Avoiding interview-style questions
October 12, 2005 5:18 PM   Subscribe

When meeting new people, how do you avoid the interview-style boring questions? (How old are you? Where did you grow up? Do you work or study? ...)

What techniques do you use to avoid answering these questions without appearing antisocial?
What do you do when you're out of things to say, and have the urge to ask these questions?
How do you convert the conversation to something more creative?

It's not that I have anything to hide, but I hate repeating the same conversations every time, and I don't think it's a good way of getting to know someone new.
posted by Sharcho to Human Relations (32 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: I was trying to give examples of other starters. But it seems like they all end up being interview types of questions. It seems that in order for conversation to move beyond these questions, you have to probe for something more detailed to be revealed. If I ended up starting at a more specific level of conversation, it's more likely to stop conversation than foster it.

Asd for avoiding these questions, if you're the personality type to pull it off, come up with something absurd(3.25 in dog years, Stygia and slack respectively). This will get a reaction one way or another, if it's received well then conversation can progress. If not received well than do you really want to talk to them?
posted by mnology at 5:40 PM on October 12, 2005

Tell a great anecdote, or talk about the really good book you just read. Politics is also really easy, FUGWB!
posted by The Jesse Helms at 5:40 PM on October 12, 2005

I had a very good friend in college that seemed to be able to get to the "core" of a person within minutes of an introduction. He would, though perhaps not directly, ask all the questions you mentioned but you could tell that he was asking with a purpose, not just to fill time. The conversation would very quickly lead to the other person's goal in life, their family life, their desires/fear, their love/sex life, etc. I can't think of anything he did specifically so I tend to think that his intention was more important than his technique. And he almost never answered any of these questions himself, rather he would immediately turn the conversation back to the other person.

Unfortunately, while some very interesting conversations resulted, my friend tended to use his superpowers for evil and would make a lot people at least uncomfortable and often worse. I was one of his few friends when he graduated.
posted by mullacc at 5:43 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

And, tacking something on (sorry Sharcho): What's a nice way to respond to "Pleased to meet you"? Repeating it always seems tacky
posted by pantsrobot at 5:44 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: Anecdote is huge. Especially if you're a good storyteller.

You generally want to ask open-ended questions and then follow-up with some personal, humorous insight or anecdote.

Charming People 101.
posted by Mach3avelli at 5:46 PM on October 12, 2005

And, tacking something on (sorry Sharcho): What's a nice way to respond to "Pleased to meet you"? Repeating it always seems tacky

"Wanna fuck?"

Just kidding. You can just respond with "Likewise" or "Same" if you want to avoid the ugly repugnancy.
posted by Mach3avelli at 5:49 PM on October 12, 2005

my friend tended to use his superpowers for evil

Incidentally, the type of questioning you describe is found in How to Win Friends and Influence People. I guess having these skills + evil intent = manipulation.
posted by Miko at 5:58 PM on October 12, 2005

And, tacking something on (sorry Sharcho): What's a nice way to respond to "Pleased to meet you"? Repeating it always seems tacky

I say "mice to neat you" and hope that they notice.
posted by aubilenon at 5:59 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: I think the key is asking good follow-ups. When someone tells you where they grew up, don't then immediately ask where they went to school, but try and ask another question about where they grew up -- is it different from where they live now, are they glad to be out, or do they want to go back, is it as great (horrible) a place to live as I have heard, etc.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:01 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: You see Sharcho, a good conversion is like a good woman.

First you've got to set a friendly tone. Fake it if necessary until it comes naturally with a goofy grin or at least a hipster smirk.

Take last weekend at this party... I saw this cute goth looking bored out of her mind so I walked over and said in my most monotone voice, "Sooo.... what kind of music do you like?" ... she laughed, it worked, and I was in like Flynn. Turns out she liked the Banshees and Gillian Welch so we had a few stories to trade.

If your conversations are starting from scratch too much that's a sign you're not asking enough questions. Make segways in the chat but try to tie them back into the topic so you don't run roughshod over the conversation and block what they might have wanted to say. If they're talking about programming techniques, and that reminds you of a funny story about parrots, then move it back to programming.

And rephrase what they've said back at them, so they know they're getting through. This is pretty much the same as asking them to continue.

