Why should the recipient of this intrusive question have to do the work?
— “Making Conversation”
“Making Conversation”: I’m both completely sympathetic and not backing you up.
Because what you’re asking is this close to, “Could we please stop making conversation?” Consider:
“Do you have children?” (Some people struggle with infertility or dashed hopes or the death of a child.)
“Tell me about your family.” (Some are estranged, were abusive, have tragically died.)
“What do you do?” (Some are struggling with unemployment or get judged for what they do or are home with children and unfairly dismissed as professionally out-of-touch or uninteresting — or the person asking gets eye-rolled for being status-conscious or over-focused on work. “So D.C.” “So American.”)
“Where are you from?” (To members of a racial or ethnic minority, this can be a coded, “You aren’t one of us.”)
“How about that election.” (Ha. I kid.)
“So, watching any good shows?” (Safe, useful, perfect — the first 100 times.)
“Some weather we’re having.” ( “Ugh, I can’t stand small talk.” Or is weather political now?)
Obviously these aren’t the only possible ways to prod for common ground. If you want lists of conversation-starters, search engines are standing by.
But the important point you bring up — who “should” have to “do the work” — can apply to both parties. Not all nosiness is friendly, but not all friendliness is nosy, either. The people making what they think are polite attempts at conversation are doing some social lifting themselves. They’re trying. To connect, to make others feel welcome, to pass the time pleasantly in your company. Almost any well-meaning inquiry can hit an emotional mine.
So the sensitivity burden is a shared one, too. For those making friendly overtures, your concerns are valid: Don’t badger, don’t pry, be mindful of sensitive areas, be ready to pivot.
And for those receiving friendly overtures, like you: Assume the best of people, reciprocate the effort, and, if you have a sensitive spot, prepare deflections ahead of time so you both can save face and keep talking.
I think right now especially, we can use all the benefits of all the possible doubts.
Dear Carolyn: What’s a reasonable number of visits to make to immediate family who you don’t enjoy spending time with and who live a three-hour flight away, when my time and money is limited?
Anonymous: No answer with this little information would be reasonable.
But every answer starts with what you owe people, and what you owe yourself.
For example, you might pay frequent visits to a parent who raised you ethically but who is now difficult because of cognitive decline. You might pay zero visits to a sibling who was and often still is cruel to you. Each calculation is reasonable.
So, again — what do you feel you owe each relative? What do you owe your conscience? Where do expense and effort come in? No reasonable numbers, just senses of duty and self.