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Say what you mean, mean what you say

How are you? What’s up? What’s new? How about this crazy hot (cold, rainy, dry) weather we’ve been having? Have a great day!

Small talk. We’ve all participated in the chatter, often not even thinking about what we’re saying. It’s rote communication. Blah, blah, blah.

But what do people mean – really – when they engage in this routine conversation? And what do they expect as a response?

Let’s start with “How are you?” It’s a common question we’ve all probably both asked and fielded. Variations on the phrase include “How’s it going?” “How’ve you been?” and “How’s life?” to name just a few.

These conversation starters have a purpose rooted in politeness. They are not, necessarily, an invitation to provide a detailed update on medical maladies, financial woes, job issues or family difficulties.

“Oh boy, let me tell you. I’ve had this infected toe for weeks. And we aren’t sure if the medical insurance will pay for it. To top it off, I’ve been out of work because I can’t walk and they’re threatening to lay me off and my wife is mad as heck and threatening to leave me. Otherwise things are good. Thanks for asking. What was your name, again?”

Despite the innocence of the question regarding “How are you,” people like to share. I think this may be exponentiated by our plugged-in, social media- laden society. People don’t get enough face time of the real facial variety and we are born to yearn for it. Typing onscreen doesn’t cut it. So people, if asked, will share – sometimes more information than the polite conversation starter predicted or intended.

When they do, I suggest one thing: listen. Even when they don’t know your name. It’s the kind thing to do.

“What’s up?” is a close cousin to “How are you?” When asked, I enjoy a very clever response. I simply say, “The sky.” Practically genius, I know. My sons laugh every time. Not.

Initial conversation that centers on the weather indicates one of two things. First, the person may have a legitimate interest in becoming a meteorologist. This is unlikely.

Second, they may be attempting to avoid an awkward silence by filling it with a universal topic. Weather is a safe and politically uncharged subject – unless you are talking climate change, acid rain, hurricanes, flooding, droughts, tornadoes, tsunamis or blizzards, then you better stay clear.

Maybe talking about the weather isn’t so safe after all. Proceed at your own risk.

“What’s new” could possibly be the most dangerous question of all. Asking such a risky question leaves you open to all sorts of unexpected and unforeseen responses.

It’s sort of like “How are you” on steroids. What’s new? Are you kidding me? Anything and everything: “My marital status,” “My name,” “I’m against the government,” “I’m for the government,” “I think I may be an alien,” and the most controversial of all: “Kraft Mac and Cheese has a new recipe.”

Finally, “Have a great day” might seem rather innocuous. Deceivingly so. Surprisingly some people take offense to it. They don’t want you telling them what kind of day to have – great, horrible or anything in between. It’s their own darn day, and don’t you dare tell them how to perceive or live it. Great day? Hah! Everyone has the right to have a crappy day, so they should decide which or what it is. Quit being bossy; you run the risk of ticking them off if you feel you are so superior that you think you can tell someone what kind of day to have. Lay off.

Bottom line? Small talk can have big repercussions. Proceed at your own risk.

In the meantime, have a super great day.

Jill Pertler is an award-winning syndicated columnist, published playwright, author and member of the National Society of Newspaper Columnists. Don’t miss a slice; follow the Slices of Life page on Facebook.

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