The kitchen was quiet, the hostel mostly still asleep. As I began to fry my eggs and cut up my oranges, a young couple joined me. We all drew from the same supply of croissants and butter, honey and jam.
She was Chinese. He was Indian. Both were from London. Native Brits. As we moved quietly around the kitchen, we made small talk. Inevitably, we ended up sitting down at the same table. We spoke for hours in that tiny Buenos Aires hostel. Stories about travel, life lessons, endless situations that, at least in retrospect, were Robin Williams-quality funny.
This is how I make friends all over the world. From people next to me on the plane to folks next to me in a tent high above Peru, the ability to start a conversation has more than once saved my skin. It probably has also saved my soul.
I have friends on every continent but the really icy ones. Give it time, Antarctica will have palm trees, and I’m sure I’ll find friends there too. Meanwhile, everywhere else.
So honestly, what do you say to strangers? You might argue that it’s a lot easier when you’re traveling. Yes and no. The reality is that it’s a bit of an art form, but the ability to connect with most anyone, anywhere makes the world a marvelous- and much safer- place. To say the least, it creates the feeling that you’re welcomed, whether you’re at your local Starbucks or in Salta, Argentina.
It depends. Just as it depends on whether you are by yourself, or have your nose in your device. That’s this generation’s “talk to the hand” gesture. That phrase might be dated but it is more apropos now than at any other time. The phone has not only isolated us but made us feel like social pariahs.
We’re terrified of strangers, terrified of feedback, terrified of rejection.
Without real cause. While there will always be folks who don’t care for your pink hair or his sleeve tat, or my big mouth or penchant for breaking into song at the most inopportune moments, most folks are curious, interested and willing. If we start first, start nicely, and stay interested.
Please Keep in Mind
One caveat here, and it’s a big one, so be mindful. There are so many scammers that people have become understandably gun shy. Really good scammers put folks at ease with a professional skill that boggles the mind. The last thing you want to do is have folks feel as though you targeted them. That’s why being authentic is essential. Whoever you are, let that shine. This isn’t about manipulating folks. It’s about making conversation, making friends, and likely changing the quality of your life along the way. Sounds good to me.
Planes Trains and Automobiles
It’s the bane of our existence that people now hide behind their phones. I often find that people are so absorbed when they are in transit that breaking that barrier takes some doing. Most of the time, if you’re seeking help, folks are pretty good about attending to you. I have found that people respond with surprising generosity if you ask for assistance. How you ask determines whether the discussion stops with their answers.
When I travel, my phone stays home, or the local one stays out of reach. That way I’m available. I often need help getting around, so I will ask for directions or for recommendations.
“Do you know where I get off for ____?”
“Can you recommend a good sushi place near here?”
“I’m looking for a good museum. Is there one nearby?”
Their answers often allow me to branch into asking them about where they are from (if they’re another traveler), or what kind of work they do. That can be a rude question in some countries, so be aware. I often get invited to join people for a meal. Never say no, if you can help it. Here’s why:
When I hitch-hiked New Zealand for a year, these kinds of questions got me long farm stays, home stays, and many, many treasured friends and memories. Those friendships last to this day, thirty years later.
Recently I had a lengthy layover in Zurich. The young woman sat down next to me and we talked for hours. She was fascinating and the time whizzed by. Her comment:
“I can tell you’re an experienced traveler. You put your phone away.”
She has a point. Those of us who love to travel also keep ourselves open, soft and curious about those around us, because the world is full of gifts in the form of strangers.
The 15-Item Line. Bring a Book. Or Better, Start a Conversation
If you’ve ever found yourself in Short Line Hell, and who hasn’t, how about skipping the Snooki update and finding something of interest in someone’s cart? I do this all the time, but the way you do it makes all the difference. For example, you never make fun of other’s purchases. What you can do, which is gentle, is make fun of your own propensity to buy too much chocolate or Ben and Jerry’s. Or, compare grocery items you have in common (I might avoid pointing out the RX or OTC meds- OH HEY, you constipated too? Might not be the best opening salvo when you’re in close proximity)
You and I clearly both have a thing for Snickers bars. I love Halloween if for no other reason than I get what’s left from the trick or treaters. What that really means is that I buy an extra jumbo bag and act surprised when I find it in the cupboard.
Looks like you love summer squash about as much as I do. How do you cook yours up?
