Dear Imprudence: Do Conversational Redirects Actually Work?

I’m a big fan of Miss Conduct over at the Boston Globe, and she got a question recently that comes up a lot in advice columns and spaces like this one:

I am disabled by an incurable disease. On the outside, I appear OK. But on the inside, I am slowly dying. People ask me what I do for work. When I say I am disabled, they seem to require a further explanation. I would like to keep my affliction private, so I would like an appropriate response. J.M. / Essex

Here’s how she responded:

J.M., I am in awe of your courage. But you probably don’t want people to be in awe of your courage, or shamed by your stoicism, or inspired by your grace, do you? You probably just want to be J.M. from Essex, who can bloody well make small talk like everyone else. What else are you doing besides tending your illness as best you can? If you’re well enough that people don’t realize you are sick and well enough to write to me, you are probably engaged in some kind of activity – crafts, reading, going to movies, listening to music, following sports. People aren’t prying into your work or health situation, necessarily; they’re probably only looking for some conversational fodder. So give it to them: “I’m not working right now because I’m dealing with some health problems – that I’m really tired of talking about! But I’ve been listening to books on tape lately and really getting into the No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. Have you ever read those?” (or whatever is appropriate for your interests). If people keep pushing (most won’t), repeat that you’re not interested in discussing work or health, but how ’bout them Sox? If they still pry, say, “I think I left the oven on” (or some similarly nonsensical excuse) and wander off.

Now, there are some things in this response that make me a little tingly in an irked way, but that’s not actually why I’m writing this post. I’m writing this post because, well, y’all are pretty awesome when it comes to crowdsourcing solutions and ideas, and I’ve got two questions for you:

  1. Have you/do you use conversational redirections like changing the subject, ignoring the question, etc., and if so, has it worked/does it work?
  2. How do you deal with situations like these where people believe that your disability makes you a subject for open quizzing and discussion?

And, a followup, because this is something I always have trouble with: What exactly is ‘small talk’?

About s.e. smith

s.e. smith is a recalcitrant, grumpy person with disabilities who enjoys riling people up, talking about language, tearing apart poor science reporting, and chasing cats around the house with squeaky mice in hand. Ou personal website can be found at this ain't livin'.

28 thoughts on “Dear Imprudence: Do Conversational Redirects Actually Work?

  1. Someone asked me once why I don’t drink. I asked her if she didn’t think the question was rude. She backed off and we are still friends.

  2. I *think* small talk is stuff that no one is really interested in, not like a sincere discussion of interests or hobbies, but which is better than awkward silence.

  3. I don’t know how useful my usual subject-change will be (for one thing, I’m TAB), but here it is, anyway: I do it in a really obvious, intentionally transparent way. So, for instance, the talk turns to something that makes me very uncomfortable, and I say, “You know what’s great? Puppies!” And then I make it extremely clear that a subject change is in order.

    That obviously smacks of something you can’t do with a superior or with someone who thinks they’re superior to you for whatever reason, but with friends/acquaintances, I’ve found it very effective indeed. OTOH, obviously there’s a consideration to be made with regard to infantilization of people with disabilities; “Puppies” might be a bad switch. Perhaps “the slow death of print media” or something, whatever works for you.

    As for small talk: at least the way I use the term, it means inoffensive and broadly applicable chitchat. Classic topics include the weather, everyone’s jobs or hobbies, how people’s kids/parents/partners/pets are doing, and sometimes very safe topical issues (Leno/Conan, maybe; Obama/McCain, never). I think that’s the usual range. Basically, if any one person feels vulnerable or emotional, it’s no longer small talk.

  4. I had no concept of small talk until I had to teach people how to do it when I was working as an EFL instructor. So far as I figured out, small talk is the stuff you talk about when meeting new people or old acquaintances that nobody actually cares about but that serves a basic connective purpose: weather is a popular topic for this (unless there has recently been a weather related disaster!). What works for small talk is also culturally determined (eg talking about football would not work in the UK).

    That said, since this doesn’t come intuitively, I may be wrong!

