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I have been struggling with this for quite a while now. Sometimes, I have to interact with people whom I did not choose as friends (read: family and neighbors). After the last event (a neighborhood barbeque), I had a talk with my mother about me leaving (in her opinion) too early. I told her I didn't like the event at all because

  • the food wasn't especially good
  • the temperature wasn't nice for having a barbeque
  • the general vibe wasn't fun, there was nobody there that I felt I could and wanted to talk to.

So, we had some more talks about me talking with family and neighbors. Mom stated: "You always give the impression that people are too dumb to be worth talking to". This is bothering me a lot, because I don't want people to think that I think I'm better than them. I know I have my flaws and shortcomings as well, so I don't consider myself to be 'above' them.

Last night we talked a bit more about it, and we came to the conclusion that

  • I'm talking about topics that aren't considered fun by them. I like talking about politics, current events, ethics, philosophy, sociology. Just exchanging facts, broadening my horizon, no fierce discussions are necessary (although I do like having those as well, within reason).
  • They are talking about topics that I'm not interested in at all. It mostly consists of the latest small-town gossip like those people are getting a divorce, they are selling their house and he's homosexual. I come from a small village where there are a lot of people that call themselves Christians, so things like divorces and homosexuality are scandalous and gossip about them can go on for an entire evening.

So basically, since I personally don't like gossiping, when somebody brings up a topic of divorce, I usually try to gently steer the conversation away from gossip and to current events or, if we keep with the divorce example, to e.g. the merits of pre-nuptial agreements. According to my Mom, this is considered rude by some people, and others have voiced to her that I'm coming across as more and more haughty/snooty.

I honestly want these people to not think of me that way because I honestly don't think they're 'below' me, and I hate being seen as haughty because I'm always trying to be polite and humble. But I'm not the kind of person that can participate in gossiping either. So I'm wondering if this gossiping is a skill that can be learned. If yes, how do I join these people in their conversations without being seen as haughty? How do I prevent changing the topic to something that would be considered snooty by them? Because if I could join them in their gossip, these evenings would be more fun and more bearable for me.

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    Do you really want to learn how to gossip? It's the kind of thing that ruins relationships and lives. Personally, I'd rather be thought of as haughty than lower myself to talking behind people's backs. Obligatory XKCD: xkcd.com/1176 – Erik Oct 16 '17 at 7:40
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    @Erik Well, to be honest, I had given up hope as well... But since this is family and I would love to not kick those people out of my life, I thought I'd put it here and give it one last shot.... I'd love to find some way to join in since not talking = haughty/not having fun/making my dislike show and the way I'm currently trying to talk with them is also haughty/not fun/showing dislike... It's a no-win situation, to begin with, but maybe, very maybe, there's some 'miracle cure' out there... – Tinkeringbell Oct 16 '17 at 8:18
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    I think you would be more interested in the art of small talk than learning how to gossip. Gossiping is not really a nice trait to have, small talk can be very useful in maintaining social relationships, even business wise. – Summer Oct 16 '17 at 9:26
  • @JaneDoe1337 My small talk is usually: "Have you read this news article/opinion piece?" This works fine with my self-chosen friends but by my family/neighbors, it is considered as haughty/I'm better than you. I think there's a lot of differences coming from my aunts/uncles who haven't really had any higher education vs. me having finished a university degree and becoming a software engineer with six months study. I think Chloe was very right with her personality types...We just differ too much to make this work, or there must be some magical small talk topic we all like – Tinkeringbell Oct 16 '17 at 12:36
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Perhaps you can be a voice of reason. That is what I try to be. So I tend to that take topics and try to make it steered toward being more uplifting and supportive.

Overall though, if you just show interest in people and ask them about themselves, you can usually easily avoid topics about others. So find out something about someone (they are a great cook, do a certain hobby, etc) and then use that.

I heard you were quite a cook from so & so. How did you get started on that? Is there any special tips you can offer or a cookbook you particularly like?

Julie told me what a gorgeous dress you made for that last cookout. I wish I could sew. How long have you been doing it?

I heard your daughter made the soccer team. You must be proud of her.

So I know you teach. Did you always know that was your calling or how did you decide to go into that field?

