How Do I Handle Small Talk?

My work schedule means I work on the weekends. This is unusual for my workplace. By now I’ve learned to just say “thanks, you too!” when people tell me to have a good weekend on Friday, but I never know how to respond when they ask me if I have plans for the weekend. My work shifts mean I have little time to do anything fun on Saturdays or Sundays. Plus, Fridays are like Wednesdays to me–I haven’t even started thinking about what to do on my days off yet! I feel awful perpetually reminding people that I work through the weekend, but few of them take the hint and there are a lot of co-workers I see intermittently so I can’t expect all of them to remember.

What should I say?

Weekend Warrior

Dear Weekend Warrior,

No one cares what you are doing for the weekend. They are just trying to make conversation. The correct answer is: “Working! How about you?” And then you nod and smile while they tell you about their plans.

Now, with that dispensed with: let’s talk about the crossroads of introversion and social anxiety, shall we?

When I said: “They are just trying to make conversation,” did you feel a stab of fear race through your gut? I’m guessing, from the tenor of your question and your flat-out panicked language such as “I feel awful reminding people that I work through the weekend,” that you did.

I’m also guessing that you are a kind, introverted person who puts a great deal of thought and energy into the conversations you have and that you find extroverts’ constant blithe babbling a little confusing and difficult to access.

So. Let’s assume I’m right for now and forge ahead: when it seems like everyone else got some sort of handbook about what to say and when to say it but you got left out of the distribution, life can be SUPER confusing, anxiety-producing, and frustrating. Add in the fact that so many people don’t really put much thought into how their words impact others– and a reflective, careful and introverted person can get completely tied up in knots.

Even worse, when you constantly have interactions like this that seem rife with difficulty, your anxiety grows exponentially, as does your avoidance of these conversations.

So here’s what I suggest for small talk:

First, you can’t go wrong. I mean it! Remind yourself that most people are just ‘being nice,’ which basically means they are saying what they think they are supposed to say — or in the worst case scenario — filling up silence with noise. Any answer (NOT referring to murder) that you give in these sorts of small talk discussions is going to be fine. If you blurt out “I like trains,” you will be the adorable wacky co-worker. If you smile and nod, you will be the adorable quiet co-worker. If you blush and stammer, people will be charmed.It will be fine. No one will die.

Second, practice in a low-stakes way. INITIATE conversations like this. No no no don’t run away; I mean it! When you are on the elevator with a co-worker and you know will be a short ride, make some sort of comment about the weather. It is sunny. It feels so good to be warm! I wish it would stop raining.Then nod and smile, and continue breathing. At the grocery store, skip the self-service line (you use that almost exclusively, don’t you?) and ask the check-out person how his/her day is going. Smile and listen. Nod. The more interactions you have like this that YOU initiate, the less hideous they will be. I promise I promise I promise!

Third, consider Paxil or some other anti-anxiety med if this really is making your life miserable. Just for a while. As you are practicing. It has really helped a lot of my dear friends.

Fourth, and most important: remember that you are awesome. My favorite people always struggle with social anxiety, and I think I know why: the exact traits that make you socially anxious and introverted are the exact traits that make you think before you speak, care very very much about other people’s feelings, and have a rich inner life. You listen to people when they talk. When you do speak, you’ve put some goddamned thought into what you’re going to say. I’ll bet your sensitivity makes you super good in bed.These traits are why your friends and family love you. They are deeply appealing on a visceral, human level. Yes – they have their drawbacks, such as being paralyzed by office small talk. But I bet you’re awesome. As a matter of fact, I KNOW you are.

So if you’ve tried everything else, just keep breathing and remind yourself that you are awesome. You are, you are.

This letter first appeared in bitterempire.com on April 10, 2015.

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