Question Time: Small Talk

man in wheelchair sitting at jetty edge looking to the ocean. Next to him is a pram.[image source: Son of Groucho on flickr]

If you’re out and about at all, you’ll run into small talk situations. Perhaps at the checkout, perhaps getting coffee, perhaps at the library, perhaps at school or playgroup or college or perhaps at a party or dinner, or in the staffroom at work or with customers.

What sort of small talk happens, for you, if any? What would you like to happen? How does your disability inflect your small talk, and affect your ability to participate? Have people – strangers or acquaintances – asked you about your disability? How do you feel about that? What would your ideal small-talk world look like?

By 4 February, 2010.    Question Time   



13 Comments

  1. Straight up? I lie. I’ve also learned to bite my tongue. I don’t mind talking to people about the migraines or the gluten-free/corn-free life. But I can almost always tell when people are dismissive of these things — as though they’re not real, or it’s too big of a problem, or it’s something I should just learn to deal with and stop talking about already.

    So yes, I’m a liar. In my ideal world, talking about appearances would be taboo; anything from weight to new haircuts to clothing would be off-limits, and we would all restrict ourselves to discussing Jane Eyre and our pets.
    .-= SavvyChristine´s last blog ..Lessons in Thrift Shopping: Sweaters =-.

  2. Small talk is one of those things I don’t exactly get. Mostly it happens around me and I realise later I could have said something then. I can say stuff about college studies, I can say stuff about what I’m buying in the TV&movie store and book shops, but mostly it doesn’t occur to me to say stuff the rest of the time. And, when it does, I stutter and it seems like entirely too much work for trivial effect. Even though I intellectually know social interactions are made up of a lot of these little chatty thingys and people don’t tend to work up to the substantive stuff without passing through small. Much easier to talk to other fans and writers and students who like their subject, where things have a Topic. I can do Topic.

    I love the internet. Whole vast areas where people stay On Topic and like it. And places where the topic is ‘things in my life’ but you don’t have to sit through it first any time you are trying to get something done. So then when you’re in the mood to go ‘ooh’ about people’s offspring you can do that, and it works out better.

    So my ideal small talk is more of a small typing.

  3. It’s an interesting phenomenon, I’ve gotten into small talk before & people I’m talking to will voluntarily disclose a disability to me. I guess I’m surprised when they do that but I guess I don’t seem surprised because whoever I’m talking to doesn’t try to change the conversation. I’m not prying either, I don’t think. It just kind of happens.

    That happened yesterday! I sat down and a woman with a cane told me about her cane & chronic health problems. I think it was the context of… Yeah she was waiting to go wait on a long line & I think I said I was going to wait for the line to get shorter & that’s what happened.

    And then another time for example I was on a plane and the woman next to me told me about her spinal injury & what treatment she was getting. I think the context started off talking about pets.

    And then another time someone I was talking to on the phone told me about having been in an accident & needing surgeries.

    For myself though? I don’t really disclose unless someone discloses something like that to me first. And even then I’m vague…

    I can’t do it. I still can’t say “Vulvodynia” to a stranger. And I feel like, I should be able to say it. Because one time, someone disclosed to me that she had vulvodynia first and I was like “Youre the first person to tell me that! Me too.” but like how do you talk about pain in that spot to a stranger?

    So if it comes up I use the more general but still true enough “Pelvic pain…”

  4. I love small talk with women when I / they have the time. It’s led to some very cool interactions. I’ve met women who like to quilt like I do, enjoy pets, sci-fi, talk about kids, homeschool, talk about autism (my son), disablities (me), all these links with people who were strangers 5 minutes before. For me, when I hit on these similarities, it makes me feel like the world out there is a little friendlier than I thought, and I’m not quite so alone with what I think of as my own quirky things.

    I live in a pretty friendly down to earth part of the world (pacific NW), which makes the small-talk easier and connections more likely.

  5. I don’t go out much, particularly not in the winter, so I don’t have to deal with a lot of small talk.
    The last time would be at the grocery store, where I was sitting by the door because the checkout lanes were too narrow for my chair. A woman was on her way out when she saw me and got all grinny-faced and said, “I like your blue shoes and your green gloves! Isn’t today such a nice day to be out?” I don’t remember saying anything to her, she just stared at me for a while and then left. I was so tired that day, it never even occurred to me to say anything back.

    Other than those kinds of encounters, I mainly only see family and friends who don’t expect small talk out of me, thankfully. I have two modes in conversations – listening polite and rambling about something I’m passionate about. Needs work.

