making 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.

Conversations at family gatherings

slightmayhem:

realsocialskills:

 said to :

What are appropriate topics of conversation for family gatherings during holidays? I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion, but what can you talk about?

realsocialskills said:

That depends somewhat on your family. “No politics and religion” is a rule that applies in some families but not others. The real rule is “Don’t pick fights, and steer clear of topics likely to result in people getting angry in ways that are likely to damage relationships.”

Or, to put it in more concrete terms: At a family gathering, it’s considered rude to tell someone that they’re going to hell, or that their political views are destroying the world. It’s considered rude to say something that implies that you think someone is going to hell or destroying the world, even if you don’t say so outright. It’s considered polite to be careful to avoid topics that are likely to go in that direction.

For many families, this means avoiding the topics of politics and religion altogether at extended family gatherings. When family members have strongly held conflicting views on politics and religion, talking about those topics can easily lead to fights. For some families, it makes sense to call a truce for the holidays and just get together and eat food and do things that everyone likes. 

Fighting on Christmas/Thanksgiving/other holidays isn’t likely to change anyone’s religious or political views - it just makes the holiday unpleasant. It’s ok to call a truce and fight those battles the rest of the year, when it isn’t a holiday. 

Politics and religion aren’t sources of conflict for every family. Some families have largely compatible views, and are able to discuss these things without it turning into a fight. You’re the best judge of how that works in your family.

If you’re in a family in which politics and religion are topics best avoided, there are some other popular topics:

Sports:

  • I don’t really understand the appeal of sports
  • But sports fandom is really, really popular
  • Most families contain a lot of people who like to root for sports teams
  • And family gatherings often involve watching sports games of some sort
  • If you like a team or a sport, talking about sports is probably likely to go well

Television shows and movies:

  • TV shows are a popular topic of conversation
  • Particularly currently-running popular shows
  • If you find a show that others in your family watch, or a movie they’ve also seen, you can probably discuss that show
  • (If your family gathering contains a lot of people who have a religious objection to watching R-rated movies, focus on shows/movies that aren’t sexually explicit or graphically violent)

Work:

  • People often talk about work at family gatherings, for instance:
  • Projects you’re working on at work
  • Funny or awesome things coworkers did
  • Funny or awesome things customers did

Possessions:

  • People often like to talk about stuff they have, or stuff they acquired recently
  • eg: your new iPad, an apartment you moved to, a new brand of rubber bands you discovered that are particularly good at holding bags closed, really soft shirts you just bought
  • (Be careful about this if you have a lot more money than some members of your family who will be present), bragging about wealth is considered rude

Vacations or other stuff you did:

  • Families often talk about vacations they went on, or plan to go on
  • Or some other thing they did recently, for example:
  • People who ran a marathon will probably talk about that
  • People who planted a big garden at the school they work at will probably talk about that
  • (Again, be careful about talking about expensive things if you have a lot more money than many of your family members)

The weather:

  • Talking about the weather is a cliche because people really do talk about the weather a lot as a way of making conversation
  • Eg: 
  • “Do you think it’s going to snow?”
  • “It’s so hot.”
  • “I like the way the rain sounds on the roof.”
  • “It’s so much warmer here in Florida than it is in New York.”
  • “I’m glad Grandma finally installed insulated windows.”

tl;dr Talking about politics and religion with people who don’t share your views can end poorly. Family gatherings often contain people who have equal and opposite convictions. In many families, people call a truce for the holidays and avoid those topics. Some other topics to discuss: sports, TV/movies, work, activities you’re involved in, vacations, the weather, and stuff you have and like. (Be careful about discussing expensive things that many of your relatives can’t afford.)

slightmayhem said:

It’s also nice and takes up a lot of time to ask people about their relatives who aren’t present. people generally like to talk about their personal families. (so, how is your wife? how old is your son now- what grade is he in? is he still in a band?) When you’re not sure what to ask, you can ask people questions about themselves, and just let them talk a while. (be prepared, they will often ask a similar question back at you)

Conversations at family gatherings

arrowhearts said to realsocialskills:

What are appropriate topics of conversation for family gatherings during holidays? I’ve heard that you’re not supposed to talk about politics or religion, but what can you talk about?

realsocialskills said:

That depends somewhat on your family. “No politics and religion” is a rule that applies in some families but not others. The real rule is “Don’t pick fights, and steer clear of topics likely to result in people getting angry in ways that are likely to damage relationships.“

Or, to put it in more concrete terms: At a family gathering, it’s considered rude to tell someone that they’re going to hell, or that their political views are destroying the world. It’s considered rude to say something that implies that you think someone is going to hell or destroying the world, even if you don’t say so outright. It’s considered polite to be careful to avoid topics that are likely to go in that direction.

