Millions of times a day, Americans say this to each other:
“Hey, what's up?”
“Nothin' much. How you doin'?”
These quick, casual greetings are as predictable as the sunrise. But imagine someone's shock if the response to “How ya doin'?” turned out to be “Well, not so good”…followed by a lengthy explanation as to why things aren't really fine right now.
Every culture has polite rituals like this for those times when you pass someone on the street, or get stuck in line at the bank, or have to say something at a party. Americans call it small talk:
“Hi, I'm so-and-so.”
“What do you do for a living?”
“Miserable weather we've been having.”
They are empty pleasantries that pass the time.
But Debra Fine says small talk can be so much more. Ms. Fine, who's an engineer -- and we know how chatty they are -- has written a self-help book titled The Fine Art of Small Talk. And what timing…in this season of end-of-year holidays and entertaining relatives and friends.
The main point of The Fine Art of Small Talk is that when we chit-chat so half-heartedly, we miss a real chance to make friends and influence people. It's the superior small-talkers, it seems, who get the good jobs, the smartest and most attractive spouses, and invitations to all the hot parties.
So after you've asked someone, “What do you do for a living?” and the person answers, “I lay carpet,” don't be a mouse! Say something dynamic, like, “That's fascinating! What's your typical day like?” And off goes the conversation.
No more hiding in the bathroom or hanging out at the buffet table. You can be the Alexander the Great of small talk!
As someone said to me the other day, “How you doin'?” To which I instantly replied, “Good. How you doin'?”
OK, so it takes some practice.