I travel for work and for fun and as much as I love to small talk and have written several books on the topic of small talk and given hundreds of keynote addresses and interviews on the subject sometimes even I don’t want to small talk, especially on a flight. Sometimes I want to stare out the window or read or rest or drink a cup of bad coffee or flip through a magazine.
So how do you politely let others know that you are not, in fact, in the small talk mood?
There really is a right way and a wrong way to do this.
The wrong way is by loudly sighing or adding an irritated edge to your voice. Because while people will probably get the message that you are not in the mood for chitchat, they will also get the message that you are a not-nice person and if you want people to think you are a not-nice person you should get to prove it with a much bigger show – like a loud outburst in a restaurant or a physical altercation on the street. I mean, if you’re going for not-nice, make it count, you know?
I find the easiest way to get your point across is to actually engage in some small talk before you retreat into your own wonderful world of silence. Oftentimes people are just being friendly and by simply acknowledging your conversation compatriot, you can be both polite and clear. For example:
Yes, I’m heading back to Denver after a few days in Minneapolis.
Notice there is no additional information in my response. I avoided saying I was in Minneapolis for work which is a way to invite further discussion of what I do for a living. I also didn’t ask a question like And what about you? which would encourage more back-and-forth and send a mixed message that I actually want to have a long conversation.
Oh what were you doing in Minneapolis?
Now I answer with something simple like I was traveling for work (wedding/pleasure/funeral) and it’s been such a whirlwind. I am actually looking forward to this flight just to regroup and to read (nap, listen to music, watch a movie). Promise to nudge me when we land.
By adding a smile when participating in this brief but polite exchange I’ve told my seatmate my plans for the rest of the trip and that those plans don’t include talking. But I was nice. And polite. And clear. But still polite (because what if that whole ‘oxygen mask’ situation happens?)
Of course, if you’re not brave enough to say what you mean and mean what you say without being mean, non-verbal cues including closing your eyes, putting on headphones, opening a book, leaning towards a window or wrapping yourself in a blanket is usually a clear signal that you are not in the mood for small talk. Or you could just wear this t-shirt on every single flight. But I wouldn’t recommend it. In general, I am a fan of small talk. Obviously. Because some of the most interesting people I’ve ever small-talked with have been on an airplane or in a cab or waiting in line for coffee. But there are days when silence is golden and gazing quietly out a window is better than words can describe.