The art of conversation-making

Friday, 20 February, 2009

I said in a recent post that I'm rather socially awkward (or, at least, I feel that way, even if I don't come across that way), and that I've picked up a lot of things to do with interpersonal interaction from other people. One of the things I've managed to learn is the skill of being able to make conversation with strangers. I don't find it easy, and sometimes I definitely don't enjoy doing it, but I know how and can perform if the situation so demands it.

What I find surprising is that not many others seem to possess this skill, and furthermore, still less are interested in learning. Sunflower wrote this awesome post on this subject some time last year (which I can no longer find on her blog as she hasn't been able to import her archives, otherwise I'd link to it. Oh, hang on, just found the old link through Bloglines! And it was 25 December 2007. Well, I wasn't too far off!) In the absence of her archives, I hope Sunflower doesn't mind if I reproduce her post here (with some edits; it was in one long paragraph, but I've tried to break it up for ease of reading!):


No one else is at home. It's a quiet Christmas Day. Well, not so quiet ... I had lunch with friends, which extended into tea. Now it's 5:30pm and I'm enjoying some time alone. I'm as much a solitary creature as I am a social creature, if not more. People who see me at social events would have a hard time believing that I'm not naturally gregarious. I used to fear such events, abhor crowds and shy away from going to places where I'd be a stranger, and everyone else knew each other. So I developed a strategy to ease my own feelings of awkwardness. Because, you know, there's nothing more awkward than standing around like a lamppost in one corner of the room, not knowing what to do and having no one to talk with. It makes you feel more out of place than ever.

My strategy was simple: I'd let my eyes search out someone who looks as lost as I feel. I'd approach the person, look them in the eye, and introduce myself. “Hi, I'm Sunflower. And you are—?” I would then proceed to ask questions to draw the person out. My reasoning went like this: I don't want to potentially bore the person by talking about myself—I'm not arrogant enough to think I'm such a fascinating character. But most people like talking about themselves, especially to someone who is interested (or appears to be interested). If I could manage to hit on the correct topic—ie., something they are passionate about—they might just end up doing all the talking with very little extra prompting on my part. Viola! Jackpot! No need to try to create conversation anymore. Just sit back and listen, keep eye contact, and respond where necessary.

But you must know what to ask. I usually chose from one of three things. First, the person's occupation: everybody has to work to earn a living, so this is safe. I'd usually follow up by asking if they enjoy what they are doing. Second, the person's hometown: quite a lot of people in the city are migrants from other states. Third, the person's family: parents' occupations, number of siblings, etc.

When I first started using this strategy, sometimes I felt like I was trying a little too hard—that the conversation wasn't natural. Some people also commented that they felt like I was interviewing them, peppering them with questions! (Must've been the journalist in me, ha ha.) Over time, I refined my strategy ... Instead of simply asking questions, I learned to also respond to their answers by sharing my own thoughts or stories. Because, if you want someone to open up to you, you have to open up to them too. Otherwise there is an imbalance and people don't feel comfortable telling so much to someone who tells them nothing in return. It becomes a “Why do you want to know?” situation. So if I were to ask someone how many siblings they had, and they said, “Eight,” I'd go, “Wow! There's only my brother and I, the two of us. My goodness, how did your parents cope?” and this would encourage them to go deeper into the subject. (I know, it sounds so calculated, but this was the only way I knew how to handle the social stuff, and I really did want to find out the answers anyway.)

The other thing about social conversation is that it's not how much you know, it's what you do with what you know. For example, I've never read any of the Harry Potter books. But I know that many fans were disgusted with the ending of the last book, and that many of them sequestered themselves to read the book to the end so that they wouldn't have their enjoyment marred by spoilers from the media and other people. Which means that if I find out that someone is a Harry Potter fan, I can ask, “What did you think of the ending of the last book?” or, “Did you manage to finish the book without getting any spoilers?” This is a win-win situation because fans are naturally passionate about the issue, and will probably end up either ranting or going into detailed raptures for at least 10 minutes raspberry.

My “strategy” has almost become second nature to me now. When talking to someone, I do these things automatically without thinking much about them. I think the main thing to keep in mind is that this is not about you; it is about the other person. You are trying to get to know this person. You want to make them comfortable with you, no matter how awkward you yourself might feel. (Bear in mind that they probably feel just as awkward.) You focus on them, not on yourself. If they tell you about a recent achievement or a momentous event—e.g. a birth in the family—you rejoice with them. If they tell you about a failure or a tragedy, you mourn with them, and try to offer comfort where you can. If they tell you about a problem, you commiserate and try to restrain yourself from offering too much advice. No, I'm not a social animal, but I've sort of trained myself so that instead of having to masquerade as one, I can become one on the occasions when I need to be one. I enjoy social events much more now, although given a choice I'd still prefer to be in a small group of friends, or meet one-on-one for quiet conversation. And in between, I need some time alone to recharge. Like I'm doing now smile

See what I mean? Brilliant!

