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Small talk: What You Must Never Say To People You’ve Just Met


When you meet a colleague, an acquaintance, a former boss or client and they politely ask how you are please don’t launch into a litany of your ailments and plans. That will make you look like there is a five year old roaming unsupervised in your mind.

When you meet a close friend and they ask how you are, politely answer “I am fine thank you. How are you?”  If you must talk about further details ask them if they have time to listen to your life story. Don’t impose it on them, don’t ambush them.

Almost a year ago I bumped into one of my long lost friends. Daphne and I were at one time so close that the only time we spent apart was when we were in our beds. That’s about six hours out of the 24hour day.  However, life got in the way. We changed jobs, moved houses and slowly but surely drifted apart.

This kind of closeness of course doesn’t just end abruptly; it lingers, struggles and finally peters to an end. During our lingering stage, we would meet at Diamond Trust building Jinja Road, because Daph had got a job in the bank. I would enter the bank, catch her eye then move out.

A few minutes later she would pop out no matter how busy she was.  We would catch up for about five minutes, and then continue with our respective schedules. Ours was a sweet genuine friendship or so I thought.

One time I didn’t go by the bank for about a month. When I hadn’t heard from her for a while I passed by. But she wasn’t at her desk. I enquired from her colleagues and they said they hadn’t heard from for weeks either. They asked me to tell her to get in touch with the bank a.s.a.p.

To cut the long story short I didn’t hear from Daph for 12 years. Then one day while walking at Diamond Trust building, someone grabbed me from behind into a tight embrace. I turned around sharply ready to strike. But lo and behold! It was Daph. A really glammed up version of Daph. We shrieked and jumped around like excited teenagers. Of course the questions were flowing like a burst water pipe.

Eventually I asked her how she was. “Do you really want to know?”  She asked. Of course I do.” I assured her. “But it’s kinda sad and long.” She warned. “Just the way I love my tales; sad and long.” I reassured her.

She paused for a bit looking off in the distance as if trying to organize her thoughts. Then she opened her mouth and out came something that sounded like a dog barking. It was followed by another and another in quick succession. By the time I realized that my sweet friend was having a sidewalk breakdown it was too late.

She was howling, tears and snort were flowing liberally; her mascara and lipstick were all over the place.  People were staring, others stopping briefly to sympathize with us because they thought we had lost somebody. (God bless Ugandans).

After my initial shock, I supported Daph because she could hardly stand, and dragged her to the nearby Great Chinese Wall Restaurant. Thankfully it wasn’t so crowded and we took the chairs farthest from every activity. When she finally settled down, Daph, launched into her distressing life which that took us the whole afternoon. Apart from learning that my friend had spent the last decade raising a family in Minnesota and was now back as a divorced mum of three, I learned an important life lesson: never asks a woman to tell you sad and long stories by the sidewalk.

Conversations are transitory, what starts off as small talk can develop into a fully-fledged conversation if time and place are appropriate. Some topics are admissible as small talk while others are highly inappropriate. To fit in society properly you must know what to say to who and when.


Telling a total stranger about your complicated dating life is lunacy.

Dissecting the political history of modern Uganda at a bus stop makes you sound like an ideal candidate for a mental hospital. We all live in the same country, we have access to the same information; if I wanted more information I would buy a book or enroll in a political science class. The other problem with talking about politics is that you never know who in the crowd may have strong opinions. Stay away from this topic unless you want to risk ending up in the middle of a heated conversation.

Giving people intimate details (my daughter started her periods, my son eats too much just like his father) about your family is totally disrespectful and gross.

Unless you are a consultant hired to take control of a person’s finances, please don’t ask personal questions because it is highly inappropriate. It is fine to ask what someone does or what he likes about his career, but do not ask how much he makes. Most people will find this question intrusive and inappropriate.

Unless it is very urgent like Jesus or Mohammed just landed at Entebbe airport, please don’t talk to strangers about religion. Religion is another extremely personal and potentially sensitive topic that should be avoided.

Talking about sex or asking questions of an intimate nature is inappropriate. When talking with strangers, avoid talking openly about sex or making sexual innuendos. Both are likely to make others uncomfortable.

Death is another heavy topic that should be avoided. Remember that you are in the company of strangers and this is not the appropriate time to bring up emotional topics that have the potential to be upsetting.

If you have just met someone, do not ask her age. Although the question might seem simple to you, it can be a hot topic for some. In addition, avoid questions related to appearance. Do not ask a woman if she is pregnant, or comment that someone has lost weight. You never know the reason for weight gain or loss, and could be left in an uncomfortable situation. Unless you know someone well, avoid these types of topics.

While celebrity gossip is fair game, gossip about people that you know personally is not. Gossiping about others not only paints you in a bad light, but you never know who might know each other. Stay away from bad-mouthing others.

Save your off-colour jokes for your best friends (or better yet, replace them with clean jokes). Making sexist or racist jokes is offensive and a quick way to end a conversation with strangers.

Although you will want to tell interesting stories at some point, avoid talking at length about topics that are one-sided. If no-one else has seen the movie, don’t go into detail about the plot or the funny scenes. Watch for signs that others have lost interest and find a quick ending to your story.

If on a first date, avoid talking about past relationships. Making comparisons or talking endlessly about a past love is a sure turn-off and a quick way to ensure you don’t get a second date.

Sales – Don’t try to sell something to someone you have just met unless that was the reason for meeting.


Talk about the setting you are currently in. If it is raining outside, then you can strike up a conversation about the rain and how much you like the rain. Perhaps there is something playing on the radio and you really like the song? You can strike up a conversation on that.

Is there something that is interesting in the news? Is there something going on in your area? Current events are safe and appropriate.  Example: Have you seen the colour of the new teargas? It would look perfect in a bedroom. Haha! Don’t discuss the macabre; the brains and bloodshed you watched which everyone else has obviously watched too.

 If you must get personal

I noticed your accent, where’s it from?

What town did you grow up in?

Where is the furthest place you’ve ever travelled to?

What’s your favorite book?

What’s your favorite holiday?


Beautiful day, isn’t it?

It looks like it’s going to rain.

Can you believe all of this rain we’ve been having?

I hear they’re calling for rain all weekend.

We couldn’t ask for a nicer day, could we?

Can’t believe it is February, it is so hot outside.

At a function

What a nice occasion!

How do you know the host?

Did you enjoy the speech just as well?

Have you attended this event in the past?

What do you do for a living?

What do you like to do when you are not working?

Pretty nice place, isn’t it?

Pay a compliment

Please don’t make it one of those corny compliments and definitely do not turn it into a sexual compliment. You could always give them a good compliment on their smile and take it from there.

Where did you pick up your impeccable fashion sense?

Why aren’t you writing professionally? You’re so talented with words.

How do you manage to stay so up to date on the new technologies?

I love your dress. Where did you get it from?  Not how much!