I find it's mostly about being happy and being in the right frame of mind. So I read the right kind of books (DeLillo), watch tv that's near my personality (The Daily Show, Look Around You), and listen to angry lesbian folk music so I always end up having something in common.

The only problems I have is when I meat someone who does nothing but something I don't understand like, say, Treaty Negotiations, and then that they seem bored with it. If they're not into music, politics, or movies, or science I wouldn't know where to begin. But I don't mind that so much because they're few and far between... much like a good woman. Christ... what a shitty analogy. Sorry about that, dude.
posted by holloway at 6:05 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: Previous similar question.
posted by nicwolff at 6:05 PM on October 12, 2005

"when I meat someone" ... LOOKS LIKE MEAT'S BACK ON THE MENU BOYS
posted by holloway at 6:08 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: When meeting new people, how do you avoid the interview-style boring questions? (How old are you? Where did you grow up? Do you work or study? ...)

Don't ask those kind of questions. They are rarely important. If they are important, it will come up as a matter of course.

What techniques do you use to avoid answering these questions without appearing antisocial?

Treat it as non consequential / silly. And then move on quickly.

What do you do when you're out of things to say, and have the urge to ask these questions?

Jesus, I wish I could run out of things to talk about... I mean keeping up with metafilter, delicious, and my hobbies are more then enough interesting information to talk about with anyone.

Failing current events, talk about the weather, the building you are in, the garden you are in... Talk about Mary's Big ass and her inability to match her tops and her bottoms.

How do you convert the conversation to something more creative?

When I slow down and pay attention to what other people are saying (how they are saying it - emphasis, pitch, body language) I have no problem finding out what they value and am I able to move to subjects that are important to *them.* And everybody thinks that they are creative.
posted by bigmusic at 6:08 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If they're into something you don't understand, like Treaty Negotiations, ask "what is it about that that got you interested in it?", and you'll hear an interesting story, most likely. Even if you don't care about treaty negotiations, you probably care about people and you can hook into the parts of their story that have to do with passion for their work, or random paths through career change, or whatever. If it turns out they're really bored with their work, ask them what job they would like if they could do anything in the world, or what they do to keep from going crazy when they get home from work. If the answer to that is "read Metafilter", walk away.
posted by matildaben at 6:10 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

If they're into something you don't understand, like Treaty Negotiations, ask "what is it about that that got you interested in it?", and you'll hear an interesting story, most likely.
It's so obvious. It's brilliant.
posted by holloway at 6:15 PM on October 12, 2005

I think people ask broad generic questions for two reasons: 1) These are safe, comfortable questions to gauge whether or not this person is interested in talking to you, and 2) They help narrow down potential areas of common interest for future questions.

For example, in college the cliched opener was "What's your major?" (Everyone had one, and this opened up questions of similar interests, professors, classes, friends, etc.)

When I was backpacking, everyone's first question was always "Where are you from?" Another good question for quickly establishing common ground.

Trying out new conversation starters is fun and usually gets interesting faster than the old standbys. My favorite when traveling: "In your mind, what is the most exotic place on earth?" Sometimes I had to explain what "exotic" meant, but this usually got some interesting results. (This question makes sense in the context of traveling, I wouldn't necessarily ask it to random stranger I'd met at a bookstore.)
posted by justkevin at 6:35 PM on October 12, 2005

The general vibe I'm getting here, that which resonates through all the posts goes something like this:

It's all about grabbing hold of any little morsel of personal information you get out of someone and using it to get more out of them, occasionally tying in your own personal experience. Eventually the conversation should just flow naturally, or you just aren't very interesting people (in one another's view). How you get the intial morsel is the only differnce between the above responses.
posted by phrontist at 6:36 PM on October 12, 2005

"what is it about that that got you interested in it?"

exactly. Go from some basic factual recitations to what they think about the data they just gave you. I often ask people about where they're from, how it's different from where they are now [or if they haven't left, why they stayed], what's the farthest place they've traveled, the last concert they've seen, the last book they've read, the funniest joke they know. Obviously if people are reallly introverted, trying to draw them out is not that much fun for them unless it's pretty clear that 1) you're interested 2) you're not going to turn on them a la mulacc's friend, so accompanying your questions with some body language that makes it clear that you're asking because you're generally interested, not because you're stuck next to them at a party.

