How’s your day so far?

I’m standing at a counter waiting to find out what’s wrong with my phone. I won’t name the company, but I will say that the person behind the counter is apparently a genius. While she runs diagnostics (!!) on my phone, she says “So how’s your day been so far?”  

I know they’re trained to “connect with customers.” I know this is what passes for friendly customer service. But frankly, it really annoys me. It annoys me because it sounds inane, insincere and sometimes even invasive. In this particular case, I feel like saying “Lousy – my phone’s broken. I don’t know how many clients might be trying to call me. My family might be in trouble and I have no way of knowing.”

What makes it even worse, is when you do answer, particularly in supermarkets, the response is vague and disconnected – you can tell that they haven’t heard what you’ve said anyway! I’m frequently tempted to say something outrageous or nonsensical just to test the listening. I could imagine the conversation going like this:

So how’s your day been so far?

Not so great, I had to kill the neighbour’s dog.

Uh huh.

Well it’s not all bad because I’m doing some scientific experiments at home, so I can make good use of the body over the weekend.

Oh that’s good. Would you like a bag for that?

In the case of my phone guru, imagine how it could have played out if she had started with something specific to the situation like:

“Oh, that must be so frustrating, not having your phone working.”

“You have no idea – I’ve been having to make arrangements to meet people and let them know we’re doing it old school; they can’t text and change times or meeting place.”

“That’s funny. We do depend on them so much, don’t we. I lost my phone for a day and it felt like I’d lost my life.”

“That sounds like my son, he….”

And so on. What we have here, is real time, real connection in the moment. Not an artificial “tell me something random while we wait for me to my job.”

These exchanges fall into the category of Phatic communication, which is essentially communication for the sake of communication. Its function is primarily social. When we use phatic communication, what we are doing is acknowledging that we are people occupying a close space and we are connecting on a relatively superficial level.

This communication doesn’t have to be deeply personal or intimate. In fact, it shouldn’t. But that doesn’t mean it has to be so cookie-cutter meaningless that it would be better to stand in awkward silence.

What makes a phatic communication exchange effective, is when there is actually some form of connection. Last Easter, my husband and I bought some marshmallow eggs. Our son is 15, so it was a last-minute “Perhaps we should do something even though he’s too old for egg hunts.” There was a young student at the counter. As she processed them she exclaimed “Oh I LOVE these – we always used to hide these in the garden. I’m in charge of the egg hunt for my little sisters.” We had a short, but delightful little chat about egg hunts. It wasn’t deep and meaningful, but it was relevant and engaging. And how much more refreshing than “So how’s your day been so far.”

A final word: the weather. Yes, it’s a cliché – it signifies a slight lack of imagination. However, it is always changing and therefore temporally relevant. It also has a neutrality to it and to me, feels significantly less invasive than “How’s your day been so far?” (I’ve found another grey hair and my car battery is playing up – how’s yours?!) When a shopkeeper asks me “Is it still raining outside?” at least there is a possibility of genuine interest – even if it’s self-interest. I’m much more inclined to allow myself to be led into a conversation with an opening like that.

The irony of small talk, is that done well, it make a BIG difference to any interaction. A liberal dose of that social lubricant could be the germination of a long-term business relationship. In daily interactions, it can make the simple task of buying something at the local IGA an absolute delight.

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