Intrusive Small Talk


    A young woman asks for advice on how to respond to or redirect uncomfortable small talk from an older member of her synagogue.

    Dear Miriam,

    I'm a 20-something who is very happy to have found a synagogue with a vibrant young community where (single) women are valued for community involvement and professional accomplishments rather than judged by marital status. I was thus unsure how to respond at a recent synagogue event when an older lady who was new to the community started asking me about my marital status, age and the suitability of the single men in the room. While I'm sure she meant well, I found the line of questioning uncomfortable and even a little demeaning from someone I had literally just met. How would you suggest responding to or redirecting this kind of conversation? 

    Intrusive Small Talk

    Dear Small Talk,

    How fortunate for you to have found such an idyllic community! Hopefully, within a few weeks of being part of said community, this interloper will get a sense of the vibe and social norms of the synagogue and realize that not all 20-somethings are just looking to get partnered off.

    In the meantime, you and your friends can help set that tone. Next time you see her, talk about your work. Ask her questions about her life. Make a big deal about how interesting and accomplished and diverse the community is. 

    If she keeps coming back to questions about marital status and eligibility, you might ask, "Do you have someone you're looking to set up?" Maybe, giving the benefit of the doubt here, she's asking for a single granddaughter rather than intruding into your personal life.

    If it turns out she really is just being nosy about you, feel free to say something direct but polite, such as, "I'm not comfortable discussing my personal life at shul," or, "Thanks for thinking of me, but I'm not looking right now." Then redirect the conversation to a neutral topic, like the food at kiddush or Israel (just kidding). 

    Next time this kind of small talk arises with a stranger — and there is always a next time — be prepared with your responses. That way you won't walk away wondering if you gave the wrong impression or let someone get too much information out of you because you were caught off guard.

    Your experience here is also a good reminder that what might seem like innocent small talk to one person could be considered demeaning by another. For anyone reading this who identifies more with the "older lady" than the 20-something writer, I would encourage you to broaden your ideas of what makes good conversation. While certainly many people of any age are eager to talk about relationships, there's a wide, wide world of topics out there that can tell you much more about a person than whether or not s/he is married.

    Be well,