Small town; need small talk.
May 7, 2008 5:55 AM   Subscribe

I need to brush up my small talk for my small town.

I moved to a village of about 2 000, almost an hour's drive out of the city, a year ago. I'm right "downtown" here, and leaving the house always involves chatting.

This sort of regular small talk with people I only know in passing is unfamiliar to me, but very normal for the town. I often feel awkward with my two or three lines in return to the people I pass, most of whom I see regularly but don't know at all.

I could use some etiquette tips on this sort of thing from other small-town dwellers, and some help with witty repartee. There must be things I can shoot at various folk besides the Nth comment on the weather.

Side note: I have a baby, who is always on me in a sling or other carrier. This of course invites comment (and gives me something to hide behind, and to talk about). I am never quite sure how to respond to comments which beg no response -- "She sure looks cozy in there," "What a cutie," etc.

I probably sound like a bumbling social inept at this point, and certainly I sometimes feel that way on the street. I should not. I don't think my current neighbours are radically different from the downtown apartment-dwellers who used to be my neighbours; this area suffers no peculiar politics or religious lunacy and I am certainly not the only urban refugee. That said, I am still very much a newcomer; my house is 'the old [former owner's last names] place,' and many people here have had family in the area since the 1800s, and I sometimes feel out of place. Which often leaves me a bit...bumbling.

What do I talk about besides the weather in those quick exchanges where neither of you really even slow down?
posted by kmennie to Human Relations (18 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Weather is definitely good. Gardening/farming is good too. Ask if they saw Ms. [insert mutual neighbor's name]'s peonies blooming this week, just gorgeous! Once you start to get to know them youcan ask, "how are your tomatoes growing this summer?" or "what do you use to get you azeleas to get so pretty?" or such. For the farming folk you can start off with the weather and then let them start into complaining about what a rotten year it is because of the rain/drought. Farmers can alwasy find something to complain about. It's a job requirement.
posted by Pollomacho at 6:04 AM on May 7, 2008

Is there a local paper? Talking about news is good. Might want to avoid the controversial stuff until you get to know people.
posted by starman at 6:07 AM on May 7, 2008

when you see the same people on a regular basis it is definitely nice to be able to go beyond the weather.

what i would suggest is try and find out a little about the people you chat to, what they do, whats important to them etc. not delving too deep but just knowing a little so you can ask how their work is going or their grandson or their alpaca farm or whatever... that gives you an easy in. once you know a bit about people its so much easier to do chit-chat. and finding out about them is the perfect conversation starter. "so, (insert name here) what do you do?"

or you can always ask casual but conversation-starting questions like "so how long have you lived here in ------- ?"

AND, people LOVE to be helpful, so if you ever need to know anything you can always ask people for advice, for example, who is a good doctor round here, where can i get a decent haircut or whatever. people love to help out like that.

although you did say that they are quick exchanges where neither of you really slow down - in that case its not about what you say, the most important thing is just to be friendly. as long as you're smiling it doesnt really matter how you respond to their baby comments. if you smile in a friendly way i think a "hi" or "hey there" is enough. (also if you know their names, its much friendlier when you use them when you say hi.)
posted by beccyjoe at 6:16 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Take clues from what they say and extend the conversation from there. Be inquisitive and curious. Get to know your neighbors, what they do, etc. They complain about the weather, you ask if it's always been like that. They compliment about the baby—ask if they know of kids of the same age in the local area who might become her playmates.
posted by semi at 6:20 AM on May 7, 2008

Your house will always be 'the old [former owner's last names] place.' I lived on my palatial country estate for twenty years, was active in the community, went to weddings, church picnics, funerals and raised two outstanding kids who would get their names in the local paper for the all good they did, and when it came time to sell it all I heard was: "I hear you're selling the old [former owner's last names] place."
posted by Floydd at 6:28 AM on May 7, 2008

I am never quite sure how to respond to comments which beg no response -- "She sure looks cozy in there," "What a cutie," etc.

"Thank you" is the appropriate response you're looking for. Or "She sure is".
posted by anastasiav at 6:52 AM on May 7, 2008

I hate making small talk. But gardening is GREAT for this, as pollomacho suggested. Ask questions, or just chat about what's been going on in your respective yards/gardens.

As for the baby comments, I don't think there's anything wrong with a slight non sequitur:

"She sure looks cozy in there"
"Yeah - She really likes the sling. She loves to look around at all the [insert local scenery] on our walks."

"What a cutie" "Thanks. She's growing like a weed/We just got cute new shoes, too/It's almost time for her first haircut, etc." Basically, any little tidbit that can be a conversation starter. That'll get them started.

