Commentary – There is nothing new! Don’t ask!

Pearl Lorentzen

“What’s new?” is one of the hardest questions to answer.

I realize that people are being polite and don’t need a sophisticated answer, but for some reason this question fries my brain. The second someone asks I can’t remember what I had for breakfast let alone anything interesting to say.

I may have done many interesting things recently, or learned something new.

However, something about the expression makes me wonder if the things which I’ve been thinking about meet the definition of ‘new.’

Is it really ‘new’ or a reiteration of something old? What have I been doing? What do I know about? So many questions go through my mind.

I guess I should practice having something to say, but how can a prepared answer be new.

This is one of the challenges of small talk. If you prepare yourself for, “Hi, how are you?” and someone comes out with, “What’s new?” all of the preparation goes out the window!

I think “What’s new?” is the question about half of the time. There are other options of course, but this one sends me for a loop every time.

Conversations are difficult social constructs and have so many layers, that it can be hard to know where to start. This, I believe, is the reason for conversation starters like “What’s new?” They give a launching point for discovering shared interests or at least being polite.

As a reporter, I keep the five Ws and an H in mind for interviews: Who, What, When, Where, Why, and How. The same can be said for basic conversation. In both cases, the trick is to make the interaction seem natural.

A prepared answer doesn’t meet the needs of a conversation. Flexibility and listening are important. Without them, we tend to talk too much or not enough.

I have also learned over the years that just because someone asks you a question doesn’t mean they want to know the answer.

Often, “How are you?” is just a polite expression. People really don’t want to know about your physical and emotional state. The clues to finding which way the question is meant rely on non-linguistic factors including tone (how something is said), existing relationship (between you and the person), non-verbal communication (facial expressions, posture, and gestures), etc.

The biggest of these is the existing relationship. Is this person usually interested in your emotions and wellbeing? Are you friends? Are they trustworthy?

Another factor is the location of the conversation.

If you are in the line at the grocery store, you have a limited amount of time and a lot of people can listen in, so they are likely being polite.

However, if you are you at their place of tea, they may really want to know.

For me, another barrier to conversation (especially small talk) is how I am feeling. If I am rested and feeling sociable, conversations flow relatively easily. If I am tired, overwhelmed, or spent too much time with people, it is almost impossible.

All this to say, conversation is a learned skill, so people have different abilities and comfort. It is also culturally specific, so people may have learned different rules of how to communicate. However, these rules were probably never formally taught, so people might not know why they communicate the way they do.

When you step into an awkward conversation give the other person the benefit of the doubt. It might be as simple as they didn’t understand the question.

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