conversation

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.

knowing what you think - tools for thinking for yourself

Anonymous said to :

When I’m around people who disagree with me, I have trouble remembering that my own thoughts and opinions are valid, and I start thinking I must be wrong about whatever they disagree with me about.

Do you know any ways of getting more confident about disagreeing with people?

realsocialskills said:

To an extent, it’s a matter of practice.

Learning to distinguish between what you think and what others think depends on a few different skills. Some of them will likely take time and practice to acquire.

Some thought about what to work on:

It can help to get into the habit of noticing when your opinions change suddenly. If you’re susceptible to excessive influence by other people, it’s likely that this happens way more than you realize. Even just noticing it can make it easier to tell what’s your opinion and what’s someone else’s.

Eg, let’s say Susan and Jane are eating out together, and they’re looking at the dessert menu:

  • Susan: I want chocolate ice cream.
  • Jane: Chocolate is a disgusting flavor and it’s way too high fat. Raspberry smoothies are a million times better.
  • Susan: Ok, that does sound better. I’ll order that.

In that instance, Susan wanted chocolate ice cream, then suddenly changed her mind when Jane said it was bad. If Susan does this a lot, she may not even have noticed that it happened. Noticing this kind of sudden opinion change could help Susan to realize when it’s happening against her will.

That leads to another skill that can help: Remembering the question “Why?”:

If you just changed your mind suddenly, why did it happen?

  • Did someone say something you found persuasive?
  • If so, what?
  • Are you responding to the force of someone else’s personality?
  • Are you afraid?
  • Did you hear a new idea that sounds like it might be right?
  • Do you need time to think about it?
  • (It’s ok to not know right away.)

Asking other people “Why?”:

  • If someone says something, you don’t have to agree
  • And you don’t have to assume they have a good reason
  • If they’re saying something that is your business, it is ok to ask “Why?”
  • (Sometimes it isn’t your business and “Why?” might be a rude question. Eg, if someone says that they feel sick when they drink milk.)
  • (But if it’s something like: “Republicans are evil”/“Democrats are ruining America”, “Why?” is a completely ok question.)
  • Getting in the habit of asking for reasons can help you to understand and to think for yourself
  • Some other ways to ask for reasons: “What makes you say that?”, “Can you say more about that?”, “I hear a lot of people saying x, but I don’t really understand why they think that… Would you be willing to explain?”

Remembering that it’s ok to need time to think about things:

  • Sometimes you hear a big idea or an unfamiliar perspective and it makes things feel different
  • Even just knowing that someone thinks something can make the world seem different
  • (Or meeting someone who thinks something)
  • That can feel really weird and confusing or disorienting
  • That’s ok. It’s ok to be disoriented and need time to think. Some words that can help (either by saying them or thinking them to yourself):
  • “I never thought about that before.”
  • “I never thought about it that way before.”
  • “That’s interesting.”
  • “I’ll have to think about that.”
  • “Thank you for telling me that.”
  • “This has given me a lot to think about.”
  • (Sometimes it feels like people are asking you to immediately agree with them when what they’re really asking is for you to listen to them. Saying one of these things can help in that situation.)

Paying attention to fear

  • Sometimes people are afraid to disagree with someone else’s strongly held opinions
  • Sometimes it’s because they’re afraid someone will hurt them
  • Sometimes that’s because they’re afraid doubting someone would make them a bad person
  • Sometimes it’s both
  • It’s actually ok to think for yourself. Reflexive agreement out of fear doesn’t help things.
  • Even when there’s a clear right side and wrong side, it’s *still* important to think for yourself and understand things
  • Agreeing reflexively won’t get you the kind of understanding you need to meaningfully be on the right side of an important issue
  • (And you can’t know what side that is without thinking about it, anyway)
  • Thinking about it until you understand will make your agreement much more meaningful (and actionable)

Paying attention after the fact to what you think:

  • Some people have personalities that loom very large
  • Some people are very good at sounding right
  • It can be very hard to tell what you think in the presence of these people
  • Sometimes it may be hard to tell what you think in the presence of other people
  • The effect tends to wear off after you’re away from them
  • If you’re having second thoughts after you’re away from someone, take those second thoughts seriously
  • Sometimes you will have really good reasons
  • (And even if you ultimately end up agreeing with them, it was *still* important to take your second thoughts seriously so that you can understand for yourself)
  • If you know that you have that reaction to someone, try to avoid agreeing to anything binding in their presence.