For many families, this means avoiding the topics of politics and religion altogether at extended family gatherings. When family members have strongly held conflicting views on politics and religion, talking about those topics can easily lead to fights. For some families, it makes sense to call a truce for the holidays and just get together and eat food and do things that everyone likes. 

Fighting on Christmas/Thanksgiving/other holidays isn’t likely to change anyone’s religious or political views - it just makes the holiday unpleasant. It’s ok to call a truce and fight those battles the rest of the year, when it isn’t a holiday. 

Politics and religion aren’t sources of conflict for every family. Some families have largely compatible views, and are able to discuss these things without it turning into a fight. You’re the best judge of how that works in your family.

If you’re in a family in which politics and religion are topics best avoided, there are some other popular topics:

Sports:

  • I don’t really understand the appeal of sports
  • But sports fandom is really, really popular
  • Most families contain a lot of people who like to root for sports teams
  • And family gatherings often involve watching sports games of some sort
  • If you like a team or a sport, talking about sports is probably likely to go well

Television shows and movies:

  • TV shows are a popular topic of conversation
  • Particularly currently-running popular shows
  • If you find a show that others in your family watch, or a movie they’ve also seen, you can probably discuss that show
  • (If your family gathering contains a lot of people who have a religious objection to watching R-rated movies, focus on shows/movies that aren’t sexually explicit or graphically violent)

Work:

  • People often talk about work at family gatherings, for instance:
  • Projects you’re working on at work
  • Funny or awesome things coworkers did
  • Funny or awesome things customers did

Possessions:

  • People often like to talk about stuff they have, or stuff they acquired recently
  • eg: your new iPad, an apartment you moved to, a new brand of rubber bands you discovered that are particularly good at holding bags closed, really soft shirts you just bought
  • (Be careful about this if you have a lot more money than some members of your family who will be present), bragging about wealth is considered rude

Vacations or other stuff you did:

  • Families often talk about vacations they went on, or plan to go on
  • Or some other thing they did recently, for example:
  • People who ran a marathon will probably talk about that
  • People who planted a big garden at the school they work at will probably talk about that
  • (Again, be careful about talking about expensive things if you have a lot more money than many of your family members)

The weather:

  • Talking about the weather is a cliche because people really do talk about the weather a lot as a way of making conversation
  • Eg: 
  • “Do you think it’s going to snow?”
  • “It’s so hot.“
  • “I like the way the rain sounds on the roof.”
  • “It’s so much warmer here in Florida than it is in New York.“
  • “I’m glad Grandma finally installed insulated windows.”

tl;dr Talking about politics and religion with people who don’t share your views can end poorly. Family gatherings often contain people who have equal and opposite convictions. In many families, people call a truce for the holidays and avoid those topics. Some other topics to discuss: sports, TV/movies, work, activities you’re involved in, vacations, the weather, and stuff you have and like. (Be careful about discussing expensive things that many of your relatives can’t afford.)

talesfromthechickpea:

Boyfriend’s parents are coming for a visit.  I never know what to say and always end up feeling awkward and weird. Could you guys give me some suggestions for parent-in-law appropriate conversations?

realsocialskills said:

First of all, it’s normal to feel a bit awkward around in-laws. That’s not necessarily a sign that something is wrong. Being around in-laws is weird because they’re often close to your partner and not you. They also are often close to your partner in ways that you are not, and they probably cross all kinds of boundaries with him that you are careful to avoid crossing.<p

It’s a confusing and complicated relationship, and it feels awkward for a lot of people.

That said, there are principles of how to talk to in-laws that sometimes work.

Ask about stuff they do and care about:

  • If they are active in a club, ask about the club
  • If they have a hobby, ask about it
  • If they like talking about work, ask about work
  • In conversations like this, listen more than you talk, and don’t offer advice unless they ask for it

Sports is a safe topic among sports fans

  • Did you see the game last night?
  • (this works best if you also watched the game, but it can also work if you didn’t but know they like to talk about sports)

Fandoms you share:

  • Did you see the latest episode of (show you both like?)

Do any of y'all know other good topics?