The trouble with chit-chat

On the obligation for small talk during appointments

I often ponder the big questions of life: things like whether the universe is infinite, if time travel is possible and, classically, why dentists and hairstylists feel the need to talk to you during every second of your appointment.

There must be something about fine-tuning your appearance that makes such professionals feel intimately connected to you, making questioning every detail of your personal life seem OK. It seems cruel that as you sit there with the fate of your appearance completely in the hands of another person, you are forced to discuss matters neither of you actually care about.

Amid “chin up!” commands — which on paper seem encouraging, but in reality make you fear for the safety of your neck — there always seems to be at least one question about your love life. Then, once she has exhausted this curiosity, you are forced to listen to details of her own life, ranging from best friends’ pregnancies to ex-husbands’ major faults.

For some people — such as my grandma, who has visited her hair stylist on a weekly basis for as long as I can remember — these conversations could actually develop into meaningful relationships. I think it is great when this happens, but as a cheap college student who only gets her hair cut once or twice a year, I don’t foresee friendship forming from the scraps of hair.

Yet as bothersome as it can be for hairstylists to interrogate you about your GPA, your significant other and your family, at least the portion of your body they are working on isn’t directly related to your capacity to respond to them.

Dentists, on the other hand, have at least three tools in your mouth at a time, making it impossible for you to say anything remotely coherent. I wouldn’t be surprised if this is how they entertain themselves among the sea of teeth they encounter on a daily basis. My guess is they look at the schedule for the coming day and take bets on which patient they can get to sound the most ridiculous.

My dentist, in particular, is well known in my family for bringing up uncomfortable subjects at inopportune times. He is very proud of his children, and spends the majority of the time telling his younger patients they should be more like his offspring. I’ve been putting off my dentist appointment ever since I decided not to join the Greek community last year, because I know I will invariably hear how being in a sorority was the best decision his daughter ever made.

And though conversation with doctors is usually pertinent to the current medical examination, mine always attempts to talk to me while she takes my blood pressure. I usually feel nervous at the doctor, as though I need to try extra hard to pass every test. She tries to talk to me to calm me down, but what she doesn’t realize is small talk really does not help ease my nerves. What if I give the wrong answer to the question, “Have you seen any good movies lately?”

Perhaps someday I will be like my grandma and become close friends with my hairstylist, but for now, I think I will be asking my roommate to cut my hair. That way, we can talk about things that really matter — such as the cute waiter who served her table earlier.

Kelly’s column runs biweekly. She can be reached at

Published January 27, 2014 in Life

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