World's Most Interesting Woman SHUTS UP
May 3, 2023 1:35 PM   Subscribe

I'm preparing for a cross-continent move, and starting a new job. I am dreading the polite "getting to know you" chat that is coming, because my answers to many innocuous questions are unusual, and people have a lot of follow up questions. On the one hand, I am new in town, and I want to make friends and get to know people. On the other hand, I am real sick of the Aint Broke Story Hour (TM). Please share your tips for politely deflecting and/or redirecting conversation, while also getting to know people.

ie: Where did you move here from? Major American City X. (Technically true! Short! Sometimes I can ask people where they moved here from!)
How long did you live there? Two weeks. It was a convenient airport to store things near while I rode my bicycle 5000m. (True! Many follow up questions, more talking about me.)

Other choice questions: Where are you from? Why have you moved so much? Why do you spell your name that way? Where's your family? Where did you get your specialized training for this job? How many siblings do you have? How did you get that scar? What are your hobbies? Where'd you go to school?

The short answer to any of these is technically true but disingenuous, and long answer draws a lot of attention.
I was recently confronted by an acquaintance for giving the short version (she assumed I graduated from the same university as her, I actually attended one semester as a foreign exchange student) but she "felt betrayed" that I didn't clarify my university timeline mid-conversation. I'm not super concerned about this, as this was a three sentence conversation in passing, with a professional colleague with a reputation for causing drama; but I don't want come across as someone constantly revising my story.
I haven't found a way gracefully say "oh I'm sick of talking about myself" when people think they are asking something simple and easy to answer.
I do like to ask people questions about themselves, and this works about 50% of the time.

I would gratefully take any thoughts/advice on how to talk about myself less; or to make polite conversation more of a back and forth conversation and less of an interview.
posted by aint broke to Human Relations (44 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
"whew, that's a long story!"

"Do you want the short answer or the long answer?"

Your acquaintance who "felt betrayed" that you didn't share your entire life history is a bit weird, unless you were like flashing secret signs or waving a fake diploma.
posted by muddgirl at 1:39 PM on May 3 [10 favorites]

Oh I also like "I'm from all over!" In response to a lot of various questions that are attempting to figure out "are you an insider or an outsider?"

99% of the time getting-to-know-you questions are trying to get to something that both people have in common.
posted by muddgirl at 1:41 PM on May 3 [21 favorites]

I think part of the problem is that you will get easier responses if you try to answer the question they meant to ask, not the literal question they asked. Like, if someone asks where you moved here from, they want to know where you used to live, not the logistical details. Answering with somewhere you spent two weeks in would be bafflingly misleading to me. You don't have to lie! You could say "Oh I lived in City X but grew up in City Y, where are you from?" It isn't quite the answer to the question as asked, but it's a completion of the intended exchange and leaves the asker feeling satisfied.

Likewise, for all those other questions, just come up with a single short fact that is true and - this is important - an instant redirect back to the other person. "How many siblings do you have?" "None living, you?" "Where'd you get that scar?" "Long story, took sixteen stitches, though. They made me feel like Frankenstein. Ever needed stitches?"

Sometimes people will be weird, and sometimes they will ask questions where you will want to have a brush-off rather than a glib answer. That's fine, you can only control so much. But generally, if you assume that people are trying, badly, to complete social rituals rather than assemble a dossier, it becomes easier to find ways to complete the rituals that don't require long stories or personal revelations.
posted by restless_nomad at 1:49 PM on May 3 [112 favorites]

Most of the time people are madly uninterested in where I've been and what I've done, but it is handy to have a few snappy answers handy. When people ask me how I managed to do all the weird things I've achieved in my life, I always reply, "Inability to focus," and they laugh.
posted by Peach at 2:01 PM on May 3 [19 favorites]

Basically pick the most normal/comprehensible part of your story and use that as the initial answer. "Oh, I graduated from UCLA". Down the road, you can always say, "I graduated from UCLA but I did a semester at the Sorbonne, so that's why my French is so good and I am picky about croissants" or whatever.

"My big hobby is biking - I train for long rides a lot". Later, when it comes up, you can add, "I bike a lot but I also duel, which is how I got this scar" and then when they're used to that, "One time I dueled a mime over an insult to my cat's honor and although I won I needed fourteen stitches".

I have a lot of stories myself, at least for an accountant, and I just sort of let them arise naturally.
posted by Frowner at 2:04 PM on May 3 [18 favorites]

"The important thing to know about me is ___"

Also: what do you want to talk about? What do you want people to know about you? Say that.
posted by amtho at 2:06 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]

I agree with the points above. Two techniques I use often are "cherry pick" and "bridge" (from long-ago media training).

If someone is trying to make conversation with you, it's perfectly okay to pick up on whatever small piece is most palatable to you and take the conversation off in that direction, or even move in a different one. For example, if they ask you where you moved from, you could say "City X. It was a pretty easy/difficult move, I had a great/terrible moving company..." Or you could say "City X. The thing I really miss from that place is all the great restaurants. What's the foodie situation like around here?"

Most people are much more concerned with trying to make a connection than about any specific topic.
posted by rpfields at 2:07 PM on May 3 [36 favorites]

People are just looking to make conversation. Nobody cares about where you stored your bicycle. They are trying to get to the point in the conversation where you can chat about something you have in common, or that they find interesting; plus they want to have a general sense of what your deal is.

