By Julia

As someone who struggles with their mental health –and who also happens to be an introvert- I absolutely dread most family gatherings because I know the first half hour or so is going to be spent answering questions regarding my dating life, school, and current job situation. Given the mixture of my quiet nature and my mental health largely dictating my life, there is a very fine line of things that I am comfortable talking about in these types of situations. But even then, these short bursts of interactions feel a lot less like conversations and a lot more like a speed dating scenario. Small talk is stressful because it forces me to whittle my life down to a few bullet points rather than a detailed description of events. Over the years, I’ve gotten somewhat used to narrowing down my answer to an ever-thrilling, “nothing”, but even that poses a problem.

If I answer “nothing” to “what have you been up to?” it makes me feel pathetic and like I’m devaluing the things I really am doing with my life. And on the flip side, if I’m open and honest, then it feels like my in-depth explanations fall on deaf ears. And on top of this mess, being an introvert has never really helped me in these situations either, so all in all, I’ve defaulted many times to my usual “nothing”. It’s exhausting either way but I lose far less energy by defaulting to my one-word answer.

Thankfully, I know I’m not alone in this. A lot of people seem to have trouble or even hate small talk regardless of their mental health situation. You can scour the internet and find a countless number of articles addressing small talk scenarios and how to better navigate them. Unfortunately, there isn’t really a one-size-fits-all guide on how to handle these things, but with the goal of helping others, I asked our Facebook community both how they handle these conversations and if they had any ideas for better conversation topics, below are their answers:

I guess I just respond by being bitchy and sometimes I go on a feminist rant about how I wish people would ask me about my successes in life (grad school, my job, etc) rather than my love life. it’s usually my family that asks. I’m in a relationship now and I’m always asked “when are you getting married? why aren’t you married yet” and I always say I’m paying my student loans off first but if they want to speed up the process I’m always willing to take cash donations. Basically, I’m just a walking sarcastic asshole. I want people to ask me what I have been up to. That way I can talk about the things I want. Ask me how my job is going (I love my job). Ask me what I have coming up soon.
-Amanda

I hate small talk. So I’ll just say something like “Same old” or “God knows why I’m still single”. People who are dear to me knows my situation. I don’t talk about my mental health situation to people if I don’t value their opinion because it just might hurt me even more.”
-Ariane

“I literally just lie when I’m uncomfortable answering honestly. I appreciate other people’s interest in my life, but they aren’t entitled to my honest feelings on anything personal either; I don’t feel bad about it. I have a few pre-programmed vague lies I tell people when I’m wanting to brush off a subject or change it entirely, like, “I’m just really busy with school right now,” etc. Most of my lies are based in something truthful or suitably vague so it works really nicely actually. Sometimes I just return the question with a question about the other person, because people generally LOVE talking about themselves and forget what they wanted to know anyway.

And maybe people can ask less directly personal stuff? Like, “how’s your family?” or, “how’s work/school going?” or something. Then they’re still taking interest in your personal life but not expecting you to put yourself directly under a microscope
-Katherine

Depends on my mood. Sometimes I just say “therapy”, or I pretend I still do my old job (if I can’t be bothered to have a meaningful interaction, or I give a full explanation. Sometimes I say I’m working on my art and writing… which actually is what I spend most of my time doing, but I devalue it to the extent that I feel it doesn’t count…”
-Tilly

I decided to Google “better small talk suggestions for someone with mental illness” to see what I could find. As you might imagine, my search came up empty, but I did find something interesting. In an old episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm, Larry David used the term “medium talk” in order to “elevate” the small talk conversation he was having with another man. Apart from that episode, there are few (if any) articles on the subject of “medium talk”, even UrbanDictionary is lacking a definition for the term. But in a 2016 article from Nymag, they referenced a Reddit thread where users discussed some of their favorite topic openers to help improve these boring interactions. Below were someone of my favorites:

1. What is something you like that most people don’t?
2. What topics bore/excite you?
3. What’s something you’re hoping to try one day?
4. What are you curious about?
5. Do you have any hobbies? How did you get into ____ hobby?
6. Where is your favorite place on Earth?
7. What’s an ideal holiday for you?

In an earlier section of the same Nymag article, the author recalls an interaction they had with a woman at a small gathering. The conversation began with the stereotypical type of questions until she revealed that she worked at a small museum. Instead of following up with another predictable question, the author asked her, “What is your least favorite piece in the collection?” Stunned and caught off guard by the response, the conversation gained some life. We can all use this situation as an example of how to evolve our small talk conversations into something more appealing. By stepping outside of what we’re expected to ask, we can create more meaningful conversations with one another and hopefully avoid our eyes glazing over or boundaries being overstepped.

Have you tried this approach before? How did it go? Let us know down below in the comments.

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Julia Rose

My name is Julia and I am the founder of HAIF. I've been writing for almost as long as I've lived with my mental health issues. Except back then, I mostly wrote about boys and being annoyed at the popular kids. But now when I write, I try to focus on topics I'm passionate about such as healing, self awareness, and mental health.