And yes, asking for town-related tips is great conversation fodder, and useful. Also wins you warm fuzzies because it makes folks feel useful and valued.
posted by somanyamys at 6:52 AM on May 7, 2008

ack. premature posting. sorry for the crappy editing.
posted by somanyamys at 6:54 AM on May 7, 2008

First of all, don't feel bad if your conversations are mainly about the weather. Most of the conversations between small town people are about the weather. Traffic isn't as bad there, so they can't talk about that, and weather's what's left.

So, shoot the shit about the weather, but watch for opportunities to ask them for tidbits about themselves and remember those tidbits. If they comment on your baby, ask them if they've got any kids of their own. The next time you see them, ask them how their kids are. If they mention that their fishing trip got rained out on the weekend, the next time you see them, ask them if the fish are biting. Eventually you'll start to know enough about people that you'll be able to have genuine conversations with them, but in the mean time, really, don't worry if you're talking about the weather.
posted by jacquilynne at 7:06 AM on May 7, 2008

The only time it's not ok to hide behind a baby or a dog in social situations is when there is a car about to jump the curb and barrel into the conversation. Otherwise, it's fine to continue as you have been, even when their comments don't give you much to work with. People are just trying to make a connection, and until they know more about you, you are "that nice woman with the adorable baby." You respond to comments about your child by asking about their child[ren]. Everybody loves to talk about their children. If their kids are teenagers, you could ask if they might be interested in babysitting someday. Ask if they have recommendations for daycare providers. Or where there is a nice playground with a baby swing. Or a good route for a walk with baby. If your baby is currently teething/awake all night/suffering from diaper rash/hungry all day/emitting glowing green poop, you could ask how they handled those situations when their kids were that age.

Not that you have to listen to any advice anyone gives you. Asking questions is just a way to make pleasant conversation.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 7:09 AM on May 7, 2008

I am never quite sure how to respond to comments which beg no response -- "She sure looks cozy in there," "What a cutie," etc.

I was totally frozen by this sort of thing when I came to my small town for the first time maybe five years ago and now I feel like I'm pretty okay with it. This sort of thing can be the way people get to know you so it's worth thinking a little bit about it, this can be how you show yourself to people, slowly. So, in your example, you can go with the fairly standard "thank you" which is totally okay but you can also share something else of yourself

"Yeah she's happier now that she's sleeping through the night and so's her mama..."
"She's happy because she's going to see her gramma in St Louis this weekend"

Etc. Up to you and I don't think this sort of thing is required, but a lot of times well-meaning people like it and it opens you up to people just a little bit more both in a "ready to converse" way [at your own comfort level of course] but also gives people just a few more in-roads to know you by "Oh St Louis, my niece used to live there..." You can decide if you want to stop and talk or just keep doing what you're doing, there may be an occasion where you want to stop and say "Oh hey I was meaning to ask you, do you know what the deadline is for the dog licensing...?" or whatever your information need is. It's also an occassion for people to talk to you about something "Hey do you know if your neighbor ever managed to get that stump out of their yard?" etc.

It's worth mentioning that even though you're new in town, unless you're in a really stodgy place people are probably happy to have both the old timers and the new blood in town. You bring something to the place that people who have been there for seven generations CAN'T and most towns that are happy and proud of themselves tend to appreciate that, even if one or two specific people don't. Having a pretty and desireable town is something that people who have been there a while tend to value and so when in doubt mentioning something about how you like it there "Hey it's really neat now that the tulips are coming up by the bandshell, who does that gardening?" is almost always appreciated. Remember that you and your outsiderness bring something to the town in the same way that the old timers do [at least that is what I keep telling myself in a very similar situation, but maybe a few years further down the line] and being generally friendly and gracious can go a long way even if you're not quite sure what exactly to say.
posted by jessamyn at 7:18 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I grew up in a small New Hampshire town of 1800 people and I can tell you that the weather was rarely a topic of conversation. Growing up in a little town like that, you just know everything about everyone. Where they live, how long they've been there, how many brothers and sisters they have... Since you haven't lived in that town for very long, there's no reason to think you'd know any of those things yet.

So what I'm saying is, if you're genuinely interested in carrying on small town conversations with people, don't try to think of specific topics to speak about, just get to know the people. We got to know all our neighbors by just hanging out on our front lawn! Everyone would just stop by and chat us up... Why don't you give that a shot? ('specially if you live right downtown)

What do I talk about besides the weather in those quick exchanges where neither of you really even slow down?