So something like "I moved here for a finance job at the hospital, I'm originally from Sweden but I've moved around a lot" is all you need to say about you. Ask them questions about the town that you've moved to, so there's a logical connection between the fact of you being new to town and the conversation you can now have.
posted by fingersandtoes at 2:11 PM on May 3 [27 favorites]

Give the short but disingenuous answer. Most people don’t care about the actual details of your response and are just making small talk. Your friend who felt betrayed is an outlier.

You could also prep abridged versions of the answers to your FAQs. Example:

Q: where did you go to university?

A: I graduated from university of x, but did a lovely semester exchange at y college.
posted by rodneyaug at 2:37 PM on May 3 [3 favorites]

Quick generic answer followed immediately by, "how about you?" Deflect, deflect, deflect.
posted by tafetta, darling! at 3:02 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Yeah most people who do more than perfunctory small talk like to talk about themselves, so have a couple sentences ready max with an ending question to turn it back to them. Then maybe do a followup question when they say something that's kind of interesting and they'll probably answer that and keep talking. Then you can do a "well, great to meet you, gotta go do Task X" and you're set.
posted by tivalasvegas at 3:18 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

(Also, if you're moving east-to-west, Californians are nosy as fuck, sorry, it's a real genuine culture clash. My wife did it the other way and has had to learn to back way the fuck off with personal questions because Massachusetts natives Do Not find them charming.)
posted by restless_nomad at 3:19 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

Yeah, sounds like you're being overly literal?

It sounds like your two approaches don't answer the questions people are really asking, which is more of a broad, give me some context for *you*.
Instead of either a short, genuinely misleading answer (city you were in for two weeks?? No, that's somewhere you were visiting, not *from*, I lived somewhere multiple years while referring to the previous place I'd felt settled and at home as where I was 'from', and your workmate sounds both dramatic buuuut also like you *did* give them a genuinely misleading answer, causing them to naturally assume you graduated from the same university?), or, you're going into an long overly detailed answer that you don't want to give and honestly, probably isn't helping people get to know you either, so it's not actually what people want to hear.

So, figure out what context you *actually* want to give people, so that they can relate better to you, that's what they actually want to know. Come up with a short, accurate story, and use it with everyone, and pivot adjacent questions to that as quickly as possible.

So, for anything about "Where you're from", you'd actually give someone context of where you are most familiar with, what has had the biggest cultural impact, e.g:
"I'm from all over, I have moved a lot" then *insert say, 3 places that had the biggest cultural impact on you - eg childhood "I mostly grew up in x", include family culture if that's a major influence, and then maybe two places you're most familiar with as an adult, "I lived the longest in x & y" so that someone can relate, and if they are familiar with those places, gives a shared conversational topic with you.

Then, pivot *immediately* to *why you moved to current location*. People like to hear that anyway. What you like about new location, and what you're hoping to find in this new town - mention up to three hobbies or interests you're hoping to pursue in this new town, this is particularly useful as it gives people an opportunity to help you network.

That is short, sweet, actually gives people context for you, and ways to help you, about topics you actually want to know about in a new town.
posted by Elysum at 3:26 PM on May 3 [19 favorites]

I have this problem too, including the long-distance biking (but not the scar). I agree that it can be a fine line to walk between telling the truth and not explaining all of your life choices to every person who asks you where you’re from.

In a getting-to-know-you conversation, I try to give people some “hooks” to connect with, and redirect everything else towards those hooks. There’s the basic story that everyone gets, like “I’m an X with a passion for Y who moved here from Z for my dream job.” And then depending on follow up questions, I choose a detail or two that I feel comfortable talking about and go a bit more in-depth on that. If the follow up questions are about stuff I’d rather not get into, just redirect to the stuff you do want to talk about.

I find it really helps to give two-piece answers. So instead of “Where are you from?” “I’m from X” (awkward pause), try something like “My family is from X but I spent a lot of time in Y” or “I’ve been nomadic for the last few years but I think of Y as home” or “I’m bicoastal, I like to split my time between X and Y.”

This is also where you can redirect: “Oh, the scar? Gnarly, right? Yeah, it’s a souvenir from my Z days.” So even if it’s from some horrible accident, you can choose Z to instead talk about a sport or past career or favorite holiday spot or whatever.

The other half is using body language to convey that you are comfortable with yourself and your choices. Use a solid tone of voice, relaxed posture, maybe smile and nod slowly, like you enjoy your own story (even if you’re only sharing a piece of it).
posted by danceswithlight at 3:30 PM on May 3 [8 favorites]

Another vote for short and disingenuos, add details as required in the course of the conversation (but they probably won't be, if you're good at asking questions in return).

For what it's worth, I think duration can often be a fairly salient detail though; doing a semester abroad somewhere is a somewhat different experience from getting the entire degree there. "Semester abroad" doesn't make the story that much longer.

Where you can really save the words is on the question of motivation. Why is the last one of the W-questions taught to journalists for a reason - it's the last info included and the first info cut, if there's not enough space for the article. "Where did you move from?" - "My last stop before this one was XY, but I've moved around a lot."

Of course people still might ask you why you move around a lot. But my impression is that vagueness can be your friend here. Vaguesness signals evasiveness; people can sense that there's probably a longer story behind that, and they might be content to wait till you're ready to tell it/till it comes up organically. Most people engaged in small talk don't actually want to pry.