Remembering “maybe”:

  • It’s ok not to be sure what you think
  • It’s ok not to be sure what you want
  • Saying “maybe” can be really powerful.
  • If you get pressured into things a lot, it might help to default to maybe
  • It’s usually a lot easier to say “Maybe”, or “I need to think about that” than it is to say “Yes”, and then “I thought about it and I changed my mind”.

Journaling or blogging can also help:

  • If you write things down, it can be easier to track changes in your opinion
  • It can also be really helpful as a way of processing and figuring out what you think
  • (Tumblr *can* be good for this, but it can also attract hostile attention that makes thinking for yourself harder. Sometime more private like Livejournal or Dreamwidth might be better.)

Another thing that can help is paying attention to how people are treating you:

  • Are there particular people you’re afraid of contradicting?
  • If, so, why?
  • Do they treat you badly when you contradict them?
  • Do they treat others badly in your presence?
  • Do they spend a lot of time aggressively mocking people for not understanding, for disagreeing, or for asking questions?
  • If a lot of people in your life act this way, thinking for yourself can be really hard.
  • Seeking out people who treat you and others better can help a *lot* in making it possible to figure out what you think.
  • Not everyone with passionate opinions or commitments is a jerk
  • (Related: It is entirely possible pursue justice and other important causes without being horrible to everyone who disagrees with you or has an imperfect understanding or things.)

Learning to hold on to your thoughts and sense of self is going to be hard at first. Realizing that it’s going to be hard can make it more possible. (Especially since some people are really, really skilled at making people feel that their thoughts are invalid.)

As you get more experience intentionally paying attention to what you think, it gets easier. It will still be hard and confusing sometimes, but it won’t be as hard and confusing all of the time.

tl;dr It is important to think for yourself even when you’re uncomfortable or others don’t want you to. There are a lot of reasons this can be hard. There are some skills that can make it easier. Scroll up for concrete suggestions.

Interactions with instructors

Anonymous said to :

Hi, do you know anything about student-professor interaction? I’m one of those students that stops by a professor’s office to talk and strikes up conversations on the way back to class very often. Is this OK? I’m not so good at reading social queues and I don’t know if I would know if said professor wasn’t OK with it, or if it was inappropriate. I’m not doing it for a good grade or academic advantages; I just like the conversations a lot.


realsocialskills said:


It’s ok to go to a professor’s office to talk to them during office hours; that is what office hours are for. It’s not ok to show up unannounced outside of office hours. If you want to talk to them outside of office hours, you have to make an appointment first. For most professors, the right way to do that is by emailing them and asking if they have time to meet with you.


If there are other students waiting to speak to the professor during office hours, be mindful of the fact that they also need to talk to the instructor. Wrap up the conversation in an amount of time that will make it possible for them to get a turn too (particularly if the conversation you want to have isn’t time-sensitive). 


It’s usually ok to strike up conversations after or on the way to class, but only up to a point. If they say that they need to do something, don’t keep chatting; take that as a sign that the conversation needs to end for now. Also, don’t try to follow them into their office.


tl;dr It’s ok to talk to professors during office hours. Don’t come by without an appointment at other times. 


Anyone else want to weigh in? Instructors - what kind of contact do you welcome from students? What is unwelcome. Which cues do you wish your students picked up on when you are trying to end conversations?

A way you might be inadvertently sounding dismissive

Neutral-ish words like “Uh huh”, “ok”, and “sure” can sometimes sound like they mean “this is boring and I want you to stop talking about it”.

For example:

  • Matilda: My cat just had kittens! They are adorable!
  • Shira: Uh huh

This could sound to Matilda like Shira means “I’m annoyed that you’re talking about your cats and would like you to stop.”

