Answering “How was your summer?” when your summer was unpleasant

filosoraptor said to realsocialskills:
I go back to school soon and I’ve been trying to prepare for when someone inevitably asks me how my summer was. My first response would be that it was quite lonely because almost all of my plans ended up being cancelled. Would answering like that make someone uncomfortable?

Realsocialskills said:

That response would make most people uncomfortable.

Generally speaking, “How was your summer?” isn’t something people ask because they literally want information about how your summer was.

That kind of question is usually either just a greeting, or a way of opening conversation.

When it’s a greeting, it really just means something along the lines of “Hello, I haven’t seen you for a while.” The usual answer is something like, “It was good. How was yours?”. Answering that way doesn’t mean you’re literally saying you had a good summer. It really just means hello. It’s not a lie, it’s non-literal language.

When “How was your summer?” is a way of opening conversation, it’s an attempt to find something to talk about. The point is to find something that both people can comfortably discuss. The polite way to do this is to ask questions about what the other person said until you find a topic you’re both interested in. It’s considered a bit rude to just change the subject.

Here’s an example of how that can work (the people’s names are randomly generated):

  • Jacob: Hey, how was your summer?
  • Maxine: Pretty good. I was mostly working. How was yours?
  • Jacob: Pretty good — I decided to take a summer school class about color theory and painting.
  • Maxine: That’s cool — I’ve always wanted to try something like that, but I haven’t had the time.
  • Jacob: It wasn’t as fun as I thought it would be, but I did learn a lot of things that are surprisingly applicable to my other classes.
  • Maxine: That’s something anyway. Did the credits count towards anything?
  • (And so on).

If Maxine’s summer actually sucked a lot, mentioning it could end up being really awkward:

  • Jacob: How was your summer?
  • Maxine: It was really lonely. All of my plans fell through.

In this example:

  • Maxine only mentioned two topics: summer being lonely, and plans falling through. 
  • These are both uncomfortable topics.
  • In social situations oriented towards making pleasant conversation, most people won’t want to talk about loneliness or plans falling through 
  • Since Maxine didn’t mention about anything potentially comfortable to discuss, it could be hard for Jacob to keep looking for a mutually comfortable subject without feeling rude. 
  • He might also feel like he’s supposed to comfort Maxine or that there’s no good response to what she just said.
  • This is likely to feel awkward to both of them

There are ways to mention the unpleasantness of summer that are less likely to make the I-haven’t-seen-you-in-a-while conversation unpleasant. It helps if:

  • You avoid giving the impression that you’re upset that they asked, and:
  • You make it clear that you’re not trying to start a conversation about the unpleasantness of summer, and:
  • You include an opening to talk about something else.

For instance:

  • Jacob: How was your summer?
  • Maxine: Eh, kind of sucked. I’m glad to be back — now that I’m past the intro classes things are getting a lot more interesting. 
  • Jacob: What are you majoring in?
  • Maxine: I’m still deciding between history, political science, and pre-law. But a lot of interesting second-year classes count towards both, so I’m keeping both options open.
  • Jacob: I considered that too, but ended up deciding on theater. 
  • Maxine: What are you planning to do with that?
  • Jacob: Hopefully acting or set design. I figure that in any case speaking, acting, and logistical skills will be useful in any job.
  • (And so on).

You can also just say that your summer was ok and then ask how theirs was. That gives them an opening to mention things they did, which might work as a topic of conversation. Eg:

  • Jacob: How was your summer?
  • Maxine: It was ok. How was yours?
  • Jacob: It was pretty good. I took a summer school class on painting and color theory.
  • (And so on).

Again, even if your summer was awful, saying “It was ok” isn’t a lie, it’s just non-literal language:

  • “How was your summer?” isn’t usually meant literally.
  • Your answers to that question don’t have to be literal either.
  • The question usually means something like “Hello. Nice to see you again. Let’s talk about something. Is your summer a good topic of conversation?”
  • Saying “It was ok, how was yours?” usually means something like, “Hello. Nice to see you again too. Let’s talk about something other than my summer. Is your summer a good topic of conversation?”

Tl;dr “How was your summer?” usually isn’t literally intended to find out how your summer was. It’s usually a way of either saying hello or looking for something to talk about. Most people don’t want to have a conversation about how unpleasant your summer was. If your summer was bad, usually the best thing to do is to try steering the conversation to another topic.