I’m not really a fan of “small talk.”
I mean, from my perspective, there’s no such thing* as an “awkward silence.” Blessed, merciful silence, sure, but awkward? Ehh, not really.
Of course, most people don’t share my perspective, and so while I don’t generally feel that there’s any inherent awkwardness to silence, I am sort of sympathetically aware of the oppressive awkwardness that other people feel in the presence of silence, and so, to the extent that I’m able, I do what I can to at least try to ease some of the burden of silence.
One of the areas in which I do put forth the attempt is in passing while walking along the hallway, or, say, at the sink in the men’s room, when there’s that moment of “I know this person and I have to say something to acknowledge my recognition,” and something more than a simple head nod or “Hey” is called for.
And so, though I don’t always feel a particular need** to do so, I will play along.
Of course, for me, the awkwardness suddenly springs into existence once the silence is broken, because while I’m willing – or at least obligated – to play along, my heart really isn’t in it, and, honestly, neither is the other person’s.
So, in playing my part, I generally keep a list of canned greetings/responses at the ready:
”Hey Jon, how are you?”
”I’m good***, [casual acquaintance], how about you?” – I generally decide in advance whether or not I’m going to make a reference to the person’s name, depending on whether I feel up to the task of flipping through my mental rolodex to recover said person’s name.
”I’m doing great. Thanks for asking.”
”That’s good. Well, see you later/have a good day/nice seeing you.”
That’s the most common exchange, but I do sometimes get tripped up:
”Hey, Jon, how’s it going?”
”I’m – “ Crap, he didn’t ask how I’m doing. “It’s – fine. How’s it – how are you?”
I do have some canned responses to the “How’s it going?” variation, at least as far as answering it, but in terms of turning the question around, I often draw a blank, because “How’s it going with you?” just sounds kind of odd, and I’ve yet to find a suitable alternative.
It’s with the canned responses I have to that variation - “It’s going.” “Oh, you know, like a typical [day of week].” – that things often get the most awkward, because something like this often happens:
“Hey Jon, how’s it going?”
”’It’s going?’ What does that mean? Is that good or bad?”
”I – it…uhh, how are you?”
It’s usually at that point that I want to say:
“No! That’s now how this works! You’re violating the social contract. As a formality, you ask me how it’s going, I give you some noncommittal answer that you don’t pay any attention to, I finish getting my water, and then we both just get on with our respective days. That’s the deal.”
Of course, I don’t say that, as it would be compounding the violation of the social contract, so instead I just kind of flail about in – *ahem* – awkward silence.
*As with everything, context matters. There are, of course, awkward situations in which the silence compounds the awkwardness, like a long elevator ride with someone you’re attracted to, or being greeted with silence in response to professing your undying love or something. (Note: There have been no recent instances of these examples in my life, in case you’re wondering.)
**I am, of course, talking about interactions with acquaintances, not friends.
***I had to eliminate my old canned response of “Not too bad, how about you?” because too many people failed to parse the “Not too” part, and that would lead to, “Bad? Why bad?”