If you do offer specifics though, I would probably read that as a willigness to go into detail and might feel almost impolite not to inquire further! Even so, I'm certainly easy enough to deflect, if you just follow up with a question of your own. If the question is about something else entirely, I will also get the hint that we should change the topic entirely. Rapidly cycling through topics is something totally natural and expected in small talk - people are just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. If you want to nip a line of inquiry in the bud "That's a long story. What do you think about new topic?" is also a totally valid move.

Generally speaking though, if I want conversations to be less about me than about the other person, I've found the crucial thing is less what I say about myself, but what I ask about the other.
posted by sohalt at 3:30 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]

I agree with the general consensus here and think you've got some great models above. I would only add that if your current strategy has a hit rate of 50% of steering the conversation in a direction that's comfortable for you, that's actually not so bad! Could probably be better, but it's a fine place to start. And the misses might give you a head start in identifying the nosy parkers who won't be compatible with what you're looking for in friends right now.
posted by eirias at 3:33 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

ie: Where did you move here from? Major American City X. (Technically true! Short! Sometimes I can ask people where they moved here from!)
How long did you live there? Two weeks. It was a convenient airport to store things near while I rode my bicycle 5000m. (True! Many follow up questions, more talking about me.)

Yeah, this is really confusing to me. "Where did you move here from" generally means "where's the last place you called home", not "where was the last place you slept before this city". If you tell me about the place you spent two stopgap weeks, I'll assume there must be some reason you're telling me about it - was there something interesting there? - and, since you're giving me what seems to be extraneous information, I'll probably also think you might be a person who likes to talk and to draw out stories, bit by bit. And I'll either play along or feel annoyed. And then if you voluntarily add "while I rode rode my bicycle 5000m" - again, that's absolute clickbait, metaphorically speaking, and I'll assume you're telling me because you want me to click.

If you tell me "I went to your university" and then later it turns out you spent a semester there on exchange, I wouldn't feel betrayed, because that's weird, but I would feel you might be someone who hypes things up or misrepresents them. Why not "I did an exchange semester at your university"?

Just give the most relevant information, not the most correct-on-a-technicality-no-one-would-ever-think-of stuff, and then segue into something else:

Where are you from?
- I just moved here from [actual place in which you had a home]. I'm excited to get to know this place, not sure where to start. Any recommendations?

Why have you moved so much?
- You know, [parents/school/jobs], the usual. Have you lived anywhere else?

Why do you spell your name that way?
- You know, you grow up spelling it the way your parents did, right? Lotta name variations out there. Do you ever have people getting your name wrong?

Where's your family?
- [one person's in X, another person's in Y, person number 3's in Z, hopefully they'll come visit sometime once I'm more settled in, now you know how many siblings I have so you won't be asking me that question...] What about you?

Where did you get your specialized training for this job?
- this seems like a good question to answer both relevantly and also maybe with more detail than usual, unless you think the answer somehow makes you look bad. Because it can be good to let your coworkers know how qualified you are, and it's a completely work-related question...

How many siblings do you have?
- Oh, just #. Here, lemme tell you where they live so you won't need to ask me. How about you? Any siblings?

How did you get that scar?
- [most boring answer you can think of given nature of said scar]. Life, huh? We collect a bunch of random damage. [ <>

What are your hobbies?
- Oh, you know, watching TV, going for walks. Nothing special. What about you?
- I'm into [universally fascinating hobby].
Other person: Wow, how fascinating!
You: Hah, I really like it. Are you into that kind of stuff, or do you do other things?
Them: Wait let's not switch the subject, I want to hear more about your fascinating hobby! How did you get into that? What's it like? Is it as fascinating as it seems?
You: Well, if you're interested then sometime you can come over and try it out / Sometime when I'm a bit more settled in and less disoriented maybe we can get some coffee and I'll show you an endless slideshow of my work / I got into it a long time ago, just thought it seemed cool / I don't know if it's as fascinating as it seems, but it's fun, have you ever tried it? / ...

Where'd you go to school?
- [name of school, possibly name of location if school isn't famous]. What about you?

Also, if you do find yourself needing to add more information, it doesn't necessarily have to be about you. You can talk about naming trends in general, not just about your name. Or about the place you used to live in, not about your own life in the place. Or about big families/tiny families/the general nature of having family nearby or far away/some other abstract thing that's not your family specifically.
posted by trig at 3:34 PM on May 3 [23 favorites]

Most people really enjoy talking about themselves. Let them.

But enough about me, what about you! So what brought you to our town? Oh, did you grow up here? Has it changed a lot since then? I love Mediterranean food, are there any good places nearby?
posted by mochapickle at 3:39 PM on May 3

Yes, I would find it odd if someone told me they attended my university and didn't clarify it was for a semester of study abroad.

You don't need to answer in detail, but you could say "I went to school in France but spent a study abroad semester at West Eastern University, I loved the fall colors". If they then ask why you went to school in France, you could say "oh, I moved around a lot as a kid, have you been to France?"

Similarly, if I asked someone where they moved from and they replied with "Chicago for 2 weeks before I did my big bike ride" I assume they want to be asked about that bike ride, in a kind of braggy way honestly. It's like how marathon runners always seem to bring that up. If they say "My last job was in NYC, I loved the food. Any suggestions for what I should replace my bagel habit with?" we can talk about places to eat in new city.