    People who ask about my disability these days typically ask the people who are with me, instead of asking me directly. This is probably because I can’t remember the last time I was out and about by myself and because I tend to be somewhat difficult to approach. I’m usually “inward” as my mom says. I’d rather people keep their curiosity to themselves, but I don’t have the energy to invest in making a big deal about it.

  6. HATE small talk. Social situations are a huge trigger for my anxiety, especially involving people I don’t know well/am not comfortable with, and you really only make small talk with people you don’t know well. Plus my depression frequently manifests as having exactly nothing to say–it seems like there is nothing interesting in my life, and even if I do have a good story to tell, it will probably not be as entertaining because I’m bad at telling stories, so I really just shouldn’t bother. And it always starts with “how are you?” and I always lie to varying degrees–I say “I’m okay” or “I’m good” when I mean “I’m sad” or “I don’t know what I’m going to do with my life and it’s freaking me out big-time.” Do not want.

  7. My moods can vary dramatically, so one day I am loving the world and feeling all “we are all God’s children” and the next day I just want to get my errands done and go home. When you ride public transportation there are always people around wanting to chat you up, though. It makes me feel very connected sometimes, part of the world. And people do share their stories. I used to live right on the bus line that went to the hospital and VA hospital, so I’d hear about cancer treatments, injuries, surgeries, tests, and all kinds of things. No one ever asked me about my own health as I appear healthy. The only time I’ve ever been asked about my health was when I was pregnant. I had severe SPD for six months. Sometimes I had to use a wheelchair, and I remember going to church one Sunday in it, and was surrounded by other wheelchair users and people with mobility aids. They were all like, “What happened to you!” as if I were the new kid on the block. It was refreshing because everyone else who’d seen me at church was like, “OH NO!” which got annoying. One guy with a scooter whom I’ve known for years told me, “Everyone should spend some time in a chair!” to know what it’s like. I learned the elevator at my church SUCKS. And too many places have doors that seem to weigh a hundred pounds. And a lot of times those wheelchair buttons for the doors are BROKEN (for weeks). One lady at church regaled me for way too long with advice for how to get better; she’d been through a lot of medical procedures and pain herself, but I really did not want to hear it. The worst thing was being told by a few of my friends to “get more exercise” as a cure for the pain. When I would explain that I’d tried walking several miles in the hopes it would “loosen” me up or whatever only to spend the next two days in agony unable to get out of bed, I could see their eyes glaze over before I’d even finished the sentence.

    I guess I went off topic there, but it’s interesting to me that only when I was in a visibly vulnerable situation (pregnant, in a wheelchair) did anyone ever chat with me about my health. Otherwise people just assume I’m healthy.

  8. I’m not good at small talk either in general.

    I have to disclose sometimes because with my crohn’s disease I may have to flee to the bathroom. That’s fun. I ran into an acquaintance at the library during a mad rush, and I could tell she thought I was rude for saying HI as I ran but que sera, sera.

  9. I really don’t enjoy small talk. I prefer having really intense conversations with people about my and their inner most thoughts and feelings. Which is why I prefer, say, LJ or blogs like this to FB or twitter when it comes to online conversations.

    In face to face interactions, I get that small talk is part of the process of getting to know someone better or even a way to be social with someone you don’t know well and don’t intend to get to know better (a stranger in line with you at a store, for example). And I can do it, but it’s not my favorite thing to do.

    What’s frustrating to me about small talk is how much of it ends up focusing on things that don’t relate to me, because of my disabilities. One of the very first things people tend to go for in small talk situations is “what do you do?” “where do you work?” type questions. I answer honestly, and with a smile, “oh, actually I’m on disability and don’t work.” I don’t feel awkward about telling the truth, but it’s annoying to have to go there right away so often, and it’s frustrating how often the *other* person feels awkward about it, which leads me to feel like I have to somehow make it better for them by being extra cheerful about it and interjecting some of the things I do for fun. Other days, I’m too grumpy to try, and just defeatedly come out with “I watch a lot of television.” Because, you know, some days/weeks/months ARE like that.

    Worse is when the other person gets all prickly about it instead of the awkwardness. They start demanding to know what I do to “keep busy” or if I’ve tried such and such treatment to get better, etc. I just … fortunately these are somewhat rare for me and I know for many other people in my situation they are much more frequent. It’s a horrible thing to feel like you have to defend your very existence – especially to a stranger or some distant relative you haven’t seen for six years or a friend-of-a-friend or whatever.

    “Have people – strangers or acquaintances – asked you about your disability? How do you feel about that?”

