Inane Small Talk and The Question of Doom

When people tell you what they do, the polite way to carry on the conversation is to enquire about the details.

‘Whereabouts do you work?’

‘How long have you been in such-and-such profession?’

‘What are you working on currently?’


I suspect most people groan inwardly at having to answer the same questions they’ve been asked countless times before, but they’ll still ask those questions right back at the other person. It’s one of those weird social interactions that’s rarely of great interest to either party. Personally, I always think people’s hobbies and passions are much more interesting than their mode of employment, but no one ever seems to ask ‘What do you do for fun?’ Of course, sometimes those areas blur in a very satisfying way (such as in writing careers… ahem), and you’re more likely to find people who enjoy talking about their work because they genuinely enjoy doing it.

Even then, you get the same questions you’re asked every time. And unless the person is an avid reader of your particular genre, describing the sort of things you write to people who don’t read them usually results in the same polite smiles and subject-changing that occurs with any other profession-related small talk. Which is fine, because talking to someone who’s clearly not interested in the specifics of your subject is awkward at best.

Lately, though, I’ve been wondering what questions people really hate being asked about their work. It must happen: that one question which you loathe, and which, for some reason, 75% of people seem to ask. Maybe you hate it because you’ve been asked it 16 million times and can’t bear to repeat the answer yet again. Maybe you hate it because it means you have to reveal something about yourself or your work that you’re really not comfortable sharing with someone you just met at a party. Maybe you hate it because it’s a completely inane question that has no real answer, and you can’t believe so many people think it’s a sensible thing to ask.

My most hated question falls into that last bracket. It’s the dreaded:

‘Where do you get your ideas?’

Just typing that question makes me cringe. The innocent enquirer always stands there with a benign, considerate expression, waiting for your reply, as if their question actually has an answer. And I’m always baffled by it. Not so much baffled by the question, but by the fact that so many people ask it. Have they really thought it through? Do they really expect there to be an enlightening reply? Or is it just another case of meaningless small talk, the person in question assuming they’ve come up with a new and exciting way to take the conversation?

Newsflash: It’s not new. It’s not exciting. And it definitely won’t allow further evolution of the conversation.

It’s a total dead end. There is no answer to that question. There’s no Ideas Depot on the corner of Main St. I don’t grow my ideas from packets of seeds bought at the garden centre. I don’t fish for them. I don’t stalk them. I don’t have a little zone that I go into and mentally rummage around for them. I don’t call them. I don’t summon them. I don’t find them lying in the street or abandoned in back alleys. And you may be occasionally forgiven for thinking so, but I don’t pull them out of my arse either.

Ideas aren’t physical things that you ‘get’ from anywhere. Ideas start with inspiration, and inspiration is totally intangible and often fleeting. It rarely comes at one’s beck and call. It can strike anywhere, at any time, and you’d better be ready with your trusty little black notebook or it’ll dissipate before you’ve had a chance to capture its essence. An idea can come out of nowhere, or it can build slowly over time. There is no set place, or situation, or event that sparks them off. They just plain happen, in all manner of situations and for all kinds of reasons.

So what is it that people expect when they ask that question? Why do they think it’s something a writer (or artist, or anyone else likely to be asked it) would want to share even if there was an answer?

This is turning into a rant, which wasn’t my plan. But I can’t be the only person who hates a specific work-related question. They must be lurking in all walks of life. And there must be far worse ones to contend with.

Go on – share your Question of Doom. It’s actually quite therapeutic.


4 thoughts on “Inane Small Talk and The Question of Doom

  1. An interesting rant and one I have an almost completely different perspective on. I don’t mind being asked, maybe because I took a cue from the great writer/screenwriter William Goldman and took it to heart. Only able to do so because it works for me. He said, because he was often asked this question, just walk outside and look around. That person on the corner over there. Where are they going?, Where have they been? Read the newspaper, page through a magazine, look for something to catch your eye. Use your imagination, if you have one. If you don’t, you’re not a writer.

    A year ago I was reading the USA Today, which I often read -until they changed the format, ruining it- and saw the beginning of an article in the celeb section ‘Francine Barbaro had a baby…’ and I loved that, grabbed it, and I’m going to write a book based on that small beginning. It even begins with that, changing the first name. I think what clicked for me on that, was okay, she did, and why would anyone care? And I thought, what if she were 101 years of age? And what if she had been this enigmatic figure, on the scene since the early 1930; out of sight for a while and now she’d had a baby. Anyway, enough about me.

    1. You’re right… but to me, your comment helps illustrate my point. Ideas are everywhere. They come from paying attention to the world, or having a detailed conversation with a friend, or simply as bolts from the blue at 3am. Every idea has a unique conception point, which is why I can’t answer that question as if they all hail from a single place. I think you just have to be open to them, and learn to recognise a good one when it hits you.

  2. Harlan Ellison:
    My answer is always the same — since there is no answer to this query. At least neither Plato nor Socrates nor Shakespeare could make the codification.When some jamook asks me this one (thereby revealing him/herself to be a person who has about as much imaginative muscle as a head of lettuce), I always smile prettily and answer, “Schenectady.”

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