Answer questions the same way. Feel free to give them the data they're asking about, but follow up with "but what I *really* care about it skydiving. What do you like doing when you're not stuck at parties talking to dorks like me?". And, of course, sometimes you are stuck with someone who's not the world's best conversationalist and you have to sort of make a decision about angling them directly into a social handoff situation "Oh hey Bill, this is Mary, she's also really into geology. I've gotta go get a drink...." or going off into a situation where you do all the talking. You can sort of tell by context whether this is the time to tell the story of the time you got arrested, or maybe the story about an interesting logistical problem you solved in your garage, but either way, some people just aren't talkers. If you're not prepared to take up the conversationalist slack, feel free to make a polite exit. Unless it's someone that you socially or politically HAVE to speak to, it's fine to make an exit.
posted by jessamyn at 6:38 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: bigmusic, how do you introduce random topics into the conversation. I can't seem to make the transition between "What do you do?" and "I've read on MeFi that Albanian has 27 words for 'moustache' " without sounding silly.

I'd also like to hear some more examples of creative answers to boring questions (e.g. "3.25 in dog years").

Thanks for the great answers so far, keep them coming.
posted by Sharcho at 6:56 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: I have a tendency to ask people questions that are still in my cache from the last conversation. If I've just been talking to somebody about restaurants, and then I talk to a new person, I'll ask them about restaurants. This has two benefits: gives me something to talk about without having to search too hard, and it also lets me say something like, "oh, that's interesting. I talked to somebody who went to that exact restaurant the other night and she said blah blah blah".

But small talk is not my strong suit, so maybe this is actually a really bad strategy. Maybe it will make people hate you. Caveat emptor.
posted by Hildago at 7:03 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

creative answers to boring questions: embellish.
And I don't mean lie, I mean "I'm 37 - actually my birthday is coming up next month, and I was thinking about ..." The transition becomes lively and still natural, without the Albanian moustache syndrome. As follow-up, you can (in this converation, for example) break into "what did you do for your last birthday" "really want it to be memorable" "know any good Albanian restaurants for a birthday mob" ... etc. What was a yes/no or factoid question can be steered into any kind of conversation.
posted by whatzit at 7:15 PM on October 12, 2005

Politics is also really easy, FUGWB!
Uhhh yeah. Or not. I'd say that's probably the last thing you want to steer the conversation towards with a perfect stranger, unless you're both attending a political rally or something. People tend to either A) have very strong emotions and opinions about politics and don't take kindly to those that disagree or B) have a very strong aversion to the entire topic, perhaps because of bad experiences in the past caused by A).

Are we talking about meeting people at the bus stop, or at the workplace? Casual chat, or romantic overtones? I guess good conversations will always have certain things in common but it seems to me that it depends also on the context of the conversation.

For example, if you're meeting a coworker and trying to get to know them, you instantly have some small amount of rapport due to the fact that you work in the same place -- though you may have completely unrelated jobs. But it's still a starting place that's better than a generic opener.

I have noticed that people that are good at chatting up random strangers on the street (or in a store, on a bus, etc) normally start with some humorous observation about the other's actions. You know, like if you see someone holding a huge stuffed animal you might ask them what carney they just fooled into letting them win. That's probably not the best example, but maybe you see what I'm saying. If the person you're meeting happens to have a baby or children with them, then that's almost always a good starting point since parents love to talk about their kids.

Maybe try to start the conversation with something that allows the other person to explain a little bit about themselves, or what they've just been up to for the last few hours. If you can just get someone talking for more than a few sentences, you'll probably find plenty of topics that you can branch out to from there. It's a lot better than a simple question with a simple answer like "How old are you?".
posted by Rhomboid at 7:16 PM on October 12, 2005

Best answer: creative answers to boring questions

Better than I've ever been before.
Always gets you a "wow, why's that?" Then, the fun part is giving a reason. I use reasons that reflect my true desires and fantasies. This let's them know a little something about me, and then you can give them an opportunity to respond in kind.

[greeting] Happy Tuesday! (use appropriate day)
Sometimes they pass this one by. Many times you get a cheery "happy Tuesday!" in return. Now they're smiling and you can use some of the stuff other folks have mentioned above (and below).