I only skimmed the comments (I generally don't have time to read the comments on most people's blogs), but what surprised me was the number of people who said that Sunflower's post was a mini-revelation to them—that they had never thought about it before or that she had made it so much clearer for them, etc. (I'm working from memory so this may not be right, but I do remember that was the impression I gleaned when I read them!) Why do most of us have so much trouble talking to strangers?

I think it's partly because we have less opportunities to encounter strangers. Sure, there are people all around us (especially in the big cities), but you get conditioned to ignore them most of the time (especially if they're encroaching on your personal space). You learn to tune out the guy yapping loudly on his mobile, or the couple having a domestic in the corner of the train. You have a natural distrust for strangers carried over from childhood when your parents warned you not to talk to them, or else bad things might happen to you. When you do meet strangers, it's usually in small pockets of time—brief encounters like when you purchase your morning coffee or when you accidentally bump someone in the lift and apologise. They say that modern life is giving rise to a return to village mentality, but it's not quite a traditional village. Sure, in old villages, you knew everyone because you lived among them in season and out of season, but in these contemporary virtual villages, the people you “dwell” among are your chosen company. I may choose to follow a stranger on Twitter, but my decision is usually based on whether or not I think she is interesting, or whether his interests dovetail to mine. Often we don't get the true stranger experience unless we do something fairly drastic like change jobs, move countries or take up a team sport.

Having moved in Christian circles for close to 16 years now, one thing I've noticed is that there are far more opportunities to talk to strangers because you just end up meeting them all the time. You meet them in church and at church events, you meet them on mission, you meet them at conferences, you meet them as friends of friends, and so on. Others are often astonished that Ben and I have a large network of friends; it's mostly because of that.

Moving in Christian circles wasn't the thing that got me started in talking to strangers though. It was going to Canada the year I turned 15. It was one of the only times we've been to Canada in the summer, and it was blazing hot (we were in Toronto, which is rich smack bang in the middle). Somehow during that holiday I ended up hanging out with lots of strangers, or pseudo-strangers (the children of friends of my parents who I barely remembered from before we migrated to Australia). I remember going to strawberry picking with one girl's youth group (not a church youth group; just a social club, I think), and sitting on a grassy hill, talking to some boy a couple of years older than me about university and accents and whether koalas fell out of the trees in my backyard. This was unheard for me; I am naturally shy. But because I was continually thrown into situations where I didn't know people, I learned to loosen up and open up, and actually talk for once.

Anyway, I digress. I want to end this post with a few additions to what Sunflower said:


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Other comments

I think this is great stuff - with one big proviso. The question ‘what do you do’ can be incredibly painful for people who are unemployed/on disability pensions etc. (Sunflower’s assumption that ‘everybody has to work for a living’ shows precisely why unemployed people can feel so excluded.) I also think it tends to follow our society’s assumption that the work we do is what defines us. I’ve learned to ask something like ‘How do you spend your time?’ or ‘what kinds of things do you enjoy doing?’ It sounds kind of clumsy, but it’s so much more sensitive to people - and in the Christian context, might make unemployed people feel much more comfortable about coming to church/Christian social events. But otherwise, all great advice!

Posted by Joanna on 20 February, 2009 3:50 PM

Good point, Joanna! I tend to say something similar—“What occupies your time during the week?” or some such thing.

Great post Karen. I learned very early on in my adult life that people only ever like talking about themselves. This fact is convenient for me as I too am not so great at volunteering information about myself in conversations. Generally the things I like to talk about (God, Jesus, the Bible and linguistics) are conversation stoppers anyways. It’s much easier to pretend to be fascinated by someone who is an accountant.

Sunflower’s comment about offering more of yourself is a good suggestion. I too refuse to offer information unless asked. That’s why, I guess, I ask so many questions. I want the other person to feel like they are important to me. So when the other person doesn’t ask about me then I feel pretty insignificant.

I concur with Joanna. ‘What do you do’ is one of my least favorite questions. Even while I was working I hated answering it because my work never really defined who I was at all. Of course soon I get to make the even more awkward reply of ‘at home mum’ which has it’s own stigma.

Thanks Karen. Was referred here by Simone and appreciated it.

I remember a Scripture Union training weekend for Holiday Missions where one of the speakers gave us a mental picture that assisted with things to ask someone. It was a weird thing to memorise but it’s served me well and was really helpful at a time when I was totally inexperienced with creating conversation.

What was good about the picture was it moved from a house with parents in the door, kids hanging out the windows and a work glove sticking ou the chimney and moved to topics like vacations (an aeroplane), holidays (the propellor was a tennis racquet), ideas and dreams and even moved to asking whether there was something you could pray for the person. I’m sure you could be really impersonal using it, but I found it a helpful tool to express the interest in others that I was previously inept at expressing.

Thanks for posting a reminder.


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