There's your problem right there.. You live in a small town now... You gotta get used to slowin down!
posted by Glendale at 7:20 AM on May 7, 2008

Ask questions that involve the other person.
"She sure looks cozy in there" Yes, she loves it. Do you have kids?

introduce yourself
"What a cutie" Thanks. We're new to the neighborhood. I'm Jane. extend hand to shake.

Ask for advice
Where are the great playgrounds/ dog walks/ coffee shops?
I'm looking for a yoga class/ carpenter/ bike shop, know anybody?

Weather is universal, so chat about it, or the election, or parking. People always seek to connect, the details are less important than looking at each person and recognizing them as an individual, even just for the duration of your coffee purchase. (I have officially reached OldFartDom; I hates it when the cashier just keeps chatting to the bagger, and never acknowledges me)
posted by theora55 at 8:18 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am never quite sure how to respond to comments which beg no response -- "She sure looks cozy in there," "What a cutie," etc.

I like to repeat what they said using a metaphor. "Yep, she's about as snug as a poodle in a bunch of other poodles." Or, to what a cutie: "Yeah, this kid's about as cute as a mouse playing marbles." It doesn't advance the conversation towards a goal, really, but it keeps things circling in friendly territory, like a seagull over a big ol' plate of herring. You can then pause briefly, and ask, "So how are things with (your hobby/interest) going?"
posted by Greg Nog at 8:45 AM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I am never quite sure how to respond to comments which beg no response -- "She sure looks cozy in there," "What a cutie," etc.

These kind of non-starters used to worry me too until I realized that I should focus more on the compliment and the other person instead of feeling self-conscious. I'd be likely to respond. "Thanks so much. We think she's adorable too. What are you up to today?" Turning the conversation on them will probably work out well for you. They'll talk about themselves and you can chime in when you are comfortable.

If small-talk is really a sticking point for you, I recommend "Attracting Terrific People" by Lilian Glass. It sounds like a dating book but it's not at all. It's a great book that discusses the basics of social interactions. She has a section called "How to Have a Great Conversation: What Do You Say After You've Said Hello?"
posted by i_love_squirrels at 9:42 AM on May 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

There is a lot of good advice above.

As someone who has moved from a big city to a very small town,I just wanted to reiterate that usually when people chat with you in passing, they probably aren't expecting a witty or original response. What they're looking for is a signal that you aren't the kind of person who looks down on small-town folk, and that you are friendly and willing to reach out to them. How you do that isn't so important as the fact that you care and want to connect with them. Repetition of these conversational patterns is totally normal and like a little ritual of greeting, I think. A smile and response about your baby or about the weather, or a question about how they're doing, is probably enough until you get to know them better. Your neighbours probably appreciate your efforts and I doubt that they think you're socially inept.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:13 AM on May 7, 2008

Here's the Conversation Stack from the Dale Carnegie course (my company paid for my attendance). It's an associated set of images you can use to start conversations with anyone.

At the base, visualize a brass nameplate: find out the person's name and commit it to memory [ LIRA Look&Listen, Impression (form one), Repetitionm, Association]

Above the nameplate, visualize a big house with lots of windows and a brick chimney: Where do they live? Do they like their neighborhood? Are they doing any home repair? (that one can go on for hours!).

Visible through the windows of the house, you see kids running around. Ask them about their family -- how many kids, relatives in the area, etc.

Reaching up out of the brick chimney, imagine a leather work glove. Now you can ask them about work. What do they like about their job?

The giant work glove is holding an old fashioned prop plan (say a DC-3): Do they like to travel? What's the most interesting place they've visited, or the place that had the strongest effect on them?

The propellers of the plane are a golf club and tennis racket [Dale Carnegie started his course in 1912, so some of the imagery is a bit dated ;-)]. That's your cue to ask them about sports and activities.

On the top of the plane, there's a blinking light. Finally, ask them about their goals and aspirations.
posted by Araucaria at 5:40 PM on May 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Oh, and what do you say in quick exchanges? Well, introduce yourself and your child! Where my mother grew up (a small town in central Minnesota, much like Lake Wobegon), you weren't supposed to bring up topics relating to yourself but you were dying to do so. So you'd ask the other person about something related to that topic, and they were supposed to reply and then ask about you in turn. So if someone makes a comment about your kids, give them some information with a hook they can use for later conversation, then ask about their family -- do they have children or young relatives of their own? How about pets? The sooner you express a genuine interest in their life, the better.

Off that subject, how has the town changed over the years? Ask about an unusual landmark, does it have some history behind it?

Conversation in general is helped by using some guidelines from improv comedy. Key concept: "Yes, and *". Accept and magnify.
posted by Araucaria at 5:52 PM on May 7, 2008

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