I was at a dinner party a couple of weeks ago. While the hosts were seeing to drinks and pre-dinner snacks, we guests were making conversation, attempting to find common ground or, at the very least, something interesting to talk about.
One of the guests asked me, “What do you do?” which he had no way of knowing is a bit of an awkward question for me these days.
“I…. guess I’m retired.”
“From what?” he asked.
Another few moments of awkwardness as I flailed at my husband and said, “I used to help him in his bakery.”
Thankfully, that got the conversation moving, because, who doesn’t love a bakery?
Thinking about it later, I realized I often ask the same damn question, and it’s time I let it go — time to ask more open-ended, less potentially awkward questions.
My fellow dinner-guest was an older man, from a time when people could choose a profession and stick with it their entire working life. He’s a retired doctor, presumably proud of what he did.
Times have changed. Entire sectors of work disappear in an instant, leaving people scrambling to find something that will pay the rent and feed their families. Not everyone wants to talk about their jobs. Not everyone has a job. “What do you do?” meant to grease the wheels of conversation can often cause it to stall entirely.
As our lives get more fractured and complicated, the standard questions become less and less useful.
“What do you do?” leads to tales of job loss, of careers cobbled together through part-time gigs and whatever’s handy. If the loss is really fresh, it could lead to tears.
“Are you married?” is a non-starter.
“Do you have children?” can lead to “Well, I don’t, but he does” or “No” or, again, tears.
We need to come up with better questions.
When I’m thinking clearly, I’ll often ask, “And how do you know our host?” It’s usually a safe question. Although a response of “We used to live together” can make the next bit difficult.
The next time I meet a stranger, I’m going to try the question, “What do you like to talk about these days?”
This will let my new friend talk about anything that’s caught their attention, from climate change to the funny thing their child said just before they headed out the door to their lifelong fascination with antique quilts.
If it’s a topic I know anything about, then we have something in common and the conversation can roll from there. If it’s something I don’t know anything about, my next question will be, “Tell me more,” and I’ll have a chance to learn something, which I always adore.
I love listening to someone talk about something that they’re passionate about, whether it’s job-related or one of those random enthusiasms we all pick up along the way.
I still miss my Dad’s compost speeches.
Dad was a pretty low-key guy, but if you got him started on compost, you could relax for a good twenty minutes, knowing you wouldn’t be called on to say a word. Dad would sit forward in his chair; his eyes would light up, and he would wax poetic about earthworms and tilth. It was fabulous.
I once had quantum physics explained by a Ph.D. student. My sister had asked what his thesis was about, and off he went. It was so long ago, I can’t, unfortunately, remember what he said, but he explained it so thoroughly and so well that, when he finished, we not only understood what he was saying, we gave him a round of applause.
So, yeah, I’ll definitely give, “What do you like to talk about?” a try.
How about you? What’s your favourite getting-to-know-you question. Please leave a comment and let us know!
Photo by Kate Kalvach on Unsplash
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OMG Barb, that’s a great question which, I believe, will help me immensely. I am one of those people who HATES parties as I find myself in the position of staring at someone unfamiliar with nothing to say. I am the one who is eternally grateful for anyone asking me anything, even “What do you do with your life?”, because it redeems the awkward silence. It quells the low-rolling panic that begins to churn inside me as I stare at someone with absolutely nothing interesting in my head. Moments of ‘blessed chirpiness’ aside, I usually don’t have a conversation starter that is reliable, unless I’ve had some kind of relationship and common ground with the person. I believe you’ve hit upon a really good question that allows both parties to say whatever is most interesting to them at that moment in time. Hey….thanks so much! 🙂
I’m glad I could help, Heidi! xo
I like to ask, “So, how do you like to spend your free time?” Very similar for your question, Barb, in that it can get people off and running and then I can sit back and listen. I absolutely abhor small talk. It gives me hives! Ok, so I exaggerate. But I don’t see the point of it, and…it forces me to think of something banal to say. Bleh!
I’m looking forward to hanging out and hearing what YOU like to talk about and do in your free time.
I would love that, Karen. No small talk allowed! xo
I love this! Thank you!
My go-to is similar to yours and Karen’s, and is simply “What keeps you busy?” Though I suppose that it is limiting, in that it somehow implies that busyness is something to strive for, it is my hope that it is open-ended enough that people can choose to share anything and everything that occupies their minds. They can share stories about the people in their lives, the work they are obligated to do, the passions that they feel free to follow, the things they are dreaming about…and they can choose the path down which to take the conversation.
There’s another question that I have often found to be handy. People will often break into conversation about our kids whenever I happen to be out with them. I often experience a pause or a passing look on their faces that leads me to believe that there is more to be talked about on the topic of children, and that the other person is perhaps unsure about how to launch into the topic…and so I ask “Are there any little people in your life?” I love hearing about people’s (peoples’?) neighbours, customers, fellow library patrons, nieces, nephews, kids, and grandkids…and it is my hope that this question gives them enough space to share any stories that are near and dear to their hearts. (I also realize that this question sometimes brings up stories of hurt, frustration, or anger. These experiences are just as worthy of being talked about, and I always try to provide an empathetic and welcoming space should people choose to honour me with their stories.)
Ah… lovely questions, Janet!
The little people question is a bit like Alan’s way of asking about the children his customers bring with them to the bakery and markets. Instead of trying to guess – child? grandchild? – he asks, “Who’s your friend?” Always brings a smile and avoids SO much awkwardness.
Great question, Alan, especially when directed to the “little person”….
I really love that!