10

I've discovered that when I have a conversation with someone, I sometimes answer in a somehow offensive way.
For example:

Person: I just read that actor is born in town X.
Me: So what? You're from town Y.

I'm not answering in an annoyed tone more like a joking tone, but I can see, that the other person would still consider me rude. I'd like to know how to answer sentences like these, when I actually don't know how to reply and the question "So what?" or "Why would you ask/say that?" just pops up in my head.


I'm not sure if this problem is actually this simple, because I basically only have arguments over this when it happens with my partner. We have an intercultural relationship, which was long-distance for a long time. Now I'm in his country and don't have any of my own friends, which is why his approval of me has become a lot more important. When a situation as described above occurs, he would stop talking or only reply in a resigned way.

It took me a long time to find out, that it's my kind of response that puts him off and I can also see that it probably would put other people off. But when asking him, how would be a better way to reply (better meaning keeping the conversation positive or at least neutral and moving), he would reply "That's just how you are and I have to deal with it." I did state that I would prefer to not offend him/get on his wrong side, because I am kind of emotionally dependent on him at the moment and it makes me feel really bad/anxious.

So it comes down to two questions:

  • How do I answer in a non-offensive way (to not put him off in the first place)?

  • How can I resolve the situation after offending him, so I can feel safe again?

  • 8
    I'm surprised nobody pointed it out: "I just read that actor is born in town X" is not a question. So asking "how to answer questions like these" doesn't make sense. – user19922 Jun 21 at 10:23
  • I hope "so I can feel safe again" only refers to you feeling positive about your conversation/relationship or feeling self-conscious in being able to avoid missteps and not "safe" from abuse by an angry partner... if the latter, the answer would not be how to change yourself but how to either very quickly change your partner or rather how to get away from the partner quickly... – Frank Hopkins Jun 21 at 17:12
  • Yes, I am not in an abusive relationship, "safe" is only referring to my feelings. – turninglights Jun 22 at 2:51
  • Are people walking up to you and telling you random facts, or is there more to the conversation before what you quoted? – curiousdannii Jun 22 at 11:17
14

I'm a socially awkward person who often doesn't care to participate in the small talk of those people around me. On the other hand, if it's someone with whom I'm comfortable with, then I'll be the one spurting these random facts. (I read a lot, and surf the internet, so I'll often just spout the latest thing I was looking into.)

If someone has just told me something, but I don't really know much about it or don't want to really discuss the topic, what I'll do is just reply with a "Cool!" or "Interesting!" one-word reply. As long as you manage to keep a sarcastic tone out of your voice, this should be fine. Immediately afterwards, you can change the topic to something else - such as bringing up something on your own, or, if you're the introvert-hanging-out-with-extroverts type, let the person you're with come up with their own next topic. A lot of people are perfectly willing to just talk and talk to someone who just occasionally replies with one-word replies. Not everybody, though - in which case I'll often have to come up with a topic that I am actually interested in to talk about.

When I'm the one spurting random facts, what the other person says, as long as it's not outright dismissive, isn't all that important. They could go "Cool!" or "Interesting!", they can reply with a random fact of their own, they can go "Mhh-hmm", they can ask how I know that... It really doesn't matter to me all that much. What exactly you reply isn't the most important bit, it's just responding with something that doesn't put down the other person.

What you don't seem to grasp is that people like learning random things, even if they're not directly relevant to them. For example, Scarlett Johansson is one of the highest paid actresses in Hollywood, and the "J" in her last name isn't pronounced with a "Y" sound. And people like to share these random tidbits with people - at least for me, they're a way of connecting with people.

So to avoid offending the person who's giving you random facts, reply with anything that doesn't dismiss / put down the person. If you don't feel like talking about that topic, the three main things to do are to reply with a single one-word reply, such as "Cool!" or "Interesting!"; you can reply with a random topic that you are personally interested in of your own; or you can get into the meta-information - such as asking how the person knows that, or where they read it, etc. These are all tactics that I've used myself, or had used on me, and I've never had any offended replies to it.

22

The reason such answers come off as "offensive" is that they're confrontational - you're challenging the other person's interest in the topic, which implies that you don't think they should be interested in it. So try not to do that.

Instead, accept it as a given that the other person is interested in the topic they've brought up and ask questions which will encourage them to talk about why it interests them. In your example of the actor from Town X, you might reply with either "Oh, really? Have you been to X?" or "Cool. Did you see that actor's latest film?", depending on whether you're more interested in the town or the actor (or on which one you think the other person might be more interested in talking about). If you're familiar with both the actor and the town, you could even try speculating (or asking for the other person's ideas) about how being from Town X might have affected the actor's career or how they approach their roles.

