You know when you walk past someone that you vaguely know, and just at the last possible moment they don't just smile or say hello or something, but they also ask you how you are? They can't seriously be expecting an answer as you both continue to walk in opposite directions, and yet how often do you find yourself stopping, turning around and replying to their ever more distant back, perhaps even going so far as to call out after their back to ask how they're doing? The fact that they keep moving says to me that they're only asking out of pure reflex and they aren't really interested in how you are at all. With that in mind, the logical thing to do is probably to give a quick answer and keep walking, or even to just keep walking. In fact, a smile is probably enough, but no one wants to seem rude, do they? Once the question has been asked, it sort of requires an answer, and conversational norms also dictate that you should follow up your answer with the same polite inquiry. The fact that the other person is now several hundred yards away from you and likely won't even hear you asking is neither here nor there. It's just the way things work.
I sometimes find myself having terrible dilemmas when I see people that I vaguely know standing in a queue that I'm about to join. If I join the line behind them, then small talk is inevitable because horrible, awkward, forced small talk is clearly much better than blanking someone and pretending that they're not there. This happens quite a lot at work, and I have to say that I will quite often delay my coffee for 5 minutes just to avoid a mildly uncomfortable social situation. It's ridiculous. I know it's ridiculous, but there you go.
I don't think I'm very good at small talk. I think I understand the unwritten rules on paper, if you see what I mean, but I have a nasty feeling that my practical application of the theory is woefully lacking. I had to get in work early the other day, so after my first meeting, I joined the breakfast queue to get a bagel. A colleague of mine that I vaguely know joined the same queue moments later. Hiding was not an option, so I resigned myself to the fact that conversation of some kind was now inevitable. I've worked with this person before, so my opening move was a thin smile of acknowledgment. Often that's enough, and far better than a total blank, but I rather think she saw this as encouragement.
"Hello. How are you?"
My usual gambit in conversations like these is to make some weary comment about how near / far we are from the weekend. A shrug and a resigned "It's Monday" will be taken by most people as being a more than adequate response that somehow conveys lots without actually saying a great deal. Similarly, remarking that "things can never be that bad on a Friday" somehow expresses how drab a week in the office is, but also hints at the approaching nirvana of the weekend and all the exciting and possibly nefarious things you have planned. Most importantly of all, neither phrase exactly invites more conversation on either side unless you want it to. A chuckle and a raised eyebrow is more than sufficient. Thus your small talk obligations can be easily fulfilled with one short sentence. This particular day was a Thursday morning though, and still quite early: the weekend still felt a bit far off to discuss. Hm. I tried to keep things simple.
"I'm fine thanks"
I'm aware that the norm here would be to ask my partner in this reluctant conversation how she was in return. I didn't want to leave that door open, so I didn't ask. Is that rude? Do I have to return her feigned interest in me with a feigned interest of my own? Sadly, she clearly expected more from the conversation and persisted.
"Did you have a good weekend?"
Wow. Asking about my weekend on a Thursday? Her grasp of the rules that govern small talk seemed tenuous at best.
Again, no expansion on why my weekend was good and no polite rejoinder to inquire about hers.
"Anything planned for this weekend?"
Sure, the long bank holiday weekend was in sight and this was perhaps a valid inquiry, but she clearly wasn't taking her conversational cues from my increasingly monosyllabic responses. Damn her eyes.
"Nothing much. I've got friends coming up."
There you go. There's some actual information about my weekend. Are you happy? Eh?
"Oh, for the whole weekend?"
Oh for Christ's sake!
"No. Just on Saturday evening"
Luckily, before she could extract from me the vital information that they were coming up around about 7pm and that we were thinking of having a barbeque, her toast appeared and she tottered off to get a coffee, leaving me to wait a few beats longer than necessary when picking up my bagel to make sure that she had actually gone before I went to order my own Americano.
The funny thing is that she actually seems to be a perfectly pleasant person, and I hadn't really set out not to talk to her or anything... I just wasn't really interested enough to have a nothing conversation with her, and ultimately I just wasn't very interested in knowing how she was and what she had planned for the weekend.
Does that make me a bad person? It certainly makes me feel a little socially inadequate.