Awkward Conversations: Running Into An Acquaintance You Don't Have Much To Say To
If you ask people what social situations they find the most awkward one answer you'll consistently hear is when you run into someone who you know just well enough that you have to talk to them, but not well enough that you've got much to say to each other. For whatever reason you don't really want to interact with them at that moment, but it would seem rude if you totally ignored them. Often you come across them in a place where it isn't convenient to talk, like in the middle of a busy bus terminal. The resulting conversation is often pretty stilted, and you're often not sure how long you have to speak to the person before you can bail out. We've all been there. For awkward situations like this, there's no way they'll always go perfectly, but I'll quickly go over some ways to make them a bit easier to get through:
Take charge and set a the tone that the interaction will be brief and friendly
When two people who know each other cross paths there's no standard way they have to respond to the situation. Sometimes good friends spot each other at the mall, but they're both in a hurry, so they wave to each other and move on. At other times two distant acquaintances bump into each other at the grocery store and have a fifteen minute catch up session.
Since quickly acknowledging the other person in a friendly manner and then going on your way is an acceptable response to running into someone, you can take the lead and set a tone that that's how this new interaction is going to go. Often when people say running into someone is awkward, it's because they feel obligated to stop and chat to the person. You don't have to do that. If you can, keep things brief. If you give off a vibe that how you're acting is a totally normal response to running into someone, which it is, then the other person will follow suit. As long as you go about things with a friendly demeanor, they usually won't mind.
Here are some variations:
- If you're walking outside and see an acquaintance coming towards you, catch their eye and give them a nod, a friendly smile, and a hello as you pass each other.
- If you run into someone at, say, a store or a pub, exchange a few friendly pleasantries, but then say it was good seeing them and go on your way. Again, let your demeanor sell that moving on after briefly exchanging some "Hey, how are you?"'s is a perfectly acceptable way to act.
- If you're out in public and you spot someone you know, but they're far away (maybe at the other end of the subway platform), give them a cheerful wave, and then go back to what you were doing.
Have an excuse for why you need to get going
Another handy tool for keeping a conversation short is to have a reason for why you can't talk long. You can use this approach to complement the one above. It also helps you escape if the other person seems to want to talk longer than you'd like. Some examples:
- If you find yourself talking to someone at the grocery store, tell them you've got to quickly get your shopping done before beginning your afternoon plans.
- If you're in the deserted computer lab and a classmate you only sort of know walks in, say hi, then tell them you've got to get your assignment done as soon as possible.
- If you run into someone at the mall, and you're in a rush to meet a friend, let them know.
- If you bump into someone in your building's cafeteria, say you're taking a quick lunch and have to rush back to your desk.
- If you see someone on the street, say you've got somewhere to be and are already running late.
- If you're talking to an old co-worker in a nightclub, tell them you have to get back to your friends.
Like with the last point, as long you're friendly during the short time you are talking to the person, you'll usually have no problem being able to rush off after chatting with them after a minute or so.
If you do have to make small talk with the person then do it cheerfully
Ideally you can avoid having to make awkward small talk with most of the acquaintances you run into. You won't always be able to make a clean getaway though. Sometimes you'll be physically trapped with them, like in a checkout line, at a bus stop, or in an elevator. Or you may run into someone who's still an acquaintance, but you know them enough that it wouldn't feel right to make the interaction overly short.
In these situations you'll have to have a conversation, that will probably have to last a few minutes before you can gracefully end it. The problem is that since you don't have much to say to them that conversation will likely consist of uninspired, rote questions such as: "So.... what have you been up?", "Uh... that's cool... so...uh... where are you working now?", and "Oh, okay... so...how's the family?" It can be pretty painful. You may feel on the spot, or like you don't know what to say.
I think when you have no choice but to talk to someone, and aren't likely to have a sparkling discussion, one of the better things you can do is just accept it and at least go through the motions with some positive energy. If you enter the conversation with the attitude of, "Ugh, I have nothing to say to them. This is so forced. I wish I could have pretended I didn't see them", then it will feel awkward and uncomfortable. Often we'll blame how agonizing the interaction feels on "small talk" and the standard, dull material we tend to deploy to when we don't know someone that well. The thing is, if we run into someone we want to talk to, we'll often enthusiastically go through the same topics. There's nothing intrinsically bad about asking something like, "How's school going?", it's more about whether we want to be speaking to the person in the first place.
If you have no choice but to spend a few minutes asking an acquaintance about how their classes are going, then throw yourself into it. Be friendly and interested. Don't feel in the back of your mind that your questions are boring and making for a terrible conversation. Once you've caught up, politely say it was good running into them, and that you've got to get going. It's possible you may even have a nicer time talking to them than you thought you would.
Don't be overly fake or smooth as you apply these ideas
I just described some standard strategies for getting through a social situation most of us find at least a bit uncomfortable. Some people are a little too smooth about using these approaches and can come off as fake and insincere, or in a little too much of a rush to shoo the other person along. If you'd rather not talk to someone too much then it's one thing to say hello in a personable way, then tell them you're in a rush and will see them later. It's another to go over the top and be a little too cheery; "Ohhhhh, hey! Karen! It's sooooo great to see you! How are you?!?? Listen, I've got to meet my mom for lunch in five minutes, but we should totally hang out some time. Text me!!! Okay, bye!" Most people can see right through that kind of exaggerated behavior and will feel insulted.