The goal of this kind of small talk should be to find common ground. If you are going on and on about your weird self, I assume you think you're really unique and want to talk about yourself. If that's not true, easy topics to steer conversation to for newbies are food, neighborhoods, traffic, and travel.

People also like to "help" newbies, so something like "I'm looking for some great places to bike, any ideas?" They may give you ideas or say they've never biked, you can then ask them what they like to do on weekends and learn more about them.
posted by Narrow Harbor at 3:45 PM on May 3 [11 favorites]

All this said, as annoying as it can feel to talk about yourself too much... sometimes people ask out of rote politeness and are happy to get the getting-to-know-you conversation out of the way, but other times they're genuinely asking out of an impulse to be good to you and make you feel welcome. They feel like they're not being welcoming if they don't show interest in you and find more things to ask about. In that case one option is to say something like "you know, it's so nice to be here and everyone's been so welcoming and lovely. But I feel like I've been talking about myself all day! How do you feel about telling me a little bit about yourselves, for now?"
posted by trig at 3:59 PM on May 3 [4 favorites]

If you're interesting, be interesting. What's wrong with answering "Where did you move here from?" with "Actually I just finished a 5000m bike trip!" That gives anyone a good 7 minutes of ways to connect with you, which was the point of the conversation. When you're tired of talking about you, you can say, "Do you have any big adventures you're dreaming of?" or "What's your favorite adventure you've ever taken?" and get some interesting conversation in return.
posted by shadygrove at 6:11 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

I also think it might be worth interrogating why telling people your stories feels bad. Is it that you feel like you're showing people up? Is it that you feel like you dominate the conversation? Is it that your unusual experiences make you weird? Is it that people get too personal? The answer might tell you how to be genuine and your interesting self and still keep your balance. The disingenuous/deflecting answers would make me uncomfortable too if I were getting to know you. I'd wonder, what are you trying to hide?
posted by shadygrove at 6:16 PM on May 3 [5 favorites]

I think a lot of the time you can give an answer that is more-than-technically true, but vague in a way that does not invite follow-ups. "Where's your family?" "Oh they're like all over" (tone of voice indicates it's boring and you trail off). "Where did you move here from?" "Well most recently I was in Major American City X, but I've lived in a bunch of different places" (shrug and project lack of enthusiasm). Like people are generally cooperative (possibly excepting your betrayal friend), and don't actually want to exploit you for your delightful stories in most encounters. If your response to a question conveys like "this won't be fun to talk about" usually they won't care about pursuing it. Idk. I guess I'm assuming this is like recreational smalltalk, not like "Ohhhhh there's something Not Right about the witch who moved in next door."

You can also combine this tactic with a blitzkrieg counterattack where you bring up something you'd rather talk about, which could be a question for the other person, something about you you don't mind talking about, something that happened this morning, whatever. My impression is that in most casual contexts there are no rules about changing the subject. It's anarchy. You can just go, and if the new subject is engaging, it's like the previous one never existed.
posted by grobstein at 6:18 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

Good answers for redirecting above. However, if you have lived an interesting life and you are trying to get to know folks as friends or colleagues, you are going to have to share some details in these exchanges. Otherwise, the community members are going to feel like they don't know you or are not included in your life or that you are too stuck up to share... especially in a smaller community.
That happens to my sister a lot, if she is about to reveal something that she has not said to a closer friend she often will say "I haven't gotten the chance to tell you all about *interesting things* it was only for a couple months and not a big deal, but that is how I know this person or this fact or this skill."
posted by mutt.cyberspace at 7:21 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: A lot of good food for thought here. I think I am doing something wrong with my microexpressions or tone of voice or exact wording, because I genuinely don't think that "Oh I'm from all over" or "I've moved around a lot" or "Oh everyone in my family is a lion tamer, we just think it's kind of boring" has ever worked to deflect a flood of questions.

I am absolutely trying to avoid being braggy, or weird, or more-interesting than thou; and it seems like my way forward should just be to work on my quick fire answers to hit that "what people are really asking about" true-but-short sweet spot.

With my colleague the exact wording (pulled from an email) was "Oh cool, I also went to X college for a while- didn't you love the donut shop on campus?" so I really feel this is on her.
posted by aint broke at 8:34 PM on May 3 [1 favorite]

I genuinely don't think that "Oh I'm from all over" or "I've moved around a lot" or "Oh everyone in my family is a lion tamer, we just think it's kind of boring" has ever worked to deflect a flood of questions.

You have to follow up with a question. If you just leave it at any of those statements, it'll sound like you're a bad conversationalist and you've left the ball in their court, and of course they're going to ask follow-up questions because they have no conversational alternative other than to drop the conversation, which would be rude. It's not that you're answering in ways that intrigue them; you're answering in ways that leave them no polite choice other than to ask questions to keep the conversation going.
posted by lapis at 8:52 PM on May 3 [13 favorites]

Yeah, I might not have been clear above. You don't pivot to why I moved here/what I'm wanting to get involved with in this new town at some later point in the conversation.

If someone asks you where you're from, you say "All over, mostly A, B & C. But I moved here because of X reason, and I'm really wanting to get involved with Y & Z (hobbies/interests) once I get settled."

