By Jesse Singal
A couple of weeks ago, I went to someone's birthday party at a bar after work. The birthday girl was a friend of a friend -- I was there to hang out with the friend. As often happens at such events, I found myself standing next to someone I didn't know and positioned in a way where we basically had to talk to one another. It would have been weird, otherwise -- we had been accidentally shunted out of the main conversational circle (it was a small gathering) and weren't close enough to its center to be able to pretend to listen to what was going on. We were marooned with one another.
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These sorts of conversations are weird. When the connection between you and the other person is tenuous, as it was between myself and this woman, both parties know there's a pretty good chance this will be the only conversation the two will ever have with one another. You will meet, talk briefly about your jobs or the weather, part ways, and then, in the long run, live the rest of your lives and die without ever speaking again.
Our conversation quickly fell into the usual rut: What do you do oh that's cool here's what I do wow okay. She said she worked at a small museum that contained the papers and various artsy artifacts of some deceased rich guy (I can't even remember which one). Without even thinking about it, I asked, "What's your least favorite piece in the collection?" Something shifted in the conversation. She said something like, "Nobody's ever asked me that. People always ask what my favorite piece is." I mentally high-fived myself, usually an awkward person who does not thrive in small-talk scenarios, for having at least thrown things off their usual course.
Little did I know there was a name for what I had done: medium talk. That's what Reddit thinks, at least, if an extremely successful AskReddit post from Tuesday is any indicator. "What kind of questions would you ask to make medium talk, instead of small talk?" asked user Sentinel_P, and the query garnered more than 3,500 comments.
The question got the reaction it did because it walks a tricky line: Everyone has an intuitive sense of what "medium talk" might mean, but the term isn't fully defined. That tension leads to some fascinating answers. Most people seem to interpret the question the way you'd expect -- how do you lift a fleeting and likely unimportant-in-the-grand-scheme conversation up out of dulls-ville so that you'll at least remember or learn something from it?
Reddit being Reddit, many of the answers are jokey and stupid, consisting of intellectually stimulating fare like "Would you rather have a vagina on your forehead or a row of penises down your back like a stegosaurus?" But there's some good stuff, too. The top-rated response is "What's something you like that most people don't?" Part of another answer ventures into similar territory: "Guilty pleasures. What is counter to this person's image? If they're a health nut, do they have chocolate binges? Do the secretly like Seal? Are they a pro wrestling fan?"
I think these answers capture some of the dynamic of my conversation with whatsername: In small-talk situations, we're accustomed to the frictionless exchange of facts and pleasantries. To nudge a conversation briefly toward the darker side of things is to force both participants to get real for a second, to actually engage with someone despite the fleeting nature of the exchange.
Maybe this would be an interesting experiment: If, like me, you're a normally small-talk-averse person, then for the next five instances of it you're forced to mumble through -- and I'm talking a party or a bar, not 15 seconds in an elevator -- and make a conscious effort to achieve medium-talk status. Easier said than done, probably, but what's the downside to having fewer robotic interactions, to having more people -- even random people -- find you interesting?
Who knows? Maybe medium talk will even lead to large talk if you get trapped next to the right person at the right time.
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