  5. Small talk – I’m not sure. It’s when you run into someone you know somehow and don’t have much time. Or when being quiet may be awkward. On my college campus, the student population is too big for most of us to know each other, but there is usually *something* to talk about while waiting – the weather, what’s broken now, schoolwork.

    I don’t do “clever” redirection – my problem is invisible, and when people say “how are you?” I just smile. Usually people I don’t know say that – cashiers. Though it’s weird when the nurses ask that – “well, right now, okay” or “you don’t wanna know.”

    But when people are offering advice, I just flat out say stop if I don’t want to hear it. And if it’s someone I haven’t seen in a while but I have to talk to (relatives, family friends), I usually tell them what’s actually going on, with the most violent metaphors I can find. They don’t ask again. (Right now, I’m using “I’m being split in two. How’s your summer?”)

  6. If for some reason people pry into why I’m not feeling well that day they usually stop prying when I say the reason is “Girl things.” It’s vague but no one wants to talk about girl problems. So the other person will change the subject for me.

    I’ve only ever had 1 person continue forward with wanting to know what was up with me and it turned out she had something very similar going on (this was at physical therapy so it was sort of relevant & turned out okay.)

  7. Like Molly, I think making a redirection very obvious in a way that will let the other person know that this train of thought is becoming uncomfortable/inappropriate is a good tactic. If you’re too subtle in your approach, odds are things will end nastily if they don’t get the hint and no one is benefiting.
    Rereading that, I basically just reiterated everything other people said BUT ANYWHO a universally genial topic-like puppies, a great example!-amongst friends or casual acquaintances usually does the trick.

    As for small talk, it’s often something that occurs at parties or gatherings and the whatnot where people only care to engage in neutral topics (puppies) as to avoid conflict. Some things that are generally taboo during small talk are things that always end up coming up anyhow, which may or may not lead to some very big issues. Like politics, apparently, get people really heated up. Who knew!

    However, what is ‘appropriate’ small talk varies. At my age, for example, people think it is just dandy to pry into my personal life within 10 minutes of meeting me. They ask me about my plans for the future (?), and my relationship status (???) in particular…and these are things that you would not even consider asking ‘adults’! They often feel very entitled to this information, which makes it difficult for me to keep a straight head, which makes me very uncomfortable, and then I end up having a small panic attack. But, you know, that’s perfectly A-OK so long as I don’t impede upon their ability to pry.

    …uh basically my point is: small talk usually ends up awkward for me, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.

  8. I think redirects generally work, but you have to use them consistently and with certainty, which is an effort in itself.

  9. I think of small talk as the phatic use of language. The content isn’t very important. It’s a way for people to engage socially without deep mental or emotional involvement. It can let people pass the time less awkwardly with strangers, or it can be a first step before a deeper conversation, a way for people to show each other that they’re trustworthy, or at least that they’re playing by the same rules.
    Its most important purpose is to make people more comfortable. If it makes one of the participants less comfortable, it’s not working.
    As for redirections, I’m not usually very slick about it. I just say, “I don’t want to talk about it,” or, “That’s kind of a personal question,” or sometimes, if I mean it “Maybe later.”

  10. As far as diverting the conversation, I often ‘bean-dip’ (to borrow a phrase from some friends) and use small talk. If the person I am talking to misses the cue that I don’t want to explain about my disabilities, I make it even more obvious or flat-out say “Oh, I don’t discuss that.”

    Small talk I use to divert the other person is general, innocuous subjects that cannot cause offense. The weather, articles of clothing/jewelry etc. If I know something about the other person, I ask about that to get the topic off of me. People (generally) like it when people ask about something (positive) in their life like “I hear your son just turned 2; how is he?” or “You went to Mexico for vacation, how was it?” I practice these things because I am generally uncomfortable in public settings and need to be prepared. My elementary school (for kids with disabilities) taught me that skill and I have used it ever since.

