live in an apartment now.
With each connect you are giving the other person something to respond back to.
posted by SyraCarol at 6:22 PM on June 23, 2016 [19 favorites]

I'm a pretty private person. Your technique is exactly what I do to prevent aquaintances knowing everything about me. You may not realise it, but by focusing on them, it's deflecting attention from yourself. I do it deliberately but if I was wanting to open up instead, I would use their information as a chance to insert some tidbit about myself. "Hey John, I love that ring you made. Very talented! My husband bought me one similar to that for our wedding anniversary. Eight years this week! He's taking me out to fancyshmancyplace to celebrate."

Conversation is a two way thing, especially if you want to strengthen bonds and get to know someone. You need to start creating gaps in the dialogue so you can turn the attention around to yourself.
posted by Jubey at 6:30 PM on June 23, 2016 [19 favorites]

Everyone finds listening to other people drone on about their weekends a bit boring sometimes, so it's nice that you recognize that and don't want to inflict it on others, but the mutual listening is how you figure our what interests you have in common that you can actually converse about, rather than monologuing in turns. You have to take your turn at talking sometimes, too, even if it's uncomfortable for you. Because you're aware of the inherent problems, you might go on for as long as others do, and that's okay.
posted by jacquilynne at 6:38 PM on June 23, 2016

In my experience, most people are at least a little (and often a lot) self-centered, and tend to run roughshod over nice and polite people, like yourself.

I have to disagree with the above statement which says caring happens only with lonely people or in rare cases, compassionate people, because compassionate people are rare. I do not think that is the case. In your examples, the other people have plenty of time to talk about themselves. So they are not too busy for a social interaction, they are just rude and lack self-awareness.

I try to be a kind person but I am not particularly unusual. Sometimes I fail at being kind. Perhaps most people try to be compassionate, but with varying degrees of success. Perhaps you've had a run of bad luck with a succession of people having really bad days. Or maybe you just need to find other people. Go to a place of people that have met through a common interest you share! This is a common answer because it has been proven effective.
posted by Glinn at 6:43 PM on June 23, 2016 [1 favorite]

I have really learned that you can be too private. To develop warmer relationships, you have to help people out by giving them a few outlines of your life so they can feel they know you a bit, and color you in. You can even consciously choose what they may be. Like, you might decide you want everyone to know you love golden retrievers and have two of them, you are a woodturner as a hobby, and you are a Tom Petty fan (or whatever....these are just examples). These kinds of non-revealing reveals help people get a handle on you and help them think of things to talk to you about. Otherwise you become just sort of a cipher and people feel too awkward to want to engage further with you - they feel like you're creating a wall. But that doesn't mean you have to open your heart and spill your guts. Instead, you get to define how you talk about yourself and what you say when you do it. One or two 'leading quirks' can be a great thing to break the ice with people. Have a few strings to throw out. One or more will likely get picked up. People just have a really hard time bonding with someone who isn't throwing them a lifeline or two.

Also, a little humor helps. If you can be a bit funny talking about recent experiences or projects, that helps people get a sense of you as well.
posted by Miko at 6:43 PM on June 23, 2016 [15 favorites]

Talk as though you strongly know that what you have to say, others will love it. It is a mindset and if you are not confident in yourself, it will come through and will appear really fake. Don't appease or try to please or overthink. Just talk as though (if it isn't) your life is really really interesting (or whatever you have to say is interesting enough to share). People respond to emotions/passion-it could be just your dog (or chicken) you are talking about but put some life in it-dont come across as cardboard :).
posted by metajim at 6:48 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

people just don’t show much interest in me.

Careful - are you sure your coworkers are even that interested in what they're saying to each other? Maybe they're just practiced at a certain kind of patter, vaguely listening while they wait to speak (to kill more time). Or maybe they're tuned into each other, on a certain level (the "I watched this, ate this, did this" level maybe).

Some people don't so much converse as externalize their ongoing internal monologue. Some people, you ask what they've been up to, they deliver a chronological report, hour to hour. Others are quite comfortable being the star of their own show, all the time - maybe you're more of an observer. Listeners of these people are likely to be just as bored as you are, and just more skilled at taking their turn.

