Small Talk vs. Big Ideas: Conversation With An Introvert

When I become interested in something, or learn something new for the first time, I get enthusiastic bordering on obsessive. After learning new things and gaining new insights about having an introverted personality, I’m probably going to be blogging about it a lot for a while.

Now, I’ve known I was introverted for a looong time. But I’ve begun to explore it more thoroughly and learn how it connects to a lot of issues I’ve been having. One of those issues I’ve written about before: not feeling like an adult because I didn’t have “adult” things to talk about. After reading more about the general tendencies of introverts, I realized that the problem may not be a lack of maturity so much as my dislike of small talk.

For ages now, I’ve known that I hated small talk. I was not aware, until the last couple of days, that it was associated with introversion, and my personality type in particular. I thought that not wanting to talk about things other people talked about—kids, essential oils, or furniture arranging—only meant that I was weird, or immature, or selfish. (I still am, but perhaps not in this context.)

I’m getting a panic attack just *looking* at this picture

For the record: I know you can’t always get down to deep, nitty-gritty topics, especially early on in an acquaintance, and I realize that maturity involves listening to or asking other people about things that matter to them, even if those particular things make no difference to me. I’ve been on both sides of the discomfort–bringing up a deep topic too soon in an acquaintance, and being expected to divulge personal information too soon–so I get it.

Part of the small-talk issue is exquisitely expressed in a Hyperbole and a Half post:

“She’s extremely passionate about a variety of things that you have no real interest in, like veganism and the healing properties of soy. She can talk about these things for hours without pause. While you don’t mind that she feels that way, you don’t particularly want to hear about it in such great detail.”

This is how I am when people talk about their kids*, a new sofa, their use of essential oils, or the restaurant they went to for their birthday three years ago. I don’t have a problem with their kids, new sofa, essential oils, or restaurant. I care about people—their health, well-being, futures, etc.—but I may not care about those particular details. I will try to listen politely and, if given the chance, I might even ask questions. But I cannot feign more interest than I have, and I am uncomfortable when I am obligated to listen to, and participate in, this kind of conversation for an extended length of time. To do so is to exert my limited social energy that is better spent elsewhere. (I speak for myself here; I cannot speak for other introverts.) I know that fairness, politeness, and social “rules” do not allow me to have my own way all the time, and I do try to work with that. That does not change the fact that it is difficult and often frustrating for me.

*(Referring to kids as “small talk” is a tricky thing, because they’re not always, but here’s where I draw the line: I don’t care about most people I haven’t met. Not that I wish ill upon them, or am not sorry to hear something unfortunate about them, but I simply cannot exert energy and interest for them. So if someone I don’t know well is telling me about their kids that I’ve never met, I call that small talk. If I know a person and their kids, I am far more interested, especially if I have known them for quite a while.)

If you plop me down in the middle of a group of women talking about a recipe they found on Pinterest, their new curtains, or bridesmaids dresses, I will be bored to tears. This does not mean I don’t like those women or am not interested in their lives. But to me, those things are small talk.

Now, there’s a place for small talk, even I will say. It’s for when you pass someone you know in the grocery store, or when you say hi to a new acquaintance for five minutes after church. Of course that is not the time to bring up major issues or to be too truthful in answering “So how are you doing?” because there isn’t time for that. But when I am going to be with people for a while (an hour at a party, or a two-hour meeting of my church group), or with someone I have known for a long time, I don’t want to spend that time in idle chit-chat.

Credit: Hyperbole and a Half (click through)

If you took the same group of women and got them talking about a significant change coming up in their lives, an issue they are having at work, formative events in their childhood, a goal they are trying to meet, or frustrating miscommunications with their husbands, I will not only listen gladly but I will be invested in the conversation because I see those topics as important. (Heck, most of the time I don’t even mind hearing details about a person’s medical conditions, even total strangers.)

But for some people, a particular recipe or new curtains may hold importance that I cannot comprehend. If that is the case, I’m eager to hear why: Why is this important to them? Since when? What do they get out of it? But that takes things like recipes and curtains and bridesmaid dresses and restaurants out of the realm of small talk and into a more intense realm of ideas and significance. Those are the types of conversations that I crave. As I said before, I realize this is not possible in every social encounter. I’m still trying to figure out a balance.

Credit: Hyperbole and a Half (click for original post)

I’ve just had a thought. I wonder if this is one reason why I tell stories: it attaches significance to something that I might otherwise find tedious.

Hypothetically, let’s say I go to a coffee shop with a couple other women, and I decide to try something new, just because. In my experience with females, after everyone has placed their orders, and early in the beverages’ consumption, there may be a length of time in which everyone will have to tell the rest of the group what they ordered, tell them what they usually order if not that, compare the menu with those of other places, talk about their favorite seasonal varieties, how you can replicate the experience at home, and discuss whether the version you can get at the grocery store is as good. This is small talk.

Oh boy, is it ever.

I, on the other hand, will get my order, taste it, and, after the inevitable “What do you think?” I will give an extremely short answer—partly because I may need more time to develop my opinion, but mostly because it’s a f*cking cup of coffee.

