How do People Always Have Something to Say?
The title of this post floated to the top of r/social skills recently, and it deserves some attention. A possible better question would be, “How do people always have something entertaining or interesting to say?”. Regardless, the general concepts are roughly the same. If you find yourself at bars, and unable to push your conversation past pleasantries, this article is for you. This article will help you realize that boring conversations are a byproduct of bad questions. If you want to have interesting conversations, you have to find common ground, then drill down, otherwise you’ll get stuck at surface level small talk.
One of the Reddit post’s comments mentioned FORD (family, occupation, recreation dreams). This serves as a great baseline for conversations, but it won’t be sustainable after the first couple interactions. After significant rapport has been built, you’ll have to dig into the more nuanced aspects of someone’s life. A conversation that started with a shared occupation of teaching, might result in a discussion about philosophy, and the role of the teacher in the world. Individuals who are entrenched in their respective fields can discuss the microscopic and macroscopic aspects of their work; this allows for plenty of breadth.
If you ask, what brought you here, or which drink did you order? Both of which are boring questions at the surface, but if you’re listening attentively, and probe effectively, you might find out that they’re visiting the area because a friend is getting married, which leads to a conversation about marriage; or that they only drink vodka, because they’re allergic to beer, and tequila did them dirty on cinco de mayo. What started out as a seemingly innocuous question can evolve into an engrossing conversation.
Also, don’t be afraid to stretch similarities. Soccer and baseball are different sports, but they share the overarching category of sports, so this can serve as a shared love of “sports”. The same applies to casual gaming and Netflix, both are relaxing self-indulgent habits (even though Netflix might provide for more social capital). Framing your habits in a way that makes them appropriate for society and dating is necessary. The person who says, “I play League of Legends or Call of Duty on the weekend with friends”, is miles away from the person who says, “I play League or CoD every day for several hours”; in reality, they can be the same person. I don’t suggest lying, but sometimes it’s better to omit the truth at the outset. Complete honesty is often more damaging than revealing partial truths.
The Devil is in the details
What do you find entertaining? If you’re asking boring questions, you’ll likely receive boring answers. Great storytellers and comedians can pick out the important elements of an interaction, and spin a tale. Sometimes this will result in embellishing a story, which is fine, because our memory is never as great as we believe it is.
Let’s say, you run into a guy at work, and he says that he took his dog on a walk this morning. You have the opportunity to inquire more about his dog; discuss his relationship with dogs in general; or focus on the destination, and what provoked him to choose that specific location. To go a step further, you can ask if he has any horror stories about dog walks gone wrong, or creepy encounters. Probe, probe, and probe some more.
Sometimes people aren’t in the mood to talk. Maybe they had a long day at work, and they wound up at the bar because their friend dragged them along; so they aren’t conversant at the outset, but if you engage them with interesting topics, they could liven up in minutes.
Appreciate the Silence
I know this article is about always having something to say, but sometimes it’s better to shut up. If you’re chatting with someone new, and the conversation begins to slow or stagnate, check in on a friend or spend time people watching. Friends, setting, and strangers can serve as conversational catalysts. Maybe someone in the club reminds you of a famous person, or they’re wearing something that you contemplated buying yourself. Ask for a verdict on the likeness of the person, or a score on the article of clothing in question. Use the setting, and the people in it, to provide a sense of immediacy.
When listening, allow a couple seconds to pass before responding to a question or comment. If you immediately respond to a person’s question, you probably weren’t listening attentively. Some questions don’t take much thought (e.g. name and occupation), but if you’re asked about your opinion on abortion or race relations, take a deep breath, and qualify your answer (e.g. “I’m not very knowledgeable on the issue, but …”. Quick responses are indicative of arrogance and half-baked answers. Even if your answer isn’t going to change in the seconds before responding, the pause will provide an opportunity to promote yourself as thoughtful and inquisitive. There are obvious exceptions to the delayed response (e.g. quick questions in the middle of someone’s story for context and clarification), but those couple of seconds can set you apart from the other person who bulldozed all their questions and comments.
An unqualified statement is clear and unequivocal. A qualified statement expresses some level of uncertainty about its own accuracy. An example of the first kind would be:
I can answer this question.
An example of the second kind (a qualified statement) would be:
If I am understanding this question correctly, I can answer it.
The qualification indicates that if I am not understanding the question correctly, then I am not able to answer it.