Packaging the events of your life into digestible, entertaining (or whatever) narratives involves skill, it's totally storytelling. Miko's advice is great (and I am taking notes :) )
posted by cotton dress sock at 7:03 PM on June 23, 2016 [2 favorites]

they typically don’t ask me anything

The answer is simple: most people don't know how to have a conversation. A conversation is a give-and-take between two people. A says, "Got any plans for the weekend?" and B says, "Yeah, I'm going to the hovercraft festival! I love hovercrafts because lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consectetur adipiscing elit, sed do eiusmod tempor incididunt ut labore et dolore magna aliqua!" Now, ideally, here's where B pauses and says to A, "Yeah, so that's pretty much it. How about you?" But that often doesn't happen. I've had to learn, over the past three decades or so, to volunteer information in such a scenario without being asked. So when B pauses for breath but fails to ask me what I'm doing this weekend, I generally pop in with something like, "As for me, I'm going to the mountaintop submarine races. Mountaintop submarines are awesome!" Paradoxically, this generally makes me feel better about not being asked.
posted by scratch at 7:05 PM on June 23, 2016 [7 favorites]

I suffer from this "affliction" (for want of a better term) too. The way my social interactions often go is Bob says "I did this exciting thing over the weekend". And I say"Wow, that sounds fun. I didn't get up to much. Read a book for a while, then watched some Netflix". Then they may make some casual response to my boring story of my weekend, then launch into something else about their own exciting life. I don't let it get me down. It sometimes feels like a game of "I did this" vs "I did that". But, if they're not interested in what you're saying, they're probably not worth wasting your time talking to. More enlightened people realise that just because you spent the weekend reading and watching Netflix doesn't mean you're a boring person, and might try to dig deeper to find out more about you. Try to segue from what they're telling you into something relatable that you can tell them, just to keep the conversation tempo going. "Oh, you went skiing? I was in New Zealand last year and snowboarded my arse off. And did you know there's no on-mountain accommodation on NZ ski fields,so you have to get a damn bus up the mountain every day". If that's not working, try talking to someone else.
posted by Diag at 7:09 PM on June 23, 2016

I have a friend who approaches conversation a lot like you, and I find it really challenging to actually ... have a conversation with him. He'll ask me a question, and then a bunch of follow up questions, and I'm trying to get to a natural point where I can reciprocate and ask him a question - and then as soon as he gives a very brief answer, he'll ask me another question. I assume that this is because he doesn't want to talk about his personal life and that's fine, but it makes me feel like I'm being kind of narcissistic - just talking about myself a lot - and it makes me a little cagey about the amount of depth I should go into in my responses.

It's really wonderful to ask questions and be genuinely interested in the response, but make sure you're letting the conversation breath, and answering questions people are asking you in as much detail as they answer your questions. Throw out a related anecdote. Don't think of every conversation as an interview in which you showcase your conversational skills, because you might be stifling a more natural flow in your eagerness to show how thoughtful and responsive you are.
posted by ChuraChura at 7:18 PM on June 23, 2016 [9 favorites]

This may not be you, but someone in my family does something similar and it feels like an interview/interrogation.
posted by advicepig at 7:30 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

You're right, people spend most of the time thinking about themselves. I don't think there's anything bad about being the quiet one. But the American workplace heavily favors extroverts, so there's some value in throwing out a line or two about yourself personally so that you appear more fleshed out in their minds.
posted by gemutlichkeit at 7:32 PM on June 23, 2016

You need to talk about yourself more.
posted by J. Wilson at 7:50 PM on June 23, 2016

I think you need to be very careful about the amount or type of follow up questions you're asking your coworkers. I know that people often recommend asking people questions about themselves to open up a conversation, but that can quickly turn into something that feels like an interrogation/interview for the other person. I find it difficult to have engaging conversations with people who use this type of conversational style, it makes me wonder "why" someone wants to know so much about me (especially a coworker) while they're revealing zilch about themselves. Questions & answers in conversations should be tit-for-tat, not an interview.
posted by modesty.blaise at 8:14 PM on June 23, 2016 [4 favorites]

Are these topics (the dinner, the ring) coming up organically in conversation, or are you bringing them up out of the blue with no introduction? If it's the latter, I think I would find it offputting — it would feel like you were paying an unusual amount of attention to trivial or casual things I'd mentioned, then interrogating me about it.