You have to give people a clear 'hook' of where you *want* the conversation to go next, at the end of every response, otherwise you've just set up a conversational chess board where the only obvious move for them is to... ask further about whatever you just talked about, like it's a "more inside" or click bait headline as someone described above! Which is what you're currently stuck in.

If someone asks about a previous place you lived in, again, you can redirect the answer from the previous place to something like, "I really enjoyed x hobby when I was living there, and would like to pick it up in this town, have you heard of anything?" or "Y city had the best Mexican! Is there anywhere in this city where I could get Z dish?"

(And yep, that's on the colleague, they missed the 'a while').
posted by Elysum at 9:17 PM on May 3 [9 favorites]

Lapis is right, the shape of these introductory conversation serves a social purpose, and people follow social conventions around politeness, so very short answers can leave them with an obligation to continue asking questions. Many people are also genuinely interested in other people and enjoy hearing your story, even if you don't enjoy re-telling it.

The only surefire way to control the converstional situation is for you to take the driver's seat. You can be the one to ask the questions, and once you find some common ground on something, move away from Q&A into actual conversation. Come up with a one-sentence introduction, and then move on from there. "Hi, I'm ain't broke, and I just moved here from temporary city to work at new company. Have you lived here long?" Then you can follow up with a request for local advice, like where to eat or where to find the best farmers market. Danceswithlight is right, these intro conversations are just a way for people to feel each other out quickly and find something in common. Showing curiosity about someone is the best way to establish a connection, so don't think of it as nosy, just consider that people are genuinely trying to connect with you.
posted by amusebuche at 9:22 PM on May 3 [2 favorites]

I also went to X college for a while

It might be interesting practice for you to try to work out, at every step in a conversation, "what is my audience likely to conclude from that?" and "what conversational options (per lapis) have I left them?" Because participants in a conversation are always trying to (a) understand and model who the other person is and what they're actually trying to convey, and (b) figure out how to respond based on the understanding they've built. And there are a lot of standard assumptions that people tend to rely on in order to do that (for example). Hard to practice in real time, obviously, but maybe you can write out some practice conversations, or eavesdrop on people in a coffee shop, or practice together with a friend over the phone.

In the example above you were totally accurate, and "for a while" technically informs the reader that it wasn't for the classic four years. But "I went there" is the part that's emphasized and is going to stick in memory, and "I went there" generally implies "I was a regular student at that school" in a way that "I spent a semester there" or "I took some classes there" or "I did a summer program there" doesn't. (It also doesn't really leave a way for the reader to non-awkwardly ask what you mean, because "went there for a while" could mean anything from "I transferred" to "I dropped out" to "I got kicked out" - all things it makes sense to be vague about.)

It's basically the maxim of quantity - if you're leaving out an obvious and relevant piece of information ("I did a semester exchange") I'm going to assume that information doesn't apply, because if you had done a semester exchange you surely would have just said that instead of a vague "for a while". Because it's obvious and relevant, and not the kind of thing people generally dance around.

(All that is just to say that you might be communicating things you don't realize, not that your coworker wasn't being over the top.)
posted by trig at 12:09 AM on May 4 [9 favorites]

About ten years ago, while I was working in East Africa, I was out walking with a dear friend when a group of schoolgirls accosted us with hellohowareyous. I, a middle-aged white lady from the US, was grumpy and ignored them.

My friend’s wisdom shone like a fierce sun in a clear blue sky as he said, Come on, rrrrrrrrrt. They’re kids, and they study English in school, and here an obvious white lady shows up, and they feel excited to practice. Can you give them just that little bit of respect and connection?

People who ask getting-to-know you questions who hear about your long bike rides or scars or travel history may be asking more questions because they are genuinely interested. Do *you* find lives unlike your own interesting?

These conversations are a not only a great opportunity to learn about these people you want to get to know, but also to validate the fact that you *don’t* actually think you’re more interesting than they are. Assuming that people will judge you or compete with you is - well, it’s not a good way to get to know people, and it feels like shit from the inside. I fully recognize that sometimes people *are* actually judging or competing, but let that be a Them Problem. If you can rest in the conviction that you’re not actually more interesting or better than someone who doesn’t share your unusual life history and hobbies, and show people with your actions that this is your value, by asking about and finding out what’s interesting in *their* lives, what is there to worry about?

Are you asking for other people to share themselves openly without being willing to share yourself? That might be worth chewing over, too.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 12:20 AM on May 4 [7 favorites]

I have recently started giving people the real answer to their questions. I used to be evasive and followed much of the advice in this thread. But I kinda got sick of trying to make up a plausible short version that was true. Weirdly, this has actually turned out to cut story hour short. People have remarkably few follow up questions when I say I was raised in a cult. I think the short version answers gave off just enough wiff of “there’s a story there” that people kept investigating. The real answer is that I just own my life story and that I find it uninteresting enough to just flatly and blandly answer with it so they should move on as well. Like the base answer about where you moved from “for logistical reasons I ended up riding my bike a crazy distance from City Y to City X just before moving.” Or “I loved living in city x even for a couple weeks.”

Like you, I attended several colleges and universities. I generally answer with “I graduated from College with some stints at blah blah blah” because I’m trying to give people an opening in case they have a connection to any of those places.