If this WERE sold at Starbucks, this would be a Tall, it would cost $15, and the gin would somehow taste burnt

If we alter the scenario, and I order my favorite drink (well, not my favorite drink—you can’t get gin & tonic at Starbucks), it is very likely that I will say “You know, there’s a story about this…” and then go on to share some anecdote about my very first experience with this drink, or why I started to choose it in the first place. In a desperate attempt to add significance to an otherwise tedious conversation, I lavish my companions with details and meaning far beyond anything they wanted to know. I’m finally mildly invested in a conversation about coffee, but in yanking the topic out of the hands of small talk, I slaughter it in the process. My companions did not actually want to know the wacky hijinks associated with this coffee or how I stopped drinking another kind because of a childhood trauma—and so they move on to another light, comfortable, and mundane topic. And I am left not only where I started, but worse off, because now I feel awkward on top of already feeling bored and excluded.

This is one reason why it’s hard for me to be social in a group. One-on-one, it is easier to find a common interest to talk about. In groups, the topic usually stays in a more mundane place, much to my helpless annoyance.

(To be clear: I’m not writing these things to ask the world to comply with my demands. I’m just exploring ideas and explaining my perspective.)

And so I ask my readers, especially my new introvert readers: What’s your experience with this? Do you find small talk difficult, or annoying? Why or why not? How do you deal with it?

13 thoughts on “Small Talk vs. Big Ideas: Conversation With An Introvert

  1. I find small talk easy, but boring. I also find it INCREDIBLY difficult to transition to more interesting topics, mostly because I find that I’m not very good at being interesting to most people — or, more precisely, of telling things about myself in ways that people find interesting. E.g. — I am a horrible storyteller. I’m extremely happy when I’m with people who make the transition to more heart-felt things easily. I have, however, found that sharing what is really on my heart or mind (within reason) does help in this transition, and I’m working on exploring that more. One last note on small talk — I have loved the couple of cafe jobs I’ve had, because I like chatting with the customers. I have often thought of this as small talk, but thinking about it, I think it is more like banter. And banter is fun.

  2. Small talk for me is a way of keeping some people at arms length and ensuring I don’t have to reveal myself. It helps that I keep control by asking the”right” question and if you actually ask about me I will try to flip it back towards you. The “right”question can be something I want to know or an easy way to keep it surface and let me zone. Now that I read this it sounds rather devious and neurotic.

  3. I rehearse small talk – I recycle anecdotes like a charity shop, seriously, my husband has heard them all a billion times but they work so I trot them out. This means when I’m actually panicking about the amount of people I don’t know, or the fact that they all have mortgages, I can spin out the small talk and give myself a soothing pep talk at the back of my mind. But it’s exhausting! I take toilet breaks regularly, and have on occasion considered starting smoking just to have an excuse to leave a small talk situation. ‘Big talk’ can be pretty intimidating to me too, especially just one on one opposite eachother in a coffee shop. With new people I would rather suggest a walk, it’s easier to talk when you can look at your feet!
    G and T is my beverage of choice, and usually as soon as I have one I will be fine, because then I can tell my ‘gin is actually vodka’ anecdote. Rehearsed of course. :)
    I’m starting to think I’m a bit much.

    • Heck, you’re giving me IDEAS here! I love taking walks, but I don’t always suggest it. I’m going to do that more in the future.

      And rehearse anecdotes…yes. Better than accidental word vomit, at least.

      • worse than accidental word vomit, is the complete blankness where you have NOTHING to say – can’t remember any facts, any names, and in my case, the date of your impending wedding. And then, if you are me, you make it worse by telling everyone watching that it has happened, declaring your own social ineptitude. Run away under cover of awkward laughter.

    • Yes, exactly – rehearsing and preparing is my strategy, too. I don’t think one should take it too ease with the “light” topics – I think it is really important to be able to make a good conversation go. For my job I have recently signed up at the courese at to benefit in the my current job in sales from being a better conversationalist. And that might include the same old anecdotes once a while… ;-)

  4. I came upon this by googling small talk into big talk. I’ve already realised that I enjoy big talk, to talk about things that matter, personal or not. Small talk is such a massive strain, It’s Inane and mundane and I bond much better with someone willing to engage in banter or talk about more interesting and useful topics. Like ‘Utopia’ something we should all really be talking about

    The difference between Banter and small talk to me anyway is this. Banter is smart snappy small talk for the big screen, verbal sword play that is actually aware, as we seem to be of how dull pure small talk can be, and plays with it.

    “Those are the types of conversations that I crave” with you there my friend!

    I’ve just started how to “make Friends and influcence people” as I need to figure out this small talk thing!

    Say guys, isn’t it a pleasant day…

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  7. I wasn’t sure whether I am an introvert or an extrovert, since I would resonate between two extremes, either sitting in the corner and not talking or talking excessively about my special interests. It seems like most people like small talk just for the sake of enjoying communication, while I get easily bored or my mind is wondering away in deeper thoughts. My motivation is how interesting I find an idea rather than the need to just have small talk for the sake of it. I am lot’s of things, there is some social anxiety sometimes, but my characteristic is that I am more interested in interesting ideas and deep conversations rather than hanging around with people. I even now believe it might be just a neurological thing, our brains makes us wondering into deeper thoughts while there has to be a state of relaxed drunkedness in social situations where you think less and exchange speech more. My brain doesn’t go there, it’s very focused and lost into deeper thoughts.

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