Purpose of small talk questions around the country

July 14, 2003

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Commentator Joe Wright recently found himself back at a university  1) ___________ many years away from academic life. He was reminded that students  2) ___________ more than just amass debt or study. They also  3) ___________ a lot of socializing, and that means small talk.


4) ___________lived in three places in the last three years. 5) ___________ San Francisco, people asked about neighborhoods. In Washington , DC , they 6) ___________ about jobs. At medical school in Boston, where I  7) ___________ now, people ask: "So where'd you do your undergrad?"  8) ___________hate this question.

It's not that I'm not proud of my alma mater. 9) ___________ UC Santa Cruz, I liked my community of film students, I  10) ___________ that we didn't have grades and I liked taking  11) ___________ kinds of classes, from anthropology to architecture to African  12) ___________. At San Francisco State, where I took science classes to prepare  13) ___________ medical school, I loved the diversity of the students 14) ___________ all the older students, like me, with complicated histories  15) ___________ big dreams. But if I'd gone to different schools, 16) ___________ anything truly important about me be different? I don't  17) ___________ so.

I try to remember that the people asking  18) ___________ where I did undergrad are mostly young. They've spent  19) ___________ lives in school. Recently, someone I met asked me  20)  ___________ question. I answered politely, but pointedly did not return  21) ___________ same question. I assumed he was playing some evil  22) ___________ game. Afterwards, I complained about it to our mutual  23) ___________ who said, "No, no. He's chill. He went 24) ___________ UMass," a school that isn't anymore New York Times wedding pages than mine. I think he was really asking: "Where have  25) ___________ been? What was your life like?" and to him, 26) ___________ meant school.

In San Francisco, where I lived for many  27) ___________, I liked the local small talk question: `What  28) ___________ do you live in?' San Francisco's neighborhoods are proudly distinct, 29) ___________ and aesthetically. So I thought the answer told me  30) ___________. I admit I judged people this way. And if  31) ___________ liked the answer, it led to conversation about dim sum  32) ___________ burritos, things that mattered.

In Washington , DC , where I  33) ___________ for a year, the small talk question was: "Where  34)  ___________ you work?" In San Francisco, we avoided this question until 35) ___________ got more intimate, especially if we might be talking  36)  ___________a writer who worked as a waiter or a  37) ___________ who worked as a temp. So when I moved  38) ___________ DC, I thought the small talk was intrusive and  39) ___________. But my circles in DC were full of people  40) ___________ me who had moved to there for work. Our lives  41) ___________defined by work, so people asked about jobs.

My  42) ___________ grew up in Kansas. They like to joke about  43) ___________ small talk questions folks ask there, which were often  44) ___________ the weather, stuff like: "Hot enough for you?" which  45) ___________ barely even a question at all. These questions can  46) ___________, frankly, sort of stupid to people on the  47) ___________. To give Midwesterners their due, though, I think what questions  48) ___________ this really mean is, `Well, you seem like a nice 49)  ___________, but it'd be rude to just start asking you  50) ___________ yourself.' I think most Midwesterners don't like to get 51)  ___________ personal right away.

If that's true, my favorite small  52) ___________ question was the anti-Midwestern question. It wasn't small talk at  53) ___________. At the beginning of the year, a classmate introduced  54) ___________. After getting my name, she looked at me carefully, 55) ___________, then asked: "So what's your story?"  

BLOCK: In the fall, Joe Wright moves into a new apartment in the Fenway neighborhood of Boston.


1. Why does Joe Wright hate the question, "Where did you do your undergrad?"?

a. because he didn't like his undergraduate school.

b. because it means where you went to school is important in knowing who you are.

c. because he liked that his school didn't have grades and he could take all kinds of classes.

2. What kind of question do they ask in San Francisco?



3. In Washington D.C. they first ask, "Where do you work?" In San Francisco, when would they ask this question?



4. According to Joe, why do mid-westerners ask questions about the weather, such as "Hot enough for you?"



5. Who asked him the question, "So, what's you're story?" Did he like it?