Being nonfussed about the fact that I’ve had a weird life is way better at fending off story time than being fussed over trying to seem Normal. Because I’m not, and people pick up on that whether I say so or not. And they’ll keep digging if I don’t.
posted by Bottlecap at 2:34 AM on May 4 [8 favorites]

It kind of feels like you think people are insanely curious about you? I really don't think that could be the case with everyone you meet. Keep your answers bland and usually that's all small talk takes. The responses you gave are leading...they lead into more questions.

How long did you live there? Two weeks. It was a convenient airport to store things near while I rode my bicycle 5000m.

That's a direct invitation for more questions - I would of course assume you wanted more questions about this unusual thing you just shared about yourself. I personally wouldn't ask, because I don't like when people hint like this, and that's what many might assume you're doing, so to be polite they ask more, assuming you want to talk more about yourself.
posted by tiny frying pan at 4:59 AM on May 4 [12 favorites]

(I mean, you call yourself World's Most Interesting Woman in the title - even if a joke....try not to think of yourself that way, and you may stop trying to sound that way to others, lessening questions, if that's really what you want.)
posted by tiny frying pan at 5:03 AM on May 4 [5 favorites]

Are you interacting with people who come from a substantially different cultural background or environment from you? What have you observed from how other people talk about themselves and their own lives? I'll be honest, as you describe it your life history sounds interesting enough to prompt some deeper conversation if you want it to but none of it is "ZOMG wow" level stuff where people would naturally start prying for a lot more detail.

A lot of these basic "get to know you" small talk questions have very easy "how about you?" follow-ups to reciprocate attention back to the asker. And in general, people are mostly looking to

a) be polite and help you feel welcome
b) learn a little about what is habitual and/or important for you and
c) find something about you that they can relate to themselves

You're not expected to give a complete accounting of how you have spent your time to date, this isn't a legal interview.

So the answer to "where did you go to school?" should be confined to the institution(s) that granted your degrees, as in "I did my undergrad at State U and then I moved to Country C for grad school". A detailed history of transfers, one-off classes taken elsewhere, your study abroad semester, etc. isn't relevant and doesn't need to be shared unless you really want to talk about it.

Where did you move from? "I used to live in Old City. How about you, have you lived in New City long?" The city where you stayed at the end of your trip for a couple of weeks isn't relevant, you didn't live there in any habitual sense of the term. "I've been traveling around for the past few months but before that I lived in Old City" also works, if you want follow-up questions about the travel part.

Where is your family? "My parents are living in Country X and my brother/sister moved to Country Y for work a few years ago. How about you, do you have family nearby?"

Why do you spell your name that way? *shrug* "Eh, well, my parents decided to be creative." or *shrug* "Eh, well, that's how the registrar in Birth Country wrote it and it's a lot of trouble to change." Indicates it's not an important thing about you (and also the question is a little rude).
posted by 4rtemis at 8:00 AM on May 4

I genuinely don't think that "Oh I'm from all over" or "I've moved around a lot" or "Oh everyone in my family is a lion tamer, we just think it's kind of boring" has ever worked to deflect a flood of questions.

Those are fine starting points for answers, but they need a bit more, otherwise like people have said, you are leaving things hanging and inviting more probing. So instead of stopping at "Oh I'm from all over", you could expand it slightly, like "Oh, I'm from all over, but I was recently living in Place X," then pivot to a question ("So, how long have you lived here?") or a nugget that they can latch onto to carry the conversation forward ("I'm so excited to have moved here, I've always heard that the XYZs here are the best").

Most people you meet are going to have had geographically straightforward lives -- they probably grew up in one or maybe two places, probably went to a single college/university (if they went at all), and probably live relatively near their family. So when you are giving answers that are outside of that life-path, I there are two things you have to anticipate. First, that people will ask about it simply because it is different, and second, that it is on you to be careful not to come off like you are bragging or implying that your less traditional life choices are superior or more interesting than theirs, because people pick up on that even if it is subtle.

But I kinda got sick of trying to make up a plausible short version that was true. Weirdly, this has actually turned out to cut story hour short. People have remarkably few follow up questions when I say I was raised in a cult. I think the short version answers gave off just enough wiff of “there’s a story there” that people kept investigating. The real answer is that I just own my life story and that I find it uninteresting enough to just flatly and blandly answer with it so they should move on as well.

Minus the cult detail, this is pretty much the approach I've settled on. You just own your own story, but filtered in a way that people can grasp, and kept bland/matter-of-fact so it doesn't turn into a Big Thing in the conversation.
posted by Dip Flash at 9:13 AM on May 4 [1 favorite]

This is very much reminding me of an old college roommate, who certainly cultivated an air of "Most Interesting Transfer Student" amongst our social group. His ability to sort of keep everyone on a hook had to do with the type of answers he'd give - and they sound a bit like yours.

Basically, his answers were always *just enough* to provoke curiosity because they were interesting AND incomplete. Someone would ask about his family, he'd say "I live with my mother and sister. But not my father." Basically forcing the conversationalist to ask about his father, who had died. Which he would then answer with a curt "Died in a plane crash." Leading to the next question... (Of course, he could have answered the question "I live with my mother and sister" and that' would have ended that thread.)

And just to note - he wasn't all that interesting; unique like anyone else, had some neat characteristics.