If Shira actually wants to listen to Matilda talk about the cats but isn’t sure what to say, repeating part of what Matilda said might be a better option, eg:

  • Matilda: My cat just had kittens! They are adorable!
  • Shira: Your cat had kittens?!
  • Matilda: Yes, she did. Last week.

Another option is to say explicitly that you want to hear about it, eg:

  • Matilda: My cat just had kittens! They are adorable!
  • Shira: Tell me about your adorable new kittens?

This isn’t an exhaustive list; there are any number of other examples in both directions. But if you’re saying things that you think are neutral and it seems to result in other people ending the conversation a lot, it’s worth considering whether you’re inadvertently sending off linguistic signals that you’re bored.

Having good conversations on the internet even though it's full of jerks

On the internet, there are a lot of people. There are massive numbers of jerks. There are also massive numbers of nice people.

If you focus on the jerks, you’ll never run out of jerks to talk to. If you engage with everyone who is mean to you, your life will be full of conversations with mean people.

This is true in reverse as well. If you seek out people who want to listen to you, you can have good conversations. If you reply primarily to people who respect you, then your life will be full of conversations with people who are treating you well.

Focusing on people who treat you well is a choice that you have to keep making, over and over again. It won’t happen automatically, and many people will try to push you into interacting with mean people. Some of them will be mean people who devote a lot of time honing their skills at demanding attention so they can hurt people. (Eg: 4chan trolls.) Some of them will be people who basically have good intentions but think that you have to reply to everyone. Some of them will be people who try to draw you into every fight they have.

Focusing on respectful interactions can be very difficult, but it’s worth it.

I think these are some basic principles for how to do that:

Talk to people who are listening.

  • If someone is making a serious attempt to understand what you are saying, they’re likely a good person to talk to
  • If they’re mocking it, twisting your words, or telling you that you’re a terrible person, they’re probably not a good person to talk to

Talk to people you want to listen to.

  • If you think that what someone has to say is worthwhile, they’re likely a good person for you to talk to
  • If you have active contempt for someone and their opinions, you’re probably better off talking to someone else

It is possible to have respectful conversations with people who you disagree with about important things:

  • In a respectful conversation, they listen to what you are actually saying and respond to it
  • In a respectful conversation, you respond to what they are actually saying
  • Neither side makes personal attacks
  • (Explaining why an idea is harmful is not a personal attack. Calling someone who disagrees with you human garbage is.)
  • Neither side engages in language dickery
  • (One or both of you might be angry, vehement, passionate, or heated. None of those are the same thing as contempt).

It’s ok to publicly explain why you don’t respect an idea, or have contempt for a particular person’s worldview:

  • It’s best not to do that as a conversation with that person, though
  • Conversations with someone you don’t respect tend to go poorly (especially if they don’t respect you either)
  • It’s much more effective and pleasant to discuss those ideas with people who want to listen to your perspective on them

tl;dr: The internet is a much more pleasant and productive place if you focus on interactions with people you respect and who treat you well.  Conversations go better when both people in them are listening and responding to content. If someone has contempt for you or you have contempt for them, it’s probably time to find someone else to talk to.

A thought on inclusive teaching

When you teach a class or lead a discussion, participation is often easy for some people and hard for others.

People who find participation easy will tend to talk a lot and ask a lot of questions. They can really easily fill up all the space with their confidence and their speech. This can result in people who struggle to participate feeling like they have no way to say anything. (This is not necessarily anyone’s fault.)

It is possible to create space for them in several ways. They all start from presuming competence. Specifically - start from the presumption that people who aren’t participating have worthwhile things to say, and 

They also start by paying attention to who is and isn’t participating. If you notice whose voices are absent, it becomes easier to find ways to include them.

