I feel like this is the kind of conversation that would make @wayward-sidekick go “no no no wrong wrong WRONG”

Because saying “I’m fine” in response to being asked how you’re doing is only supposed to happen if you’re trying to avoid a conversation. That’s how polite answers work! You use them to make the other person stop trying to speak to you, basically.

If you’re asked how you’re doing by someone you’re trying to start a conversation with, you never say just “fine”. You give a descriptive sentence or two. You try to optimise that sentence for containing as many potential things to talk about as possible, in the hopes that the other person will find one of them interesting enough to ask about.

If I were asked how I was doing by a stranger right now, I’d say “I’m doing pretty good! I recently got back from a trip to [visa country redacted] with an American friend of mine because I was interviewing for a visa.”

With the obvious potential follow up questions being:

  • When did you get back?
  • How was your stay in [visa country]?
  • Have you been to [visa country] before / do you like it there?
  • Who’s your friend / why did they go with you?
  • How did the interview go / did you get approved?
  • Which country are you travelling to?
  • What kind of visa did you get?
  • etc etc etc

There is no question you can ask someone who says they’re fine. “fine” kills a conversation. That’s its job. Like, you can’t even ask someone “why are you fine?” the way you can ask “why are you happy/sad/angry?”

There is just… Literally no worse way to attempt a conversation. But people do this all the time. I don’t get it at all. But, like, if you actually want to talk to your mutuals more, consider… Not choosing literally the worst response to a question that you can.

This has been Moderate Social Competence with Alison.

A common problem I have is that I want to have a conversation, but I just can’t think of an answer other than “fine”. This is extra likely if the person I want to have a conversation with is e.g. a coworker, and all the things that come up when I try to think about my life are things I don’t necessarily want to talk to a coworker about. But it happens in other contexts too, especially if I’m being self-conscious about What If My Answers Are Wrong, though that’s something I’ve been trying to cut down on.

We extroverts actually have a solution for this! The dangerous, well-guarded secret is that we aren’t actually any more interesting than other people, and the reason we always have an interesting response is that we turn up Prepared.

Not just in that every story we tell at parties is one we’ve honed to a sharp edge by telling dozens of times before (though that is 100% true; all my stories have been ruthlessly A/B tested), but that we carry around a buffer holding the most recent interesting thing that happened to us.

If you’re a high-level archmage extrovert, then you actually come with at least two spell slots: One for a multi-pronged conversation starter for new people, and then a simple one for the people you see every day.

The conversation starter is something unusually interesting that happened to you in the past few weeks. The one I have in my buffer is my trip to [visa country]. The most important characteristic of it should be that there are several different ways the conversation could branch off from it, as I demonstrated above.

This is the thing you toss out when you meet new people because, if you don’t yet know someone’s interests, you want to give them something with multiple options so they can choose the one they find most interesting. Furthermore, since they haven’t met you before, it won’t be old news to them.

The simple slot is for people that the conversation starter would be old news to. Here you want relevance. What’s the most interesting thing that happened to you just recently? Preferably in the last 24 hours. If the conversation starter thing happened very recently, you can use it here too.

However, the thing you put in this slot doesn’t need to be multi-pronged. It just needs to be something that you could make smalltalk over if you were so inclined. You can mention what you just ate or a phone call from your mum or a weird bird you saw on the way to work.

A related useful skill is being able to turn any random incident into a ~story~, or be able to frame it so the other person will find it interesting. This is its own thing that mostly requires practice. If you want to practice it, you should find someone who’s willing to let you A/B test ways of talking about recent incidents. (I’m willing to do social skills training for hire.)

Luckily, you usually don’t need it if all you want is to keep a conversation going. Storytelling ability gets you popularity, but you can make decent smalltalk without it, as long as you keep topics in your buffer.

Occasionally you want to have more buffers, like if there are people you know who you can’t reveal certain things to or who don’t understand what you’re up to. You might want a “work safe” buffer or a “non-STEM-majors” buffer or something. However, the same basic rules apply. You want the most interesting thing that happened in the last 24 hours, but that isn’t too private/high-context.

(Tagging @jbeshir, @neshselg, @argentconflagration, @23rdhunter, and some other folks tags didn’t work for, because you all expressed interest in learning about this sort of social stuff.)

but what if you’re not the type of person who has interesting stuff happen to on a day to day basis? past 24 hours basically means i’m not gonna have anything to say hardly ever.

The trick is that all answers except “I’m fine” are interesting, because you are showing interest in a conversation by not just brushing them off with “I’m fine.”

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