I'm fairly introverted, and it would make me uneasy if one of my coworkers came up to me and said "Hi, Lexi, last week you said you were going out for a special anniversary dinner with your husband. How did that dinner go?" All my introvert privacy defense walls would slam into place. If it were more a matter of bumping into them in the kitchenette and having a conversation like "Hi, Lexi!" "Hi, alex1965, how're you?" "I'm good! Busy but doing well. How about you? How'd your anniversary go? Did you like that restaurant you mentioned? Because it sounded like somewhere I'd like to try." that would feel much more comfortable.
posted by Lexica at 8:27 PM on June 23, 2016 [3 favorites]

Agree with the posters who say the way you've framed your questions above feels like an interview/interrogation. This question reminded me a little (just a little!) of the other side of the coin of this earlier post.

Consider making general statements volunteering info rather than asking questions. i.e. instead of asking Sharon how her dinner went you could just say "Hope you enjoyed your anniversary dinner this weekend! The weather was so great - I went to the beach". She can then tell you about her dinner if she wants to, or she can ask you about the beach.
posted by bimbam at 5:28 AM on June 24, 2016 [1 favorite]

It seems that a lot of people are just following your conversational lead, but not in the way you think. If you ask lots of questions, people are likely to get the idea that you don't want to talk about yourself. Because if you wanted to talk about yourself, you'd already be doing it. With that idea in mind, since you haven't shown any interest in sharing personal information, they are unlikely to ask you personal questions. Showing interest in your conversational partner (unfortunately) doesn't count here.

It's taken me a long time, but I've come to the conclusion that talking about yourself isn't actually rude. Rather, it's polite, because it makes it easy for the other person to uphold their end of the conversation. Of course it's possible to overdo it, so don't go launching into monologues. But just coming out and saying something like "I had such a good weekend! I did x, y, and z, and it was great!" during a lull is a nice low-key way to get conversation going.

The skill to cultivate when talking about yourself is to make it easy to respond. There are lots of different ways to do this. Some possibilities:

- be specific about what you liked/disliked about the experience ("I went snorkeling the other day, and I don't think I've ever seen so many colorful fish in my life, they were all colors of the rainbow")
- ask easy questions to make a connection ("You know how sometimes you get so wrapped up in something you forget to eat?" [Other person: "Oh my god, yes, I just did that yesterday!"] "Well, I was SO hungry when I got out of the water")
- ask followup questions ("Have you ever gone snorkeling or scuba diving?")
- give them something to have an opinion about ("It was so cold, though, I don't know if I could do it again until the water warms up" or "Can you imagine, some people like marine biologists do that for a living!")

The "make it easy" approach is often suggested for online dating profiles. You could try reading some past threads about OkCupid profiles and see if you notice any other patterns.

And as Miko said, humor helps too.
posted by danceswithlight at 10:41 AM on June 24, 2016 [2 favorites]

Logged in basically just to say I feel your pain. I work with someone who has the art of the humblebrag perfected. I don't know how they do it, but every conversation reverts back to something Ah-MAZING they did. And it's very subtle, so you don't even realize it until later. If I could take lessons from them, I would. Then pass the tips along to you.

But coincidentally, I was listening to this podcast this morning, and you may find it interesting as well:

Allusionist 38: Small Talk
posted by BeBoth at 9:05 AM on June 28, 2016 [1 favorite]

Thanks for the advice. A few people mentioned that my conversational style might be off-putting. I haven't seen any evidence to that effect. When I throw a conversational pass, people seem only too happy to catch the ball and run with it. And run... and run... and run. I follow the Golden Rule: I talk to people the way that I would have them talk to me.
posted by alex1965 at 11:16 AM on July 1, 2016

When I throw a conversational pass, people seem only too happy to catch the ball and run with it. And run... and run... and run.

Some people do that because they're inconsiderate. Other people do that because they're extremely considerate, worried that their conversational partner is shy/anxious/reticent, and feel like they have to keep carrying the ball to make both people comfortable. It's hard to differentiate the two unless you do a bit more work.
posted by lazuli at 6:46 PM on July 1, 2016

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