It's not small talk that's the problem, it's when we pierce the veil of custom and attempt to exchange thoughts with another human. It's a frightening prospect, but there are certain traps we fall into that turn it into an unadulterated nightmare. Thankfully, I'm here to help. Together we can make the world of tomorrow a better, less annoying place!
One - Dreams
When you're in a dream it's the coolest thing, like, ever. You're an omnipotent action hero fighting a monster that's part the kid that picked on you in fourth grade and part Sephiroth from Final Fantasy 7, all while that girl in legal that won't give you the time of day hangs off your arm, worshiping you with her eyes. Then you wake up and can barely remember it.
We all dream. As weird as your dream is, something equally strange happened to someone else last night, or the night before. Part of the weirdness of dreams is how emotions and feelings manifest fully formed - it can take years to fall in love with someone, but you instantly fell for that guy or girl riding the inflatable hoverboard last night; movie after movie tries to fill you with horror, but none of it can match the bedwetting (possibly literally) terror of the closet door from your childhood room slowly swinging open.
However, since you can't relate those emotions to anyone else, your dreams sound like drug fueled hallucinations directed by a three year old with ADD.
Dreams are likely the only virtual reality many of us will ever experience, our own personal Matrix. We're self centered creatures, and dreams take this to the nth level - it's a whole universe that finds its purpose in us.
In fact, have you ever been bored by someone's dream, only to perk up when they mentioned you were in it? Case in point. So keep the dreams to yourself. If you absolutely have to get the details down, start a dream journal that you never, ever share with anyone else. Here's some Lisa Frank stickers to get you started.
Two - Geneaologies
"Now, he wasn't married to Sheila, because he had the marriage annulled on account of her being barren. And that's what she's only my great uncle's cousin, instead of his second wife."
History is important. Interesting, even. That's why we entrust its care to scholars and anyone with a beard on the Discovery Channel. These people make the great events and personalities of the past come alive.
You're a guy who spends more on ancestry.com than a month than Sumatran families spend on food in a year. You have no formal training in historical criticism or the socio-cultural milieu of the time you're researching.
Most people have no interest in geneaology. They're not particularly concerned with where their parents went to high school, so knowing your great-great-grandpa Josiah touched Abraham Lincoln's shoe or how many candles Grandma Baloney sold at her Ye Olde Ne'erywacks Store does nothing for them.
Here's what I know about my family: they spent seven generations farming the same patch of dirt in a redneck county for 160 years. They were dirt farmers. Is that interesting to you? No. It doesn't matter what you find out about your ancestors, even if they were Aztec astronauts that invented the escalator. No one but you will care.
And if you do discover something - the blood curse of the beast which swells at midsummer - at least they'll have some investment in that info. Me? I'll shoot silver straight in your heart.
Three - Health Problems
"Well, my crippl'ins is acting up, and that medicine they got me on for it causes my downstairs to itch up something fierce. 'course, I cain't even do that cause my joints trouble me if I move so much as a fly's mustache. But you don't want to hear about that, do you dear?"
I'm looking at you, old people.
Back in the 50's, "How are you?" might have well meant, "Tell me in detail what you're feeling right now."
In this era it's a standardized American greeting. Acceptable responses include "Doing well", "I'm okay", and the ever popular "Fine." Unacceptable responses are anything that make us visualize you sitting on a doctor's cold table, paper gown swaying in the AC, frowning your jowls as you prepare to be invaded by a camera or a spelunking finger.
Co-workers, I didn't forget about you all. What part of sharing an office with someone communicates that it's okay to share the results of your colonscopy? I'm not talking about overhearing it while you tell your spouse, which is annoying; I'm talking about direct, "Hey, want to know how my intestines are doing?" I once had a coworker tell me, "Well, now I know what the inside of my anus looks like."
There is no universe where it's okay for anyone to tell me that. Ever. In another dimension we're silicon based beings that eat with our noses and shit out our ears, and it's still not okay for that to happen.
This doesn't mean we don't care about your health, or want you to die; we only want you to extend to us the same bland, polite apathy we do to you. I keep that mole with the weird borders quiet, you don't tell me when and how often your bowels bleed. Deal?
Four - Babies and kids
"Jenny's nursing now, and I'm so exhausted! She keeps me up all night, just chewing at my nipples till they're all stretched out. And little Tim wants to hold his sister, but - did I tell you he's doing t-ball now? The coach says that..."
You reproduced. Congrats. So did the people down the street from you, the ones you don't talk to because the husband lost his job and you're afraid they'll ask for a handout. What would actually be impressive is if, like a horse, your baby was running as soon as he fell out of you.
To the contrary, most of your stories deal with your kid's inability to do anything well; they're shitting and pissing left and right while babbling like the Insane Clown Posse at a spelling bee. Since we were all children at one point, and most of us had siblings, we've heard these stories before. The fact that your baby is named "Brad" instead of "Stephen" does nothing to keep us interested.
Listen - I like kids, I really do, but secondhand stories of macaroni art make me want to force feed you the teapot/hot air balloon/leprechaun head your kid glued to the page in between surreptitiously eating the paste. Yes, your little princess/slugger eats paste. They call it "art candy."
I'm considerate. I don't tell you about my friends when they're drunk, despite the disturbing similarities to your baby tales. And no matter how hard they chew on my nipples, that's between them, me, and the hypnotherapist I hired to make me forget it all.
Five - Commercials
"I laid awake at nights and fantasized about killing my husband with a knife I called Spousereaver. But thanks to the patented lazy spring suspension system, I've buried all those thoughts deep, deep down! Thanks Slumberco!"
Prior to the 70's, when people told one another about commercials, there was an obvious, easily relatable gag. Absurd humor hadn't entered the mainstream yet, so it didn't take much to get people buzzing at the water cooler.
The listener would think, "Wow, that's funny. Talking cats. I gotta check that stuff out."
Commercials are a visual medium, and an ephemeral one at that. They've grown more sophisticated over the years, such that they seem like short films; unfortunately, this only exacerbates the problem. When someone tells me about a commercial, I stare at them blankly. Then they look vaguely ashamed, like they should, and finish "I guess you had to be there." Yeah, I "guess" I did, to see the thing you're trying to tell me about with words.
Infomercials are a different case; they embrace the narrative for all it's worth, telling us a story about how the woman who couldn't peel a carrot without burning her house down is now a happy, vegetable peeling maniac. We believe in the power of the ShamWow guy, and Billy Mays was damn near an uncle to all of us.
The fifteen second spot for Tide with the talking bubbles? Not so much.
And companies, this word of mouth advertising is doing nothing for sales. When a friend gives me his lame ass rehash of what might have been a cool commercial, I judge you for it. No, it's not fair, but maybe you should start working on a way to make people stop. Maybe you can run PSA's, like Wonder Woman used to.
I hope this advice has been helpful for you. Keep eating your vegetables, don't tell people about stupid shit, and life will go immeasurably better for you!