I am a habitual human being. To break routines, I don’t write and read for my dissertation during the weekend. At these days, I also don’t go to the university.
The routine I have developed for breaking the dissertation-routine is to stay home or go to cafes and write and read other stuff.
I alternate between the same places. The people know me there. It sometimes feels homey.
It has now even come to a point at which I regularly engage in extended — longer than 5 minutes — small talk with some of the baristas. This is — was? — highly exceptional for me.
I find that this small talk is difficult business. I still think about 1 minute into every conversation, “I wonder how long I have to do this before I can leave without being rude?” My next thought is, “I wish I could tell you, Maarten.”
I have managed to figure out that, in this delicate dance, the opening move is of crucial importance.
I’ve never understood the rationale behind “What’s up?”. It seems to invite the answer, “Nothing”, after which we now have nothing to talk about.
Even for the standards of small talk, that’s small.
“How are you?” and, as we say in Dutch, “Everything OK?” similarly don’t sound like they will draw out informative replies.
Then again, maybe that’s the point.
In my favorite coffee place, my favorite coffeemaker always answers this question with a saddening “can’t complain… shouldn’t complain…”.
At least he’s not complaining.
A friend of mine whom I see almost daily, begins with “What have you been up to?”. I like this one. You spare your conversation partner the burden of summarizing the state of his entire life in one word. It also circumvents the whole ‘What follow up question shall I ask?’ problem, that arises after ‘How are you?’ yielded a one-word answer.
For this, the best solution I’ve come up with, when the conversation is not small talk, is to literally ask the question again:
“So, how are you doing?”
The trick is not to fill the silence that will follow.
You can thank me later.