    This does happen, and frankly, I prefer it over the folks who just kinda stumble over my honestly and openly talking about it because it makes them feel uncomfortable. I know not everyone wants to freely talk about their disabilities to everyone they meet, but I really don’t mind it and as long as the other person/people are asking out of genuine curiosity and not as some kind of bait-debate game (which I can smell coming right away anyway). It’s nice to be able to educate other people, it’s nice to have someone actually interested in something that is such a huge part of my life, etc.

    So for me, if some stranger on the bus or sitting on a park bench or whatever noticed my cane and after a few random niceties asked me why I need the cane, I would tell them. And if they asked “what is fibromywhatchamacallit?” or “oh, how does that affect your walking so that you need a cane?” or any other myriad of questions, I would welcome it.

    I do find it interesting that if I am using a mobility device, I am suddenly much more approachable by other people with disabilities, especially if they also have one. I’ve had random strangers come up to me and tell me the whole story of how they came to need a cane just because they saw I had one, too. That’s maybe more immediate disclosure than I’m even comfortable with!

    K – I can understand your hesitation. I mean, I’ll talk openly with whoever asks about my fibromyalgia, my depression, my OCD, my PTSD, my allergies, even my irritable bowel and bladder syndromes – but unless I’m already close to the person or have a reason to believe they will understand (like I’m in a community for people with similar issues or they’ve already disclosed they also have it) I don’t go around announcing that I have vaginismus. That just … feels so different to me.

  10. I would define small talk as conversations about what we watched on TV last night, what new movies are coming out, something funny that happened at work, the weather (I’m British – we talk about that A LOT) etc. Basically things that are outside myself; things that are not personal.

    And I suppose this is why I’m always taken aback when strangers/acquaintances ask me about my disability as part of THEIR ‘small talk’. Because for me, my disability – why I limp or use my walking stick – is VERY personal. It’s not a subject for small talk. And it’s never just one question. It’s never just, ‘Oh, you’re limping, have you hurt yourself?’ To which I say, ‘No, this is permanent.’ Then it’s, ‘Oh why? What happened? What’s wrong with you?’ Like a toddler: whywhywhywhywhyWHY?

    So I suppose I’d like people to respect my boundaries, and to realise that talking about my body is a bit too personal for small talk. It’s a bit like walking up to a stranger and asking their bra size.

  11. I’m ok with small talk, although I often wish people were a bit more polite with their curiousity. I don’t object to curiousity as such — I know it’s there, and I know it’s a function of the fact that most people are taught about disability in an Othering way in their formative years. I don’t mind someone saying something polite and in-context about the mobility scooter. I do mind people asking me what’s “wrong with me” or why I’m “in that thing”, or shouting at me, or touching me or my scooter.

    Ironically though, sometimes what bothers me is almost the inverse of this — the fact that when people say “how are you doing?” they don’t really want to know and will glaze over and tune out if I attempt an honest answer. With people for whom it’s important to have an honest and open dialogue about how I really am, we work out shorthand for how I’m doing.

    –IP

  12. I’m very bad at small talk. I am actually very much interested in other people and what they have to say about themselves and what they like. Actually asking them things feels (to me, this is all me and I know it) like an invasion of their privacy which is a trigger for me and I get panicky. The best one I’ve come up with is “What would you most like me to know about you?”

    I tend to not talk much at all or feel like I’m talking way too much because everything is connected to everything else in my head and it sometimes all comes out like when Chihiro pulled that ton of crap out of the river dragon in Spirited Away. I’m told that some of the things I find really exciting are esoteric geekery that no one around me understands (though they like that I like it) or aren’t always comfortable like my fondness for scavenger animals.

    It can be very frustrating when there are several people around. If more than one person is talking I have a hard time understanding. I’m quiet and often people will talk over me when I try to say something or will think I’ve finished talking when I haven’t.

  13. Small talk is very spoon-consuming for me. I can, usually, do it well enough to pass as semi-normal, but it is exhausting and I’d prefer not to use up the spoons unless I’m with someone with whom I have an ongoing relationship of at least moderate importance. For people who I’m only going to see once, or only see occasionally? I just don’t see the purpose of it,and I’m not going to expend some of my limited spoons on it if I have the choice. This offends some people, but I’ve gotten to not care that much. I don’t understand why small-talk is important to some (many) people, but clearly there are many people who are all too willing and happy to engage in it without exhausting themselves. Please don’t demand that I engage in it, fulfill your small-talk needs with someone else, and we can all be happy.