  11. I confess to having an ‘easy’ out for this one, because I have a primary school aged child. A little while back, I started trying out the simple answer “I’m at home at the moment” in response to the “what do you DO?” question. This has lead to no prying from the disability point of view, but does produce … interesting responses. People’s responses, including facial expressions and body language, to “I’m home at the moment” are really very different to “I’m a doctor”, or even “I’m a student”. One person even decided to offer me all sorts of kudos, with a strong line in “most career wimminz these days don’t care about their kids, good on you for staying home”, which was pretty revolting. Other people seem to find it a conversation-stopper, and look rather disdainful – the impression seems to be that I therefore can have nothing of interest to say that doesn’t involve children and mothering.

    Since I’ve been using a scooter, I don’t recall a single person asking me what I “do” as part of their small talk. But then, I don’t get out much.

  12. I was taught that small talk was idle, but polite chit-chat avoiding anything that might provoke opinionated argument. Politics and religion were right out. Sports was a little too emotional, being Detroit fans, so we were left with weather (bugs and snow!) and pop culture, mostly as long as you stayed away from anything too radical. With me, as it turned out, and my Mars-pushed Aries tendencies I apparently have always had a problem with boundaries. In other words, I managed to have an intense opinion about everything and was never demure enough to perfect the art of small talk.

    I have also not managed the subject changer. A girl in Kid’s class announced that I was lazy the other day because I stay at home. I let an 8 year old hurt my feelings. And I can’t yet dodge the questions as to why I use a cane some days and some days I don’t, or why on the “don’t” days sometimes I am fine and sometimes I am very much not. I should just spout off about how much I like kittens.

  13. Because of the nature of my problem (where I have to dart to the bathroom at a moment’s notice) I just tell people. Shuts them up.

    Lying works too – “I work from home.” That might work for an 8 yr old too.

  14. For many, many years, if my mum and I ran into someone we knew (i.e. an adult from her generation), they’d ask me about my studies, which was very awkward if it was a time when I wasn’t studying.

    I ended up doing my GCSEs (exams we do at age sixteen here, preceded by two years of study and coursework assignments) at home, but I was only finishing that when my old classmates were leaving school aged eighteen. Then my health got worse and I didn’t go on to do A-Levels (basically, like GCSEs, but fewer, and done before leaving school) , so suddenly I was in limbo.

    And here it seems like if you are, or look as if you could be, at school or university (I’ve always looked young for my age so that phase has never really ended for me), asking about your studies is THE small-talk conversation. If uni hadn’t been treated as the be-all and end-all of a young person’s life in our social circle (so that I’m sure many young people who don’t want to go to uni have equally sticky conversations with their parents’ contemporaries), people would no doubt have been expressing surprise that I didn’t have a job, or wasn’t on an apprenticeship or training course. But in any of these situations, it’s incredibly awkward if you don’t know what to say to explain why you are not doing whatever is regarded as The Norm.

    It got very depressing having to tell people over and over that I wasn’t going to uni because of my health; it was like repeating ‘I’m a failure’ over and over. (Oh hi, internalized ableism.) I never did figure out how to handle those conversations, so I really appreciate this discussion, as there will no doubt be other situations in the future where I’m uncomfortable discussing something because it impinges on my disability or the way I live my life in relation to it.

  15. As a TAB, I try to stay away from the “What do you do” or “Do you have kids” questions since I know they can be painful for others.

    I generally stick to “I love those earrings, where did you get them?” and “Have you tried the tomato/cheese thingies? They’re delicious!” and “So how do you know HostsName?”

  16. Liz – those kind of questions can be painful for anybody, PWD or not. (Especially jobs in this economy, ouch. “I hate my job so much, but I have one” kinda puts a damper on conversation.)

    Em – I don’t like this –
    “…uh basically my point is: small talk usually ends up awkward for me, so maybe I shouldn’t talk.”

    You should talk. It’s not your fault that “small talk” is a minefield even if you follow the rules, just go ahead and talk. If I feel like talking and I’m in a situation where it’s warranted, I will talk, though I’ll avoid politics and religion, because well, I don’t have the energy to deal with it (and the fallout if it’s with a family friend or family – how could you say that to aunt so-and-so?).

