Tuesday, July 17, 2012


“Hi, how are you folks doing?”
“Oh, fine, thank you, how are you?”
“I’m all right, what can I get for you today?”

Small talk fills awkward silences. It can help to begin a conversation of substance. And it’s considered polite to at least attempt, when serving customers, before getting to the point of what exactly it is they want from you.

The best customers I had when I was in food service were the ones who answered my attempts at small talk in a way I wasn’t expecting. Even it it was just an interesting answer to my usual “how are you” and then on with the routine. If I wasn’t insanely busy, I was always happy to pause in my duties to trade banter with a chatty customer. My favorite memories from working food service usually involve someone who wasn’t satisfied with the usual dry small talk.

People get tossed out of their comfort zones when you answer anything but “I am fine” or I’m good” to the question “how are you.” It’s surprising how many doubletakes I get when I reply to that question with “I’m doing very well, thank you;” it is grammatically correct, but it’s just not what the question asker is used to hearing. One of my favorite scenes from the first season of NBC’s 30 Rock takes place between a Harvard grad and the wise-cracking comic relief. “So, how you doin’ over there, Theo Huxtable?” the comic relief asks the Harvard grad. “I’m doing good,” replies the posh man in the sweater vest. “Superman does good,” the first shoots back, “you doin’ well.”

It really throws people for a loop when you are having a bad day and decide to answer that kind of question honestly. They just want to get on with the routine of the day and check in your rental car, but here you are telling them your life story, how your two year old was up all night vomiting and you haven’t slept since 1 AM and how you’re not going to get home again until 11 PM and you hope she doesn’t start throwing up on the plane. They look at you like they don’t care and that they just wished you’d said “we’re fine” or “we’re okay” and just let them get on with their job.

Even though it’s considered polite, why do we even attempt to make small talk with someone if we don’t want to know how their day has been? When we ask a question like that, we’re ready to respond to the answer before the person we asked has begun to speak.

Next time someone asks you how you’re doing, really tell them. (It will teach them to ask!) And next time you ask someone else how they’re doing, really listen, and encourage them to answer honestly. You’ll be able to have an actual conversation that way. If you only have enough time to exchange pleasantries, there’s always stuff like, “There sure is weather happening outside today!” or “how about the home team? They are the best at sports!” But if you don’t want a real conversation, don’t start one.

By the way, how are you today?

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