Some specifics:

It can help to call on people specifically when you notice they’re not saying things, in a low-pressure way:

  • Say you notice that Susan hasn’t said anything in the discussion
  • You can say, “Susan, would you like to add something?” or
  • “Susan, what do you think?”
  • If you’re not asking for an answer to a particular question, and you ask in a non-demanding tone, this can be a good way to give people a chance to talk
  • Particularly if you wait a few seconds after asking, and take no for an answer (whether it’s a stated no or an implied no)

It can help to ask in a more general way:

  • Sometimes the conversation is dominated by a few people 
  • You can often address this by saying something like
  • “Would anyone who has not said anything yet like to say something?” or
  • “I’d like to hear from people who haven’t spoken.”
  • This lets people who aren’t speaking up know that you care about what they have to say without putting individual pressure on anyone
  • It also lets people who are taking up the space know that you’d like to make sure you hear from everyone

It helps to be available through email:

  • Some people who care deeply about the subject and want to participate aren’t able to do so in real time
  • If they are better at using email, being available by email will make it possible for them to participate
  • (It might also make it easier for them to tell you about barriers to their participation)

People who teach: What have y'all seen work well for people who want to participate but find it difficult? 

People who find it difficult to participate: What have teachers done that made it easier for you? What made it harder?

Getting people to explain things

If you don’t understand something, it helps to say so explicitly. 

One phrase that helps is “I don’t understand; can you try using different words?”

That helps because you’re saying that:

  • You don’t understand
  • You want to understand
  • The things you’re saying are not arguments or responses, they are requests for clarification
  • If they explain in different words, you might understand

Even if all of that is obvious to you, it’s not necessarily obvious to the person you’re talking to. Often, people do not consider the possibility that what they are saying might be confusing, even when they are entirely willing to explain differently when you ask.

How to Talk to Anyone (for at least a few minutes)

bittergrapes:

realsocialskills:

So there’s this post going around tumblr  that says,

you know those people that can literally carry on a conversation with anyone are amazing like wow how do you do that

And while I know this is one of these tumblr rhetorical questions, I bet a lot of people would like to know the answer.

I travel a lot and spend a lot of my time talking to people at hostels, people I’ve never met before and might not ever meet again. I find that people are generally at their best when they’re talking about something that they love. The trick is to find out what they love and get them to start talking about it.

Look at small talk as the time to cast about for something to actually talk about. Most people drop hints, either consciously or unconsciously, about what they *actually* want to talk about. You should listen carefully so that you can take advantage of an opportunity.

For example: Imagine you say to someone, “Gosh, this weather is just out of control. I didn’t know it even could snow this much!” And the person responds, “I know! I can’t wait for the spring to come so that my flowers will grow.” You can answer, “Oh, do you garden?” If the person really does garden, s/he will probably like to talk about it.

Or maybe the person responds to the same prompt, “It’s awful! I had to dig the car out for hours before I could run out for an ingredient I needed.” You can reply, “Oh, do you like to cook?” Even if they don’t like to cook, the story about why they had to run out for an ingredient might be interesting. The point is, you get away from talking about the weather and get on to talking about ANYTHING else.

Even if they don’t give you that specific of an opening, you can still use a similar principle. If you say, “It’s so cold out! I can’t believe it!” And the person says, “I know! I can’t wait for spring.” You can respond, “Do you have plans to do anything special once the weather warms up?”

I know these examples are really cheesy, but I’m just trying to get across the idea that it’s often easy (or at least, easier) to get people talking as long as you ask them about things that they like. So if you’re stuck in a situation where you have to socialize with people you don’t know well, that’s one way to do it. The drawbacks are that you might end up in a conversation that doesn’t excite you all that much, but as I said, people are often at their best when they talk about what they love, so you might enjoy the conversation even if it’s not about something that *you* love. And it’s likely that later on the person will remember you as someone who was nice and easy to talk to.

Hope that helps!

bittergrapes said:

Just to add some more. About getting people to talk about something they love - they will feel a strong bond with you if you can connect their interest to yours in a way that allows both of you to talk about your interests and learn from each other.

For example, if you’re really interested in, say, model trains, and someone is interested in gardening, something you could say is, “You know, that reminds me a bit of my hobby, model trains, because it’s so fun and interesting to put the track together, just like planting a garden.” Then they can go on discussing their garden, and tell you about their favorite plants and so on, and you can both share in a conversation that has good, if different, meaning to both of you.