There are a million things you can use to start a new topic and often it will get things redirected back to these people and help you get to know them better. It should also garner you goodwill that you showed a genuine interest in them. If you can help people feel better once they have interacted with you than they did before you spoke, people will love you. If you have no such tidbits, you can start off with compliments, like about a sweater they are wearing and where they got it, or their hairstyle, etc. You can ask them what sorts of hobbies they have, etc or if anyone has read any books they would recommend recently.

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    Amazing answer. Also Once you learn some people better, im pretty sure you can find some common interests you can talk about. – Joel Harkes Oct 15 '17 at 17:55
  • +1 to this. Asking people about themselves is a great way to talk about something they're interested in, without the negativity of gossip. For some of us, it does not come naturally, but it is a skill that can be learned. (Or, if you can't think of anything to ask about them, there's always the old standby of talking about the weather!) – DLosc Oct 16 '17 at 20:04
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    "If you can help people feel better once they have interacted with you than they did before you spoke, people will love you." __ yes this is the key to social goodness @threetimes! – English Student Oct 17 '17 at 5:52
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    I like the part about talking about positive interests, but maybe OP needs to be a tad careful when trying to be "the voice of reason" in a group that already considers them snooty - especially so if they currently lack strongly developed social skills, which I think the question implies. Staying out of the gossip honestly seems less risky until they are better established in the group. – xLeitix Oct 17 '17 at 6:18
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People love gossip until it's about them or someone they care about... And if you're involved with a group that tends to enjoy gossiping you can be assured that sooner or later you'll be a target.

Sometimes when I'm in these situations I can slow them down or derail them completely by playing Devil's advocate, more or less just defending whoever is being thrown under the bus. It looks like I'm participating and in a way I am, but I'm doing it to reduce the harm done by the gossip.

Just using the examples from your question:

Oh that's really sad, divorce is a hard thing to go through. I'll have to bake them some cookies and offer a shoulder to cry on.

They're selling their house? Remind me to trim my hedges and bring the trashcan in early, we want to make a good impression on their potential buyers and our new neighbors.

Good for him, coming out takes a lot of courage. It must have been hard growing up gay in a small town, we should try to make him feel welcome here.

Sometimes these uncomfortable gossiping conversations can be an opportunity to model better behavior, and sometimes that's all it takes to get people to be a little more kind. If it helps think of it as applied anthropology.

From my experience with doing this, people who gossip who are otherwise "good people" tend to know at some level that what they're doing is wrong. I think this method works because they become aware that someone involved in the conversation is actively trying to turn it around and that reminds them that they're doing something that they kinda know they shouldn't be doing.

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    Do note that this approach can be dangerous. When you challenge people's deeply held worldviews, whether explicitly or (as here) implicitly, you may just be painting a big target on your back. I'm not saying never do it, but pause first to consider whether that particular issue is a hill you're willing to die on. If the OP's goal is simply to maintain cordial relationships with family and neighbors, this may not be the best strategy. – DLosc Oct 16 '17 at 19:52
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    This isn't helpful advise given that OP's goal presumably isn't to make his neighbours better people, but to to be able to make it through these barbecues without their mother bothering them because they are considered "rude". Independently of whether it is "correct" to do so, if those neighbours already consider them rude because they change the topic or do no participate in gossip, do you really feel they will like the devil's advocate better? Frankly, most of the times people dislike interacting with the devil's advocate even when they are otherwise well-liked members of the group, – xLeitix Oct 17 '17 at 6:25
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    I do this all the time, works wonders, as long as whoever I talk to has a functioning brain and some empathy. Just don't be too obvious, try to make them think what would happen if they were in the situation of the gossiping-target. – r41n Oct 17 '17 at 12:36
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    @Andrew So, telling them directly that gossiping is wrong and refusing to participate would be less snobby? Using a little tact is often a less abrasive way to deal with people. In this case just gently defending people is a way to remind people who gossip that it's not a great thing to do. When people notice that you tend to redirect gossip, they tend to think a little bit about how they talk about others around you, leading to fewer gossiping conversations. – apaul Oct 17 '17 at 19:40
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    @Andrew There's nothing wrong with being abrasive about gossip if you don't intend to maintain a relationship with people who do it. If you intend to be friendly with these people, and need to maintain relationships with neighbors and family, it helps to treat them gently. You can be honest yet still kind, this is one way to do that. It's just setting a positive example rather than being confrontational with people. – apaul Oct 17 '17 at 19:52
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Some thoughts ...