The key point is to encourage the other person to continue talking about what they find interesting while also steering them towards a part of that topic which you are also interested in, instead of giving the impression that you think their interests aren't worth talking about.

  • 5
    Hi Dave! Great start for an answer to this question. Can you tell us more about why you think this is a good idea? Answers on Interpersonal Skills SE need to be well-justified and backed up with either evidence or personal experience or well-elaborated logic that shows the OP that this is a good idea. See this meta post for more information. Please edit your back-up into the answer, and thanks in advance! – ElizB Jun 21 at 22:08
  • 5
    @ElizB - If the only difference between a good answer and a bad one is a boilerplate "I have used this technique frequently in over 40 years of engaging in small talk" statement, then I submit that your criteria for evaluating answers are somewhat off. – Dave Sherohman Jun 22 at 8:21
  • 6
    Hey Dave, saying "I used this technique and it worked" is a good start but we do require more. What we want to know is in what context you used this technique, what exactly you say and what was the other person reaction. Feel free to read more meta post to understand why exactly we have those requirements. You might also be interested in this blog post about good and bad subjective. – Ælis Jun 22 at 8:43
  • 6
    Using one small example from your past experience is all that's needed to make the answer that much more solid, and we're trying to work on enforcing the back up policy more so than before, we're still transitioning and communicating to everyone that we can to back up their answer. I know it may not look like we're enforcing that, but those answers that don't have that sort of back up sometimes end up deleted by the community, because they recgonize that answers with back up have a bit more weight than answers that don't. I really like your answer so far, I didn't want to see it deleted. – ElizB Jun 22 at 14:22
5

When I'm with someone, I love to give "random facts" to keep the conversation going/steer the conversation toward a topic I like.

When I do that, what I like is when the other person responds by another fact they know about this specific topic (and the more close to the original topic, the better).

So, in your case, the answer could be about actor X, actors in general, town Y or another town. For example, you could answer by:

Oh, really? I heard that town Y has an amazing forest nearby.


If you don't know any fact related to this topic, you can also answer by asking the other person for more details. Something like:

Really? Do you know how long they lived here?

I usually prefer when the other person responds by another fact rather than a question (at least at the beginning of the conversation). However, this might depend on the individual.

3

I'm not sure if this problem is actually this simple

Well, you described it in just a few words, therefore the problem is simple.

However, the solution will require you to make some mental effort, and have some patience. I was in a very similar situation (I described it in some other answer) and I tell you exactly what I did.

The most important thing is to NOT answer in the first second when you have an answer. Wait 1-2-3 seconds, and analyze if the answer is offending / aggressive or not.

Person: I just read that actor is born in town X.

Me: So what? You're from town Y.

New Me: Really? And how come that he became an actor in the first place?

or:

New Me: Really? And how far is town X from your town Y? Do you plan to visit town X?

In those seconds of delay, you understand the mood / intention of the other person, and you can prepare an answer suitable to their needs.

At the beginning, it will feel like you do a big effort, but with some practice, your brain will stop (slow down) generating bad answers, and will start generating automatically good answers. And the "waiting" time will decrease gradually.

One tricky thing - it took me quite long to be there - is to be able to see yourself through the eyes of the other person. To hear yourself with their ears. Once you succeed this, everything will improve at an accelerated pace.

  • Thank you for your answer! I really like the approach of counting/waiting before answering – turninglights Jun 22 at 2:45
3

Often, when people choose topics for small talk, it's because they're interested in at least some aspect of that thing.

Combine that with the fact that people generally like to talk about things they're interested in, especially with those they care about, and I've found a useful way to respond to these situations is to ask a question back that allows the other party to talk about their interest in the subject.

For some examples:

Person: I just read that actor is born in town X.

I might answer with,

Me: Oh yeah? Do you like that actor's work? Which film of theirs is your favorite?

Or,

ME: Oh yeah? Have you ever been to town X?

As another example, since weather is often the subject of small talk:

Person: I heard it is going to be sunny tomorrow, finally!

I might respond with,

Me: That's great. Did you have plans for something you wanted to do outside?

I might not care about the actor, or town X, or the weather tomorrow - but that doesn't really matter, because guiding the other person towards responding based on their interests shows that I care about them. Or, at least, asking a question back helps to further the conversation in a natural way.

This can be a helpful tactic especially for introverts or other people who are reluctant to engage in small talk, or who find it awkward when they try to - often that reluctance or awkwardness stems from difficulty expressing your interest in the subject, or just plain lack of interest - so, again, by directing the conversation at the other person's interest, you're taking the pressure off needing to have a response for yourself.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.