How even do you talk to people?
November 30, 2016 10:52 AM   Subscribe

Being around actual people over Thanksgiving weekend showed me exactly where my weaknesses are in conversation. While I'm keenly interested in others' lives, I have no idea how to express such without feeling like I'm conducting an interrogation over pumpkin pie.

I do fairly well with strangers - where are you from, what do you do, school, interests, kids, etc., but with my loved ones, I have no earthly idea where to start. "What's going on at work?" only takes you so far, especially when either it's all over Facebook or you're addressing a SAHM. "What are you reading these days?" doesn't work if they're strictly tv people. Politics is strictly off-limits since I'm the only liberal in the bunch. Social anxiety has me terrified of asking the wrong thing. Help?
posted by The Almighty Mommy Goddess to Human Relations (17 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You have to tell people things that you've been doing or thinking about as well as asking them questions. That's how you keep it from being an interrogation.

So, for instance, you can ask Aunt Mary what she's knitting these days. She will tell you something about the latest sweater she's knitting. You ask her a few questions--say, about the yarn or if the pattern is difficult--and you listen to the answers and then you tell her a related short story about a craft project you're working on, e.g. the cat sat in your fabric box and covered your latest sewing project with Angora cat hair. She will then tell you ask you questions about the cat or your sewing project, and you can answer them. At some point, she'll mention something that you can grab onto and ask questions about. For example, she'll say, "Oh, I had an old cat once that was always getting into trouble." That's your cue to ask, "What sort of things did he do?" and now the conversation is pointed back at her and she can tell you cat stories.

With this type of back-and-forth pattern, you weave a conversation.
posted by colfax at 11:16 AM on November 30, 2016 [24 favorites]

"What's going on at work?" only takes you so far, especially when either it's all over Facebook

Facebook posts can be a jumping-off point, though. "I saw on Facebook that you (got a new job / got a promotion / took the kids to Disney World / had to take little Jimmy to the emergency room for stitches / etc.)! How (exciting / scary / etc.)! Tell me all about it!"
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:17 AM on November 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Reminisce in good humor? I like to remember our past together, but to keep things from getting all gooey, I'll crack jokes to lighten things up. Our family is not the closest but I don't want to act like we are strangers to each other.

First thing I did when my brother and sister arrived at Thanksgiving this year was to remark that this was the first time all of us were together under my Dad's roof for quite a few years. Then I made a dumb joke about how we all had to sleep in our separate bedrooms that night.

Use your strengths!
posted by Team of Scientists at 11:24 AM on November 30, 2016

Best answer: I'm super shy naturally too!! And super quiet! Someone once said I was 'popular' and it blew my mind because it is all a facade!!

Here are some of the tricks up my sleeve:
- I listen to podcasts and watch chat shows. Call Your Girlfriend and NPR's Fresh Air are two of my favourites. Terry Gross and Oprah are literally professional conversationalists. I think you learn a lot and develop your intuition for chatting just by listening to chat shows whenever you have time.

- Sometimes before a meet up, I prepare (how lame is that). I write a list of topics that I can interview them about, stories to share, and things that I want their advice on (it's fun to problem-solve together, and you might reach a new insight or they might know someone who could help you out)

- I remember my fall-back topics: commenting on your surroundings, movies/tv/books, news, complaining about the weather, family, friends, common interests (e.g. fashion/skincare/sports)

- Ask questions and actually listen before responding

- Internalize the fact that while it is true that you are weird, so is everyone else!

- Be okay with awkwardness/quietness - it takes some practise to get used to socializing - but I think human relationships are worth the trouble.

Good luck! You got this! :)
posted by Crookshanks_Meow at 11:25 AM on November 30, 2016 [20 favorites]

Offhand, some reasonably safe topics for non-super-close family chat:

Have you been working on any house projects? Got anything coming up?
How's your [hobby/sport] going?
How are your pets?
This [food] is delicious, what's the secret?
I saw you got a new [job/car/whatever], how are you liking it?
How was that trip you took?
Did you [see the big game, the big movie, read the big book]? What did you think?
I saw such-and-such (a funny ad, a funny supermarket product, a local construction project, ...) and it reminded me of you/some funny family story
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:34 AM on November 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

I have two sisters and a nephew nearby but we don't meet that often. When we do, I make a point of asking nephew about his job and his studies. I make the questions specific, as in, "what's your favorite class? What makes it your favorite? Any pain in the ass teachers or classes this term? What makes 'em annoying? What's the coolest thing about your job?"