    I had a lot of fun with “small talk” (avoiding serious topics) at my school’s frosh camp*. I wasn’t completely obsessed with Bollywood at the time, but I just know so many random historical facts and stories, I always had something to say. We got little awards at the end, like high school superlatives, and I got best story-teller. It was really touching.

    *4 days, and I last saw someone I recognized from my cabin like 2 years ago. So while lasting relationships was the “goal,” I just had fun.

    Don’t be afraid of being awkward – I’ve done that, and it’s usually because I trail off or the audience has no frame of reference for what I’m talking about.

    Though I should add don’t force yourself – I only chatter away when I feel like it. Like I do now.

  17. Another method would be to deflect the question back onto the person who asked you. “Oh, you won’t be interested in what I do all day – what do you do?” or some other variation of that usually works, as long as you throw an obnoxious amount of interest onto the other person. It’s what I did when I had a job that I hated (being the youngest woman working at a gas station that basically made me a harrassment target every single hour I was there). It works.

    For me, small talk is just polite, boring talk that is designed to be inoffensive. Weather, shared experiences (“the traffic here is just terrible!”, for example) and other ‘safe’ topics are usually what I aim for.

  18. Bringing it back to feminism, do you think that men (with or without disabilities) have an easier time telling people they don’t want to talk about a certain topic? Do we as women feel impolite saying it?

  19. Mophead, I absolutely think that’s true. And I’m sure it’s intersectional as well. It’s more and more difficult to tell someone “no”–in whatever form–the higher up the kyriarchy chain they are.

  20. Mophead – I’ve had the ‘why don’t you drink’ question many times. I tend to just say ‘medical issues’, but some people will keep digging after that. And once some-one asked me what kind of alcohol drinks I used to like when I did drink.

  21. Thanks for all the comments. I tend to be quite open about my disability, because I am used to the idea that as a personw ith a visible disability, I am the subject of open quizzing. However, sometimes I’ve had it with all the intrusive questions and I can get quite blunt then. Maybe conversational redirecting would work.

  22. @Kirstente:

    There is NO winning with that conversation. I can not drink much because one of my very, very necessary migraine medications really lowers my alcohol tolerance in an unpleasant way. If i have more than 2 drinks, I feel sick, dizzy and uncomfortable.

    When I don’t say anything, people prod. When I DO explain myself, people suggest that if I “work on it” I can drink more, and that I only have a low tolerance because I’m a short person. It’s infuriating.

  23. I struggle with this one occasionally, but it’s really only when I get surprised by a personal question that seems to come out of nowhere, particularly if it’s the first thing someone I’ve never met before says to me.
    It helps that I’ve been a reporter, and am used to interviewing people. When you interview people for a living, you get used to directing conversations as subtly as possible, or bluntly if necessary. I’ve gotten to the point now that I will just tell someone I’m not discussing something, and if they pester me, I leave.
    Then again, I’ve never been a people-pleaser!

  24. I just love this topic! I’m afraid I will just repeat a lot of what’s already been said, but it’s such a juicy topic.

    LOVE the “puppies!” redirect! LOL!

    I use redirects all the time, which is pretty amazing considering how infrequently I leave the house! I use them with medical personnel, friends, family, neighbors, acquaintances, etc., and it’s not always for small talk. Sometimes I just don’t want to talk about me/my disability, or I’m too exhausted to do anything but listen.

    I guess this is one of those areas where having a disability has gained me a new skill set, because I have always been socially awkward, “overly” emotional/passionate/opinionated, and NEVER good at small talk. Being forced to come up with answers ahead of time or in the same situation over and over again has made me much more relaxed about not needing to fit in to the situation.

    Sometimes I use obvious (gently sarcastic?) ones, like, “So, we’ve been having weather, huh?” Or, “Hey! Is that the Concord?!” or “Look! A Monet!” Getting people to laugh usually helps a lot.

    Sometimes I go with, “I don’t want to talk about that,” or “Let’s talk about you instead” or “I’m SO bored with talking about my health.” Depending, I might say these in a smiley, friendly way, or I might just be expressionless.

