Every single day at 3:45 PM Bob rings the doorbell at work. Every single day I answer the door and hand Bob a small amount of paperwork. Every single day there is about 10 seconds as Bob flips through the paperwork checking that everything is in order and occasionally (1/50) make some note or request at the end of the 10 seconds. Normally the polite thing to do would be to make some idle, friendly smalltalk until he confirms that its all good and I lock the door and go back inside. However, we have been making the same comments for almost a year and because of this I feel the etiquette may be different to the usual.

It is important to my colleagues and I that we have a polite, friendly and professional relationship with Bob. A few things have come up over the past year (e.g. I know Bob has one son and one daughter and he knows I play recreational table tennis) but in general 10 seconds is not long enough to properly get to know someone. Conversations can sometimes resume the next day but that is a moot point because I have no interest whatsoever in getting to know Bob.

As far as I can tell Bob seems equally happy not to engage in any conversation that would take extra time and just stick with being polite in the minimalist sense of the word. But it is not exactly clear to me what that means in our scenario. It is hard for me to believe that proper etiquette would be to repeat the same pleasantries 100 times (they are certainly not pleasant by this point) but saying nothing (which to be honest is what I feel like doing) seems like it could be misinterpreted as stand-offish and having good professional etiquette takes priority.

What is the standard/polite etiquette for 10 seconds of smalltalk in a workplace when you repeat the exact same process with the exact same person every single day?


Edit:

Smalltalk lasts only as long as we each have to stand there, it does not make Bob go slower and the second he is done we stop talking. Here is an example:

Me: Hey, Bob: How's it going?, Me: Good thanks here is today's, Bob: Thank you, hot day right?, Me: you betcha, Bob: More than usual? Me: Yeah, everyone must be speeding things up as we get closer to the end of the year, Bob: Well, its all good, Me: Thanks, bye.

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    During these 10 seconds, does Bob need to concentrate to glance over the paperwork? Does he seem bothered in any way by the fact that you two are talking during that time? Have you ever had days where you did in fact not exchange the same pleasantries as always? if so, how was his reaction? – Cashbee Oct 4 at 8:31
  • @Cashbee Bob does not need to concentrate much and he is certainly not bothered (I am not talking at him, it is mutual smalltalk). I have had days where I did not exchange pleasantries, instead I just nodded or grunted to his comments. His reaction was totally fine in these extremely rare cases (we all have slow days, I have certainly noticed him force on a tired smile a few times) but I am not so confident he would take it the same way if I always and only ever grunted at him... – Jesse Oct 4 at 15:08
up vote 36 down vote accepted

What is the standard/polite etiquette for 10 seconds of small talk in a workplace when you repeat the exact same process with the exact same person every single day?

I don't know if there's exactly a standard etiquette for this specific situation. But from what I know, the core of etiquette boils down to being considerate of others feelings and being considerate of what's customary in a society, in all situations where people interact with each other. 1

Working from that premise:

  • You seem to feel no need to get to know Bob better, have been making standard polite small talk, and have thus been polite (even as you call it 'minimalist').
  • Bob seems equally disinterested in making more than the standard small talk you've been making for a long time now and seems to prefer to stick with the minimalist approach to politeness.
  • 10 seconds isn't long, Bob has to check the papers during those 10 seconds, acknowledge you and that the papers are okay, and move on to whatever comes next.

As far as I can see here, you're already taking into account a consideration for Bob's feelings, and unless you get the impression that Bob is dying to talk more to you, to tell you more about his life and/or know more about yours, I would not change whatever you're doing now.

As for being considerate of what's customary in a society: I would compare Bob's job to that of a cashier, a job that I did for a few years. You get a customer, you say hi, scan their products, conduct a monetary transaction and say bye. Sometimes you get a small peek into the customer's private life (they have a son, daughter, or play a sport), but most often it's just 10 seconds of doing your job and being polite about it.

Customs may differ per society, but in The Netherlands, society may even consider a larger amount of small talk than what's currently happening as rude and inconsiderate. Society says it's customary to not hold up the person that's delivering your packages by talking more than necessary with them (Hi, thanks, would you sign here, the pen isn't working, have a nice day!). You're not supposed to hold up the cashier and the line with more small talk then it takes to conclude the transaction either. I'd say the same probably goes for Bob and his job. Both Bob's feelings and society so far seem to focus on allowing Bob to get on his way again as soon as possible, so your current approach seems perfectly considerate of what's customary in society. Unless you're getting signals that you're doing something wrong, don't change it

This doesn't mean you can get away with saying nothing: It is more polite to acknowledge Bob with more than a grunt or a nod, and complete silence is even ruder. I'd advise against complete silence or the always grunting, as I certainly didn't like having customers reacting with only a grunt or ignoring my 'hello' or 'I wish you a pleasant day'. I found them quite rude. Just as society expects you to not hold someone up, it does expect you to acknowledge someone that's helping you.

1. loosely translated from the Dutch Wikipedia page on etiquette

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