I mention specific questions because my nephew is 21 and has always been the most quiet person in our family. He won't volunteer anything but he's not rude and will answer direct questions. That's how I found out that the best part of his job at a movie theater was changing the huge letters on the marquee. His mom and other aunt didn't even know that was something he did until I asked what the best part of his job was. Then we got to ask follow up Qs (not many) and feel all warm and fuzzy over this brief insight into a really nice by private relative's life. YMMV of course. Good luck!
posted by Bella Donna at 11:37 AM on November 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Best answer: Preparing is absolutely not weird! That's what good networkers for instance do. If you take notes on conversation topics for certain people you can
- ask them follow up questions from last time (so how was the event you went to? How are you getting on with your French lessons?)
- ask open ended questions (not yes/no questions)
- prepare stories you want to tell about what's going on in your life, interesting or amusing things that happened to you recently etc. Practice working them into conversations. So if you plan to ask about work or hobbies, then prepare a work/hobby story you can tell when it's your turn to speak. "That reminds me..." and "wow, I know what you mean, my office is nuts, too" or "you're lucky, my office is completely nuts"
- when is it your turn to speak? When you've asked three or four questions already, or the convo runs dry. Just segue over to yourself as a topic. It's totally expected. After you've talked for a while, ask a question again. "How about you?" Or, worst case: "hey, something completely different: I wasgoing to ask you..."
- don't be afraid of embarassing pauses. They're the other person's fault just as much as your own! And everyome has these pauses where you recalibrate and decide how to move the conversation on. The fastest way to move on from that is to appear comfortable and non-nervous.
posted by Omnomnom at 11:37 AM on November 30, 2016 [6 favorites]

Also, if you feel like you're interrogating, switch up the questions with empathizing and mirroring.
"Wow, that sounds very stressful!"
"She sounds like a very special friend"
posted by Omnomnom at 11:57 AM on November 30, 2016 [4 favorites]

Love the suggestion for joint problem solving. I get a lot of acquaintance conversational mileage out of asking people local to the region (I'm not) about good day trips they've taken, for example. They seem to enjoy reminiscing and I get good recs! Then when I go to the place I can text them a photo. Writing it out makes it sound really dorky but there you go. Or: what should I get my brother as a wedding present? What should I make in my new slow cooker? I don't think it comes off as needy. People love helping even more than they love receiving help, says science.
posted by athirstforsalt at 12:05 PM on November 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

Seconding making sympathetic comments as follow-up, instead of more questions. "That must be really interesting!" "that sounds like it requires a lot of concentration" etc)
posted by fingersandtoes at 12:12 PM on November 30, 2016

my partner does the interrogation thing. it makes me uncomfortable, but she's the outgoing successful conversation person with lots of friends and i'm the reclusive loner no-one talks to.

so apparently this worrying about it being an interrogation is some weird hang-up that the normals don't have.
posted by andrewcooke at 12:12 PM on November 30, 2016 [2 favorites]

Just say "Hey, I'm interested in how you're doing but if you get tired of my questions just let me know" and that should let you ask without much worry.
posted by I-baLL at 12:23 PM on November 30, 2016

Make sure that you do not deflect people's questions to you. I have friends who ask excellent questions, but they are frustrating to have a conversation with because if you ask them something, they will answer perfunctorily and then immediate ask you a question. You have to be willing to engage and share as well.
posted by ChuraChura at 12:26 PM on November 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

People make small talk to connect and find common bonds, empathy, understanding. So, to add to the first example in the first comment: when you tell the little story about your cat, and she shares her story about her cat, that is the time to add understanding/empathy: "omg, cats, can't live with them, can't live without them." Then she will agree and bring up another cat story, or you can go back and ask something you are curious about with her knotting.

So be curious, empathize, share your own story, repeat. Any order will be just fine.
posted by Vaike at 1:40 PM on November 30, 2016

I've found that people love it if you give them compliments. "Love your outfit!" "How did you get your hair to look that nice?" "Oh, you made that pie? What's your secret?"

I also like talking to the kids at family gatherings. A lot of times, they are ignored, while the adults do their thing, so I talk to them, and I have zero anxiety with them, because they are happy to talk about themselves, usually. "How do you like school?" "Where did you get that dress?" The same questions, asked of little kids, will usually get the ball rolling, and then you can just sort of reap the enthusiasm reward, because they are so naturally exuberant. I had the best convo with a little girl at Thanksgiving, about how she made 2 strawberry Jello pies, one for the guests and one to take home, and how she did her hair, and how she doesn't like pecan pie but apple is okay.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 3:22 PM on November 30, 2016 [3 favorites]

I just want to let you know that you are not alone in your struggles. At Thanksgiving dinner we had a large group split into three tables. I ended up at a table with my two sons, my nephew, and nephew's new girlfriend. I worked so hard to get a conversation going with these bright young adults but wasn't too successful! I asked questions, mentioned things they had in common, etc. but they were all so reserved. Finally I just started telling some of my own "back in the day" stories which I know made them all roll their eyes, but I figured if they wouldn't talk they'd have to listen! I do really like the problem-solving idea mentioned by athirstforsalt so will try that next time.
posted by a fish out of water at 4:03 PM on November 30, 2016

The Great Courses has a lectures series called How Conversation Works (6 x 30min), and is currently on sale for $20 for the audio version.
I just started it last night and so far it's pretty good (I found my copy at the local library, so you could try that too).
posted by 7 Minutes of Madness at 7:56 AM on December 1, 2016

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