Observations of a young German woman in Cincinnati, Ohio in the U.S.
This comment gets it right: “My experience with small talk is that it starts light and superficial, but the longer it goes on, the more personal it gets. It’s as if both are sending out feelers to find out how deep (or long) the conversation is going to be and to make sure both can end it (or back off) at any time without things getting awkward.
The answer to ‘how are you’ (‘hey, what’s up?’ actually) is always expected to be short, but can be open ended to lead the other person to probe deeper if they wish, such as, ‘okay I guess, I got some stuff going on.’ The other person can back off and say, ‘yeah, I hear ya’ and change the subject if they don’t want to go deeper, or respond with, ‘really? what’s going on?’ if they want you to open up more. Like a verbal tennis match where each hit gets harder to see how intense the game will be. I’m not sure I phrased it right, but I think you catch my meaning.”