I just tried that spot remover. It’s been so great. I ride horses, and come home covered in horse hair and mud. Best thing I’ve ever used (this often results in questions about my riding).
Let’s Get Social!
If you freeze up when you walk into a crowded room, you’re in excellent company. Nearly half of Americans describe themselves as shy, and social anxiety is a very real problem for many of us. That said, we are regularly faced with situations where we have to interact. Best advice? If you get tipsy after two drinks, either stop at one, or nurse the one you have all night long. Avoid using booze to bolster your confidence. It will backfire, often badly, and sometimes with permanent consequences.
Let’s look at a few typical situations and how you might navigate them:
We think we know them. Actually, we don’t, even when we’ve worked with them for years. At social events we have a chance to learn much more about them. Their hobbies, personal lives, what they do on vacation. People are often shocked to find out that a long-time associate spends weekends doing hospice work with their highly-trained rescue dog.
Ask people about what they do on weekends, what fires them up about vacation time. Have they ever traveled? If so, where? Learn about their kids, and what dreams they have for their retirement.
You might be very surprised at what you learn, and come away with a far greater appreciation for the folks in nearby cubicles. Work is only one sphere of our lives and in some cases, it isn’t the most important.
Another tack is to compliment people on their work and what it’s like to be on the same team.
I really appreciated how hard you worked to make the deadline on the Thompson project. I’m not sure how we’d have done it if you hadn’t put in the extra time.
It’s a pleasure working with you. I’m glad we all made it another year. I really like how our team is coming together. What do you think?
Depending on whether you’re in direct competition with these folks (let’s hope it’s friendly) or if you are angling for a future job, what you say, how you say it and to whom will vary widely.
Do your research in advance on line. Find reasons to connect- shared interests, shared background, you admire something that they did or wrote or accomplished. Genuine flattery is enormously appealing.
I just read that you won an award for your research. That’s big grant money! Want to talk about what that was like for you? I’d love to hear it.
Last week I watched you speak at the Delta Gamma conference in Madison. I really loved what you had to say about STEM opportunities and your outreach into the community. Could we talk about your point about reaching into middle schools?
I read your PhD dissertation on extreme weather events. That’s an area of real interest. I particularly like what you said about…(you may have to pick the good doctor up off the floor because frankly nobody reads these papers but the committee awarding the PhD. Want to stand out? Read it. And know your stuff or else you will be found out as a fraud)
Here’s what to remember: people are impressed with those of us who are willing to do the sleuthing to find out who they are. It’s flattering, it shows initiative, and most folks don’t bother. You show up informed, educated, curious and committed. That makes you very interesting.
Seat Mates: Making the Best of a Six-Course Meal
In an ideal world, we know who’s going to be at a dinner, unless we’re the trailing spouse or partner. Sometimes we’re clueless about who’s going to be on our left or right, and it’s up to us to do the friendly when it comes to wait….. is that your coffee cup or mine? Your dinner roll plate or mine?
I don’t know about you but I can never bloody well figure that out, and it always leads to confusion.
That, in fact, is how to get off to a funny start.
I’ve played as though I was stealing their butter or wine glass, and made fun as though I was going to get two drinks at their expense. That usually makes people laugh, and it shows you’re up for a good chuckle.
The way I do it is to use a story about my family. When I was growing up, if you didn’t put barbed wire up around your dinner plate, a long male arm armed with a fork would come flying in like the resident raptor and spear your last piece of prime rib. “YOU GONNA EAT THAT?” and before you know it, it was gone. Anyone who grew up with a hungry big brother can relate. That’s just funny.
How you do it matters, as does a quick read as to whether you are rubbing elbows with a conversational dud. It happens. You land next to someone with the personality of congealed oatmeal and is about as appealing.
Give it the Good College Try
Still, you can ask lots of questions. If they shrug you off or make you work too hard, turn to the other elbow or across the table. Depending on how loud it is and if you’re competing with music, this might be impossible. However, you can’t do anything about someone who is already cabbaged and is now incomprehensible. Whatever you do, don’t resort to your phone, no matter how tempting. That’s just rude and everyone can see you do it.
You can ask questions about what brought them to this event (a taxi, hahahaha or Uber). What interests them about (what the event is celebrating). How do they know (the celebrant, bride, etc.) You can inquire about who they are when they’re not in a penguin suit- if it’s formal- or if it’s just casual, their dress will give a way a lot about their lifestyle. Be a noticer.