    DEFINITELY women are supposed to provide the social lubricant in almost every group (two or more people) situation. I sometimes take pleasure in simply refusing to make men feel all cozy by me doing the work. For example, saying just “yes” or “no” (especially “no”) instead of doing all those feminine modifiers (Yes, I think so. No, I’m sorry I can’t. I don’t think so, do you? etc.) It’s fun to just be matter-of-fact and watch people squirm without really knowing why.

    Also, I think small talk is seen as a particular waste of energy by WWDs. When I did interviews (for theater project) of other women w/diverse chronic illness a dozen years ago, that was one theme that came up with every one. It surprised me — everyone singled out small talk as something they didn’t have the time/energy for — that to focus on what’s most important in life, small talk (or people generally that they didn’t care deeply about) were OUT. And that sentiment seems to have held true through the years and different illness communities I’ve been a part of.

    FYI, there was a long discussion on this topic a while back at, as well. I’m sure a search of the forum would find it.

  25. I have a depressing story about redirects. I’m currently not working because I’m mentally ill. My aunt and uncle, who are retired, came to visit from interstate last year, and I came to dinner with them and my parents. My aunt asked me “What do you do all day?” I felt uncomfortable with the question, but I replied “I read a lot, and go on the internet.” I’m not good at small talk, but I figured that if she’d said it first it must be OK, so I asked “So, what do you do with your time?” to her. I don’t know how she intended her question to me, but my question to her was not malicious, I just wanted the focus off me. And she couldn’t answer it at all. She was really flustered. My uncle stepped in and said “You like gardening,” and I said “Oh, what sort of garden do you have?” thinking that for most gardeners, that would be the last sentence I’d have to speak for the next hour. But she couldn’t answer that one either. She just didn’t know. It was at about that time that we realised she had dementia.

  26. “What do you do?” I get that quite a lot. If I don’t lie (which I’m more likely to do with complete strangers or when I’m exhausted), I say that I have a chronic illness and don’t work. People almost NEVER ask me further, don’t know why, so I haven’t needed a redirect much. I could do to work on some though, for those rare times when someone wants to talk about their friend-of-friend who’s ill, and this is what helped them, blah blah.

  27. @ Molly

    I may have to use that “You know what’s great? Puppies!” thing in conversation the next time I’m in a heated argument and feel the telltale signs that I’m about to start crying (which is difficult to stop, and if it gets to the sobbing point too long I get a “crying headache” migraine-type thing that can only be helped with a full night’s sleep–no painkillers will help, well, not anything OTC anyway). If I can change the subject in a funny way it can save my ass (and hopefully a friendship!). Thanks! 🙂

    @ Ang

    It got very depressing having to tell people over and over that I wasn’t going to uni because of my health; it was like repeating ‘I’m a failure’ over and over. (Oh hi, internalized ableism.)

    My disability is anxiety and depression, and I still can’t shake off the thought of myself as lazy. I should have started college and scholarship applications my sophomore year of high school (US), I should have studied harder and graduated in the top 5% of my class (like my brother did two years later), I should have, at least, not failed yet again by getting sent home from boot camp (back and mental problems) because I couldn’t pass the PT class. Because I’m a failure, right? That’s debatable, but the life I have now–army wife, not working, getting my mental and medical shiz together–is where I need, and want, to be.

    It’s almost enough to make me believe in faith…almost. 😛

    @ liz

    I get asked if I have kids all the time because I’m a female in my mid-late twenties and an army wife. And all military couples have a clown car full of kids, right? *scowls, but with you, not at you*

    @ Kirstente

    I drank very seldom before (like once a week or less), but now I don’t because it’d interfere with one of my medications. Then I’m asked what I’m on/what’s wrong with me and I tell them I’m on/It’s None Of Your Gorram Business, which usually works with my friends because we’re all smart alecks.

    @ calyx

    Half the time I tell people I’m a trophy wife (I’m a “homemaker”) just to see their reaction. (The funny part is that I can barely call myself average on a good self-esteem day. :P)

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