I thought @apaul suggestions about trying to model gentler behavior were spot-on. Let me add to this.

  • Find something good to say about anyone who comes up in gossip.

  • Deflect from the personal to the sociological. "Oh, Bill and Jenny are getting divorced? So many couples do, makes me sad. They do say that most couples who make it past X years [do your research, pal!] are in it for the long haul."

  • Don't start politics/religion debates at casual parties. It rarely ends well. You might be better served with "unusual" social or science news. Here's one: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2017/hubble-captures-blistering-pitch-black-planet Honestly, before parties or somesuch, I often do a little research, looking for cool small-talk. See, if I pick the topics, they're automatically more interesting to me... ;D

  • Follow-up from above ... you will encounter people who like to discuss the deeper issues. They are out there. Heck, I'm one. But you have to edge into it. Let convos get deeper slowly. You can't just stomp up to Aunt Tilly and bark out "Calvinism vs Free Will -- go!"

  • Listen. There is a lot of interesting stuff going on at these parties. Listen to what people are interested in. Ask more questions about it. Almost any topic, if you dig deep enough, has an almost fractal level of complexity behind it. Football. Knitting. Alternate history of the HRE.

  • Listen again. Listen to the people. We live in a human world; people are what is important. Get to know these people around you until you start sympathizing with them, with their problems.

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    +!: Listen and learn, if only what not to do in your own life. You will find unexpected depth in many people -- expertise you never suspected. – kevin cline Oct 16 '17 at 0:57
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    "Deflect from the personal to the sociological." __ everything happens to many, nothing is particular! I upvote. – English Student Oct 17 '17 at 5:54
9

Only for the people who do this, but prefer to be more like-able socially (I used to make this mistake):

I'm talking about topics that aren't considered fun by them. I like talking about politics, current events, ethics, philosophy, sociology.

Don't. I made this mistake so much in high school and burned so many bridges. I really kick myself now because many of these people I burned bridges with are awesome people. For whatever reason, I had to "win" stupid conversations and all I did was lose. Luckily, by the end of college I had trained myself intentionally to lose conversations to learn to swallow ego.

My grandparents used to say never talk about politics or religion and I know why they do. But don't talk about anything that creates sides either - that's just as destructive. This generally means avoid all news, or if you have to, find something positive from the news.

With gossip, yes popular people gossip and I'm not partial to it because I feel it burns bridges. We all can turn a negative conversation into a positive one. Using a crazy Bob who loves electronics as an example, one technique I've learned is to start off by mocking myself and then expressing understanding for Bob's condition and turning it into something positive. "Bob is crazy because he has two extra rooms full of electronic equipment" turns into, "I am crazy about cars, so I know how it can be to really love something like Bob does, oh and did you see the really cool thing Bob did/had/etc."

Always remember that if you get into the habit of saying negative things about others people will begin to wonder what you say about them when they're not around (destroys trust). This is why I mock myself, express understanding for the other person being discussed, then talk about something positive. I have seen it build trust and a persona of others wanting to be around.

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    Important points in this answer that emphasizes building bridges, establishing empathy, and leaving people with a positive impression of you, regardless of who's being talked about or why. I specifically like the bit where you build up "Bob" and put a positive spin on things.....even if you can't think of something positive to say about Bob, it's almost enough just to add that "wow yeah, I can totally relate to Bob right now!" – elrobis Oct 16 '17 at 18:01
  • Would you list "sports" with the topics that create sides? They seem to be more divisive than politics in some places. They're also a fairly common topic to discuss. – Erik Oct 17 '17 at 6:20
  • @Erik Depends on person. With some people who have fun, sides don't exist and they posses maturity to play with anything. Rare to meet. – FalseHooHa Oct 17 '17 at 15:09
5

I know exactly how you feel because I am just like that myself:

I'm talking about topics that aren't considered fun by them. I like talking about politics, current events, ethics, philosophy, sociology. [...] They are talking about topics that I'm not interested in at all. (you said it @Tinkeringbell.)

I am also extremely introverted and simply dislike such social situations. But some events can't be avoided can they!