I'm kind of absurd when conversing, which can make some people feel taken aback. But it makes me smile a lot, and smiling a lot helps conversations, too.
posted by carsonb at 7:23 PM on October 12, 2005 [1 favorite]

I usually open with "So, why are you here?" Occasionally I end up looking stupid, but at least it's something different. It's open-ended enough that the person can say whatever's on their mind.
posted by Ritchie at 7:27 PM on October 12, 2005

I'd also like to hear some more examples of creative answers to boring questions (e.g. "3.25 in dog years").

Just as a warning, to me there is no way you can do this and not be an asshole. Some people will find it charming, but some will find it really repellent. So beware who you use it on.
posted by dame at 7:38 PM on October 12, 2005

Apparently I'm in the minority, but I don't find interview questions all that off putting (except the age one, that is just rude).

Just don't keep asking the superficial ones. If you start by asking "So what do you do?" Follow it up with a question about their answer, don't just skip to a question about their hometown. "You slack? Are you a dedicated amateur or do you do it professionally?" or for a more serious answer "Your an accountant? Big firm or small? What's your biggest pet peeve in a client?"

Incidentally asking people about pet peeves is a fantastic conversation starter. Just about anybody will talk enthusiastically about the stupidity of others. (And, often, you learn something that you should avoid doing around those kind of people, which is nice.)
posted by oddman at 8:02 PM on October 12, 2005

...beware who you use it on.

generally, just beware. and be nice. if you actively listen to and are aware of the person you're conversing with, you'll be[come a]ware of them. the good news is, people in general are wildly interesting. not asking boring interview questions is as easy as noticing how not-boring whomever you're talking to is. if you're nice, and you notice, their answers will be that much more interesting.

though sometimes noticing things can be hard, or at least non-intuitive. the only way out of non-intuitive situations is creativity. use your imagination when you talk to people. imagine how they're feeling, what they're thinking. use questions to communicate your thoughts and assay your imagination against their reality.
posted by carsonb at 8:08 PM on October 12, 2005

are aware...you'll be[come a]ware
oops. I need more preview time in the future.

posted by carsonb at 8:11 PM on October 12, 2005

Hello there. Have you ever been covered in your own blood? Really? What happened?
posted by nonmyopicdave at 8:24 PM on October 12, 2005

The easiest conversation starter is to talk about the situation that you're both currently engaged in. Like, "What's up with/what are your feelings about this bar/sports game/new boss/party/ceramics class/cultural devolution/nuclear fallout/&c?"

Save the boring "get-to-know-you" questions about name, age, and blood-type until you've already had a decent exchange. Just slip it in there like, "Wow, that's really interesting. I never thought of it that way. My name is ____, by the way. What's yours? What a great name! Is that Portuguese? Cool! Yeah, I'm O+, too."
posted by Jon-o at 9:18 PM on October 12, 2005

say terrible things about yourself.

a good way to start is to notice something noticeable about the person you've met (whether you like it or not) then say you notice it and then immediately start talking about how you're terrible in whatever way applies to that noticeable thing.

example: "Oh, hey! You're wearing converse! That's awesome! Personally, I'm terrified of clothes shopping and always just wind up getting whatever everyone else I know wears. I honestly almost never have an original thought to myself. Just the other day I couldn't figure out what to eat, and spent my entire lunch break sitting in the lunch room looking blankly at the wall until I noticed someone walk by with a bag from [common food chain] and then immediately went out and got that. You ever have that happen? No? God, it happens all the time. One time, at a job interview, they asked me to say something good about myself, and I honestly said (I'm not kidding.) "I don't know, what do YOU think is good about me?"

There is no need for anything you say to be in any way honest, so long as it's self-abusive and/or amusing. I'm not kidding. This is what I do almost every time I meet someone. It's gotten to the point where I can improvisationally launch into minutes-long speeches about imaginary embarrassing things I've done and people immediately warm up and start talking. After that, if I'm not feeling talkative, I can shut up for the rest of the night.
posted by shmegegge at 3:32 AM on October 13, 2005

My 3 Rules:
1. Remember everyone is self-centered
2. Done the right way, nobody is immune to flattery
3. Most people are not listening because they are too busy thinking up their next reply (see rule #1.)

So when I want to be a popular party girl, I make it a game to say as little about myself as possible, and try to make each person I meet the Star Attraction.
posted by Secret Life of Gravy at 8:07 AM on October 14, 2005 [2 favorites]

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