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Meet Tom Petersen

Tom Petersen works at a company in the Midwest, where he processes e-mail, attends meetings and recalibrates management expectations. His book of essays on work and faith is currently lurking outside of publishers’ back doors, trying to meet a naïve editor. Contact him at www.HisWorkInProgress.com.

 
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Big Problem of Small Talk

By Tom Petersen
www.HisWorkInProgress.com

CBNMoney.com Complain all you want about the problems of long hours, low salaries and tyrannical bosses in the work place. The real bane of corporate life: small talk.

I was reminded of that recently when I got on an elevator on the ground floor of a tall building. I was so deep in thought that I barely registered that another guy – whom I came to affectionately call “Chatty Carl” – got on right after me. As the door closed, he started in.

 “So, hot enough for you?” he said with a bit of a snort. For those of you who make a living herding sheep and don’t have anyone to talk to all day, this is a sure-fire small-talk-starter. But I wasn’t in the mood for an elevator ride of small talk, so I decided to let him know that, in no uncertain terms.

“Hmmm…” I said, severely. I figured that harsh retort accurately conveyed that I had much more important things to think about. Then his comment registered with me. “Hot enough for you?” We were in Minneapolis. In January. It was 12 below outside.
I quickly decided to try another strategy.

“Hey, it’s cold outside!” By showing him I was humor-impaired and only capable of stating the obvious, I assumed he would see the futility of his attempts at humorous chatter and put a stop to this nonsense.

“Yeah,” he snickered, “but it’s a dry cold!”

OK, I had to admit, that was kind of funny. Still, I didn’t want to play that game. But once it starts, there’s little you can do to stop it. He volleyed on.

“Staying busy?”

“Uh, huh. And you?” (It’s rude not to return the question.)

“Can’t complain, no one listens to me anyway!” He giggles. “See the game last night?”

“Huh, uh.”

“Yeah, it’s a shame they traded (insert player’s name here). If I didn’t have such a bum arm, I’d tell (insert coach’s name here) to put me in. But I’d have to take a pay cut.” More laughter.

Speaking without commitment
Most of us don’t really seek the ability to make small talk, but we all find ourselves doing it, if you work where there is more than one other person. Small talk is usually the minimal level of politeness – a way of acknowledging the other person without really entering into a relationship with them.

I have my own small talk system I use when I want to be pleasant, but really don’t have the time or inclination to commit to a full conversation.

“Hi. How ya’ doing?”

“Good. You?”

“Good.” 

By now, we are already moving on in opposite directions. But we go our separate ways, unencumbered, secure knowing that our relationship is still in a good place and that we can pick up right where we left off, whether we see each other later in the day or two years from now.

A higher standard

It may be easy to do, but small talk is a sorry excuse for true human interaction. In a world where we all just want to matter, talking about the weather seems irritatingly prosaic and banal (two new words I’ve learned so far this year thanks to my snooty-word-a-day calendar).

Recently, I decided I was done with small talk. I decided I wasn’t going to miss one more opportunity to speak eternal wisdom when I saw someone I knew. I began by launching into discussions of salvation and the doctrine of justification by faith. (“So, Bob, don’t you think scripture is clear about the role of faith in achieving salvation?”)

But it didn’t last. Apparently, such an exchange is a bit off-putting for people, or it unmasks their lack of deep faith. Or maybe sometimes people just want a superficial exchange, so they can go their own way, unencumbered.

So, how ‘bout those (insert sports team here)?

What frustrates you about small talk at work? How do you use it as a way to make a deeper connection? Send Tom an e-mail and let us know.

Tom Petersen works at a company in the Midwest, where he processes e-mail, attends meetings and recalibrates management expectations. His book of essays on work and faith is currently lurking outside of publishers’ back doors, trying to meet a naïve editor. Contact him at www.HisWorkInProgress.com.

 

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