Use a Conversational Callback
People leak their lives. One of the best signs of an excellent listener is this:
You said something about having lived in Maine a while back. I’ve always wanted to go there. What did you and Shelley do when you were there in the early 2000s?
This is called a callback. Movies use it all the time as a storytelling gimmick. For example, you’re introduced to a very special ladder early in the plot. That ladder has a very important role in the story line. The ladder ends up being a key player for our hero and shows up near the end of the story. Callbacks wrap things up. When you do it during a conversation, it demonstrates how carefully you’re listening. Especially at a noisy dinner party, that is a gift.
My GOD Can I Get Your Signature?
What would you do if you ended up face to face or sitting next to someone truly famous? The CEO of your company? Some luminary?
Many of us would damn near wet ourselves. Others, maybe not, but be just as foolish by being starstruck.
This often depends on the celebrity. They run the gamut just as we do. They can be righteous assholes.
And they can be uniquely humble people. Mandela was famous for his humility. Kanye West, well. Look, it helps to have a comedy element.
Watch their behavior and see what they’re telegraphing. Very famous people, even very powerful people, can be as painfully shy as you and I are. Gary Hart, the Colorado Senator who briefly ran for President in 1987, was one of those socially inept folks. Bright, interesting, but he hated glad-handing. He was a policy wonk, and it served to know your issues if you wanted to talk to the man.
It probably wouldn’t be the best conversation starter to note: “But you look so much younger in your photos!”
If you know you’re going to be around, near or likely to meet the company CEO or some major star, do your homework. The superb NPR interviewer Terri Gross (https://www.npr.org/programs/fresh-air/) does such a deep dive with her interviewees that they are often gobsmacked at what she’s able to find out. And flattered. This is true even for the most famous. We often ascribe confidence to them that they don’t possess.
It is our habit as humans to assume that others have their shit together when they assume the same thing about us. Both are wrong. That realization is immensely freeing.
Your job is to learn about them and ask good questions. They are often accustomed to being asked by the media. If you show initiative and have learned something interesting, you’re likely to stand out. Above all don’t squander this opportunity by showing up unprepared. While this deserves its own article, keep in mind that very senior execs often talk and think in bullet points and metrics. They parce their attention sparingly. The best ones are excellent listeners. The worst are completely self-absorbed. And frankly, probably not worth your time.
It’s not that they don’t have a personality, it’s that you have to earn the right to experience it. That means don’t blather on about yourself. Ask thoughtful, insightful questions.
And Here is the President….
To give you an example of what not to do, I offer this: I attended a very high-end fundraiser in San Jose some years ago. Among the celebs were Queen Noor of Jordan and Bill Clinton. I saw Clinton start to cross the ballroom towards the Queen. I made a beeline for the middle of the room the way a safety is the last defense against a long ball. I had one shot with Clinton. I intercepted him just as he got within speaking distance of Queen Noor.
Instantly he created a bubble around us and asked me a series of questions, making me feel as though I were the only one in the room. We were surrounded by a bristle of microphones. All I recall is that I hadn’t prepared. My IQ promptly dropped about 60 points, and he moved on to the Queen. Blew it. However, what a lesson in not doing my homework.
So…Are You Ready for this Meeting?
Before you walk into a big presentation or meeting it can be nerve-wracking, depending on the stakes. That’s also a great time to create allies, offer support, and establish yourself as a team player with folks you really want to impress.
Say one of your coworkers is about to make his first presentation in front of a senior manager. Here’s what you could do:
Germaine, what if I support you in the points about the sales volume? Would it help to have me add some comments?
Hey, if you get nervous, or lose your place, what kind of signal can I give you to help you get back on track? What if I ask you a question that lets you know where you are?
Or, if you’re the presenter, how you support, uplift, point out or identify those in the room who would benefit?
Listen, just so that you know, I’m going to call you out for that research you did on why people buy our new product line. Just be prepared- I’ll set you up to look like a hero.
There’s a Theme Here
Yes. There is. It’s being aware of Others. Their needs, their fears, their very real concerns that are identical to yours and mine: that we aren’t enough, that we don’t matter, or aren’t important. When we treat others as though they are interesting and important, very often they return the favor.
In a world were our devices have made us even more self-absorbed (and often, fearful) than we normally are, the best way to counteract it is to be informed, interested, inclusive and proactive.
The person who makes the first conversational move to help others relax is the hero. Try it. It feels terrific. It might even become a habit.