Being a good conversationalist comes from an idea of flow, an easy exchange where the stories or information transmitted by both parties is enjoyable to give and receive. In order to do that, it’s very helpful to learn a bit about many different topics - which you can do by listening to what other people say and how they say it. People usually love being asked questions about themselves and their interests, and they’ll share a great deal of information with you if you sit quietly and ask meaningful questions. Not only does this make this particular person feel easy and comfortable around you, but you can store that information away for later use in other conversations.

And the funny thing is - being a good conversationalist actually means listening more than talking. Focus your attention on the person in front of you - treat their interests as something fascinating to you, something you’d like to learn more about. Pretend you’re a student and they are the teacher of their area of expertise, and you’d be surprised how much someone will tell you freely. Sometimes the best way to hold a conversation is to listen, catalog the information, and then ask appropriate questions or demonstrate you were listening by bringing up something they said later in the conversation.

If talking about something is upsetting for you (not triggering, but definitely annoying and frustrating), is it okay to ask someone not to talk to you about it? Is that setting a boundary or just pushing people around?
In almost all cases, that is setting a boundary. Generally speaking, you don’t have to discuss things with people if you’re not interesting in discussing them.
Some exceptions I can think of:
  • If you’re teaching someone something, and they’re confused and explaining why they’re confused, it’s not usually ok to say that you don’t want to hear about it
  • If someone is explaining why something you’re doing is hurting them, it’s often not ok to say you don’t want to hear it (but sometimes it is. Eg: if someone wants to say you have no right to break up with them because it’s breaking their heart etc)
  • If you’re that person’s therapist and what they’re discussing is within the scope of therapy you have agreed to provide
  • If you are someone’s doctor and you’re finding their way of describing symptoms rambling or otherwise annoying, you almost always have an obligation to listen to them anyway

But you don’t have to discuss things with someone just because they’d like you to discuss them. You don’t have to have some sort of cosmically compelling reason, either - absent a specific obligation to discuss the thing, finding the topic boring or just not wanting to for whatever reason is a perfectly good reason to decide not to.

Some things I think I know about small talk

Some things I think I know about small talk

Regarding professions and names:

  • If you are in a college or university setting, asking someone what their major is is considered an acceptable small talk question, and it can lead to actual conversation.
  • Asking someone what they do (for work) is socially acceptable in some crowds, but not others. It’s acceptable if it’s perceived as similar to asking about a major, and rude if it’s perceived as an attempt to determine how much money someone has or how much social status they have
  • Making jokes or disparaging comments about someone’s job or major is considered boorish unless you have the same job/major and it is also self-mockery. It’s not nice to insult people you just met.
  • Similarly, don’t make jokes about people’s names upon being introduced. They’ve heard them all before.

Regarding sports:

  • A lot of people like to talk about sports as a primary form of small talk. I don’t really understand this. Maybe some of y'all can chime in?
  • In the US, outside of New York, people are likely to dislike the Yankees, and some people find Yankees fans annoying, and some get really angry about Yankees fans. (This is especially true in Boston).
  • Many areas, particularly college towns, have intense and scary sports fandoms. If you don’t understand the sports fandom in your area, it’s probably better to avoid wearing sports logo clothing, and this is especially true if there is a game on.

A conversation in which people doubt things

Person:So, when I was a kid, they (dehumanized me in a fairly common and awful way).
Other person:Really?! They really did that?! I can't believe anyone would do that!
Person:...
Subtext:Wow, that is messed up, and I would like to make it clear that I think that is bad! It is bad! Not good! I do not approve! Don't think I approve!
Subtext:I've never heard of this before. I am shocked, shocked that this would happen, and I have trouble believing it.
Subtext:Are you sure?
Subtext:This can't possibly be common, this must be really unusual, this doesn't really happen.
Person thinking:Am I imagining this? Did this really happen? Is it really common? Why doesn't this person know this is a thing? Why doesn't anyone know this is a thing? Is it a thing?