The eminently sensible answer of @DLosc made the most important point about the purpose or 'social function' of gossip:

I am not a sociologist, but it seems to me that gossip is a method of generating social cohesion by talking about shared acquaintances and experiences. --DLosc

Well, I am a sociologist and @DLosc is absolutely right in this assessment of gossip. I have found myself in such social situations and these are my strategies to navigate the evening:

  1. If the event can't be avoided I try to relax and enjoy.

  2. I try to find one person who matches my temperament and shares my interests. Then you can talk to them and 'around them' to the group without giving an aloof impression.

  3. Be a good listener. Is that so cliche? But you can use it to advantage here. Since you don't like to gossip, simply be an attentive member of the audience! Body language can be used to indicate 'active listening' as 'part of the circle.'

  4. I often ask these people who are usually my relatives and friends, how their children are doing. In my experience they will then start talking enthusiastically about their own families and themselves, and you can just relax and think about that answer you are going to later go home and write on IPS meta.

  5. I mainly struggle when they start talking about me. That's stressful but I try to deflect the conversation back to them (works well) or to a general topic. If you don't mind talking about yourself then you hold the advantage here. You can easily control the flow of conversation around yourself and they will just love it!

  6. Remember you are not obliged to engage in distasteful gossip to satisfy their social expectations. Deal with them in your own distinctive manner -- be firm and courteous; smile a lot because smiling is very submissive, friend-making social behavior that helps you here; and if somebody irritates you, don't leave early (because they already complained to your mother that you are haughty) but just grin and bear it! I would give that particular person the big freeze next time.

Note: first time on IPS.SE, I asked this very similar question about being very reserved and how to avoid being misunderstood as aloof and haughty -- it has some good answers that might be useful in your situation:

Why is a shy or reserved person often perceived as cold or arrogant; also, how can such an impression be mitigated?

4

I am not a sociologist, but it seems to me that gossip is a method of generating social cohesion by talking about shared acquaintances and experiences. So: do you know the people they are gossiping about? If so, maybe you can contribute something about that person to the discussion--not a negative thing, but some small anecdote that shows "Yes, I know this person too." For example:

I remember Katie. We used to play in the park together when we were kids.

John? Is that the man who lives on the corner of 3rd and Oak? I never see him much, but I go past there on my way to work.

I went to high school with Will's little sister.

It doesn't have to be anything significant or even especially positive; it's just a way of saying, "I know the same people you know. I am part of your community." You've made an effort to participate, and that may be all that's required. (Your tone is important too: if you make your contribution in a bored voice while picking at your fingernails, it won't be received well.)

Certainly, you can send up an occasional trial balloon to see if someone wants talk about something you're interested in. Just keep in mind that they can't converse about it unless they are interested in it too. You might have to try different subjects for a while before finding common ground.

  • I like books, but some of my acquaintances have never read for pleasure. Okay, maybe there are some movies we've both seen.
  • "Your cousin lives in [place]? I know somebody from there." Or: "I've never been there. Have you gone to visit? What's it like?" (Even something that you don't have in common can be a conversation starter!)
  • If all else fails, the weather is a time-honored topic for smalltalk. It's something that you automatically have in common with the other person, by virtue of being alive at the same place and time. I like to talk about how the weather affects me personally: "I'm going for a bike ride tomorrow," or "I like rain, as long as it isn't too cold," or even "I would enjoy this neighborhood barbecue more if it weren't so windy!"

Finally, keep in mind that these groups of people may never give you the conversational stimulation you need. That's fine; it's what you have friends for. As Chloe points out in the comments, you probably have a personality difference to navigate. Talking to people with different outlooks and priorities is important, but it's draining. So make sure to recharge your batteries by getting together with a friend later and talking politics, ethics, and philosophy to your heart's content.

  • "I am not a sociologist, but it seems to me that gossip is a method of generating social cohesion by talking about shared acquaintances and experiences." __ I am a sociologist and you are absolutely right with that assessment of gossip @DLosc! – English Student Oct 17 '17 at 5:57
  • @EnglishStudent Haha, thanks! I must have read it somewhere. :^) – DLosc Oct 17 '17 at 19:46
2

I can so relate to you, and while I don't have a complete solution, here are some fragments that help me:

First, understand the main differences between your topics and their topics.