So, I think he was cultivating this on purpose - if you aren't, maybe consider that your incomplete answers are pretty similar to this technique.
posted by RajahKing at 10:29 AM on May 4 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: The bad news is that I think I gave the wrong information and/or phrased this poorly and/or I'm actually doing what I feared and leading people into conversations where I set up to be the center of attention. I swear I do ask people questions about themselves, am capable of making conversation, and I consciously try not to volunteer stories.

Not to threadsit but here is a real example from a few years ago, the last time I was starting a new job in a new place.

Aint Broke: Hi coworker, nice weather we're having. How was your weekend?
Coworker: Spent most of the day at my kid's soccer games
AB: You have twins, right? Any cute anecdotes from a day of toddler soccer?
C: excellent anecdote about kids soccer
AB: aww.

Five minutes have elapsed, and as far as I was concerned, it would have been great if the conversation ended there, letting us both go back to work having socialized. Then:

C: What did you do this weekend?
AB: I spent some time helping my sister with work stuff.
C: What does your sister do?
AB: She's a large animal vet. She really likes it.

(This example sticks in my head, because I really thought I nailed this answer, and the whole interaction up to this point.)

C: So what kind of large animal was she working with this weekend?
AB: This week she was at the local zoo.
C: So cool! I heard a giraffe was born at the zoo this weekend (I PROMISE he brought it up first).
AB: Yeah, that was my sister. I was at the edge of the pen and she was heroically doing giraffe midwifery! She's the best.
C: *Calls over other colleagues and asks me tell the story of the giraffe delivery*
AB: *Tells the story of giraffe delivery, including baby falling 5 feet onto the ground and papa giraffe STEPPING ON NEWBORN*

Immediately after walking away from that conversation, I feel like I have one-uped the coworker, and made myself the center of the the water cooler chat for the rest of the day. I was then asked to tell the story three or four more times that week, and several more times over the 6 month contract. And I get it- it's a good story! My sister is the best, and this was a very cool thing to witness. I was excited to tell the story the first time, but by the end of the week, I felt like I was on a talk show telling a polished anecdote, and not engaging in a conversation - even a superficial conversation about weather or evening plans - because what people wanted from me was to tell the story.

If this were a one off, I would let it slide; I will probably only witness one giraffe birth. But I consistently feel this way in many short-chatty conversations.
I can definitely polish my deflection answers with bonus redirection questions- but I am looking for advice on how to not start story telling (how do I keep my description of giraffe birth to three sentences when I'm explicitly asked about it, and not fall into my natural instinct which is the five minute story version?), and how to decline retelling stories (I know you heard the story of the giraffe birth from coworker C, and even though we're both on lunch right now, I'd rather not retell it and I'd like to hear about your niece's christening, no sarcasm).
posted by aint broke at 11:49 AM on May 4

Yeah, that's a totally different problem! If you don't want to tell the story in the first place, white lie, followed by subject change.

C: So what kind of large animal was she working with this weekend?
AB: Oh, I don't know, I was mostly doing behind the scenes stuff. Sounds like soccer was so neat! I'm really looking forward to spending more time outside when it gets a bit less rainy!

It's also totally fair to tell the story once and then later say (politely) you don't want to be a performing monkey.

Cs: Tell us the giraffe story!
AB: Oh, man, between work and home, I've told it 9,000 times and I'm sick of it. [sincere smile] What brought up the topic? [stay focused on that topic and/or pivot to a new one]

For what it's worth, I don't think any of this is one-upping anyone. People like stories, and if you're good at telling them and they keep asking you about them, then they're probably enjoying yours. You don't have to not tell them, but you also don't have to perform on command.
posted by lapis at 12:16 PM on May 4 [3 favorites]

Yeah there's no way for people not to want to hear animal stories. Hell, now *I* want to hear that story. If you really don't like telling stories, you're gonna have to vague things up a lot. Like, not "I helped my sister with work stuff" but "Hung out with my sister." And then the redirect/topic you *are* comfortable talking about, like "She told me about a tv show that sounded cool, have you seen it?" or "The drive to x suburb is really annoying, isn't it?" or some other small-talky non-specific topic.

That first half is great but people bite on the last thing you say. You have to make sure the last thing you say leads to the conversation you actually want to have!
posted by restless_nomad at 12:52 PM on May 4 [10 favorites]

people bite on the last thing you say. You have to make sure the last thing you say leads to the conversation you actually want to have!

OMG so true! I need to practice this more.
posted by danceswithlight at 2:44 PM on May 4 [2 favorites]

Oh yeah one more tactic in case nobody said it yet: explicit postponement.


A: Hey I heard you delivered a giraffe baby, can you spend your whole morning telling me about that?
B: It's a long story, {buy me lunch some time; catch me at the happy hour; etc.} and I'll tell you.

You can calibrate according to how enthusiastic you are about ever telling the story (vs. right now), how much you actually want to talk to this person at all, etc. You can even set it up so, if you tell the story, you can tell it to many people at once for efficiency. It might be more comfy to be the center of attention occasionally rather than to be on call to be the center of attention at any time. Or, you can also "postpone" to an event that will never occur.

This move is potentially a very friendly one, because you're explicitly referring to a scenario where you and your interlocutor are going to hang out again.
posted by grobstein at 8:14 PM on May 4 [5 favorites]

Speaking as someone who dislikes small-talk: if you don't want to go into something with someone, do whatever you can to make your answer as boring as possible while still being technically correct. If I went to a furry convention last weekend, for example, my coworkers would hear in response to questions about what I did over the weekend something like "I spent some time with friends" or possibly even "Oh, y'know, just taking a break from the usual." This way you don't really have to remember a lie, but you're not giving them much information to latch onto for further questions.