  • your topics are factual, objective, impersonal
  • their topics are personal and immediate

These people don't care or don't want to talk about big-picture issues. About the world in general or science or whatever. The purpose of their gossip is not the philosophical discovery of deeper meanings. It is much more simple: The purpose of gossip is bonding, by sharing an immediately personal meaning.

Who divorced or married or died or had a child is a typical discussion topic of small, personal communities. These topics are meaningful because they are interpersonal - they are both private and shared, because they can affect everyone, so everyone can relate, and thus contribute to and share the talk.

Your topics aren't. Only a small fraction of people, those interested in that particular subject, can relate.

So go to these events with different expectations. You are not trying to share or learn new facts about the world. You are trying to get to know your neighbours, because knowledge is a prerequisite of trust which is a prerequisite of communities.

I still have to force myself to do small-talk. But at least I now see the usefulness and purpose.

1

If you find gossip distasteful, uninteresting, and/or hurtful to the people it targets, you do not have to gossip. It sounds to me like your question is really about how to better engage in small-talk.

I personally hate talking about politics, it makes me anxious and I am often surrounded by people whose politics do not agree with my own. Sometimes, however, I am forced to hang out with people like my brother-in-law, who is fascinated by politics and will keep trying to turn the conversation to current events. Similarly, in your case, people keep turning the conversation to gossip.

I find the best thing to do is to head this off at the pass by starting the conversation with something that interests you, or asking people about themselves. People love to talk about themselves, their own interests and hobbies, and if you can find something in common to discuss, like a show, or a book, you'll show to them that you aren't 'haughty' as you put it, and that you do share some common interests.

Then, once they turn the conversation to something you don't like to talk about (gossip, or politics), if you don't engage, or try to change the topic, they will see that some things you like to talk about and some you don't, and polite people will steer back to things that interest you, to keep you engaged in the conversation. Impolite or rude people will disregard your discomfort and continue to gossip. If that's the case, well, you shouldn't worry too much about the opinions of people who don't respect yours.

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I have always found this sort of small-talk excruciating. Though I recognise what's been said about it "generating social cohesion", knowing that has neither made it any easier to do nor any more palatable.

There seem to be two different problems with it: one is that I find the contents of small-talk often either too inane or too detrimental to want to participate in. That doesn't necessarily mean that I look down upon those who do, though I can't say that hearing people gossiping about someone else adds to any regard I might have for them.

The other problem is that I'm not very good at it anyhow. It's not that I didn't try: I did, over and over. And, eventually, I found that the whole thing about small-talk is not so much the choice of subjects (e.g. "you always want to talk about difficult stuff at parties, that's no fun!") - it is about the way you communicate.

I think that small-talking is fundamentally different than regular talking. It serves another purpose and follows different rules and patterns.

In small-talking, the subject is completely irrelevant. The true communication that happens with small-talking happens between the lines - it would be interesting to subtitle a small-talk conversation like that :) . Like English Student above says, small-talk is about social cohesion. The real talking-between-the-lines is all about group dynamics. It's the sort of thing the cats in our neighbourhood do when they yell at one another in the night - confirming their hierarchical status.

That is what is always tripping me up I guess: I always tried to participate in small-talking as if it were a regular chat. It's awkward as hell because it doesn't work.

You hit a brick wall almost immediately because, no matter how sensible or empathic your answers might be, if they don't follow the unwritten laws of Social Dynamics they will only meet blank stares.

For one thing, small-talking seems to be highly context-dependent: almost nothing is what it seems on the surface. Other people seem have no problem recognising the right context and decoding what's being said, but it goes way above my head.
This is a different game altogether.

By now I have more or less accepted that I don't play that game. It's somewhat inconvenient at times, but I never liked that game anyhow. Getting drunk, as someone suggested above, does not work for me at all. Maybe it helps if you are just a bit shy and inhibited, but I found that it makes things only more jarring and difficult.

I found that it works for me to not force myself to play that game and not to hate myself for not being equipped with the proper social dynamics hardware ;)

I really like social events at work, because I like most of my colleagues. And of course, not all talking at social events is "small talking" (or gossiping). I try and get to know people on a 1-to-1 base and have chats with them, and over time there is enough interaction happening anyhow to make you feel part of the whole. Of course, this might not work everywhere.

But do realise that even if you really can't do small-talking, there are other (and IMO infinitely more rewarding) ways to interact with others than that.

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