This might be hard as you sound like you enjoy telling stories (and very likely, if you're getting these sorts of interested follow-up questions, people enjoy listening to them). I wouldn't necessarily worry too much about coming across as braggy or whatever, but if you have your reasons for not wanting to do it, that's completely fair.

Not that I think they'd mind the whole furry thing, but I really don't want to get into that with them.
posted by Aleyn at 10:23 PM on May 4 [3 favorites]

Sounds like you're a born storyteller.

how do I keep my description of giraffe birth to three sentences when I'm explicitly asked about it

I think you need to start recognizing the types of things you have an instinct to make a huge story out of, early on, before it gets too late.

C: What did you do this weekend?
AB: I spent some time helping my sister with work stuff.
(You know right from the start that there's a big story adjacent to this. A big, juicy story with lots of retell potential! Consider whether you want to go down this road. "Work stuff" invites the listener to ask about your sister's work, which is exactly where you don't want to be headed. "Helping" is also an invite for questions - and why would you say it, anyway? Were you actually helping or is this a storyteller's instinct for hyperbole? "I spent some time with my sister, she lives nearby/we got some lunch. Did you do anything nice?" doesn't eliminate the possibility of storytime, but definitely reduces it.)

C: What does your sister do?
AB: She's a large animal vet. She really likes it.
("Large animal" is unusual, and therefore sexy and a magnet for questions. You could just say "she's a vet", although that could go places you don't like either and potentially make you seem evasive if you have to eventually add the large animal information. To avoid the potential of getting anywhere near this weekend's story, you could channel the conversation to a more mundane direction: "She's a large animal vet. She really likes it. She does a lot of work with horses, up in [some suburb with lots of stables or something, I dunno].")

So what kind of large animal was she working with this weekend?
AB: This week she was at the local zoo.
(Okay, you know there's a big story just one step away now. Even if your listener weren't up-to-date on local zoo stories, you know zoos are cool and a thing lots of people are really curious about! You have the option of either outright lies ("oh, I was actually just helping her sort through some paperwork") or non-specific stuff that skirts the specific question: "She works with all kinds of animals, sometimes cows, lotta horses, she was telling me how once she helped a team working on a tiger... she's always loved animals, ever since she was little.")

C: So cool! I heard a giraffe was born at the zoo this weekend (I PROMISE he brought it up first). (Sure, but you helped him get there. You could go with evasive/misleading stuff like "really? That's awesome!", but probably better to just defuse by telling a much, much less sexy version of the story: "Yeah, my sister was actually involved with that! I didn't really get to see anything, since obviously I had to stay outside of the area, but I learned a fun new fact: apparently giraffes give birth standing up. Who knew. I'm hoping I can go see it when it's a little older."

AB: Yeah, that was my sister. I was at the edge of the pen and she was heroically doing giraffe midwifery! She's the best.
C: *Calls over other colleagues and asks me tell the story of the giraffe delivery*
(Even at this point you're only partly screwed, you know? You could still just let down the crowd with a lukewarm description. "Sorry, it's not that exciting, I couldn't actually see anything from close up. But it took a really long time. I'm hoping I can go see it when it's a little older."

AB: *Tells the story of giraffe delivery, including baby falling 5 feet onto the ground and papa giraffe STEPPING ON NEWBORN* (there are non-entertaining ways to tell even this story, but it doesn't sound like you have it in you. Which is not a bad thing!)

how to decline retelling stories

- Sorry, I've been telling that story all week and you know how it feels when you end up telling the same anecdote a million times? I've gotten there.
- Sorry, I feel like if I talk about giraffes one more time I'll lose my mind. You must really like animals, though.
- Sorry, I'm all giraffed out.
- Yeah, giraffe was born. It was cute. I was actually meaning to talk with you - do you have that report on whatever?

You might also want to consider a few things: Do you actually really enjoy telling these stories, at least the first few times? Do you secretly want the chance to tell? Do you think telling stories makes you look cool and interesting to other people (upstaging the other, supposedly less interesting people, because you're so much more interesting in comparison)? Do you feel the need to please these people who are asking for stories, and hate to disappoint? None of this is bad per se - good, engaged entertainers can be really fun to be around! - but do be honest with yourself about whether you're truly bad at controlling the flow of conversation, or whether you subconsciously want the conversation to head to the story point.

Also, if storytelling (the first time or two) makes you happy... maybe consider a blog or something you can direct people to. Or take pictures online and start just handing people your phone instead of telling the full story: it's less intensive, and people tend to be less engaged.

Or build up your storytelling stamina. :-)
posted by trig at 2:56 AM on May 5 [5 favorites]

Oh man. As someone who can't tell a story to save my life, I depend on other people being more interesting than me to keep conversations light. I am so grateful there are people like you in the world who have good stories, remember them, and know how to deploy them. I think you get asked to tell these repeatedly because it makes other people feel good to hear them. I feel bad that it makes you feel bad! I hope it is not from fear that you are being a boor. There are definitely people whose tendency to talk themselves up really frustrates me, but from your giraffe anecdote, I cannot imagine you would be one of them.
posted by eirias at 10:26 AM on May 5 [1 favorite]

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