How to Have an Adult Conversation

Some time back Ben Stein, who I think is great for the most part, wrote an article on “How to have a business conversation“.  I’ve had this post bouncing around in my head for a while and after a weekend where I got rammed from *behind* by a woman with a stroller (who then muttered “watch where you’re walking” at me) and sat through a dinner party with some boorish socialists, it seemed like the time for a post about civil interactions.

Obviously learning how to politely interact with those around you is a necessary skill for urban living in general, but even more so for anyone who cares about their career or who is investing in anything that requires working with other people.

An apocryphal quote (attributed to everyone from ancient Babylonians to Socrates) I’ve always found amusing is:

“The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority, they show disrespect to their elders…. They no longer rise when elders enter the room. They contradict their parents, chatter before company, gobble up dainties at the table, cross their legs, and are tyrants over their teachers.”

My favourite version ended with “The world shall surely end soon.”  Part of why I enjoy it is that, much like rants about manners, everyone seems to think that TODAY’S children are unruly, and TODAY’S manners are horrid, but the truth of the matter is probably that children are as they’ve always been, and manners are as they’ve always been (we probably have nostalgia for a past that never existed).

With respect to Mr. Stein, I’d love to elaborate on a few of his points, then add a few of my own.

2. Establish common ground & 3. Say kind, generous things to your conversation partner.

At the university I often meet people from all walks of life (especially other cultures).  Having something polite to say about their culture, even if its superficial like how much you like Pad Thai, is a great way to get the ball rolling, put them at ease and open the conversation for other topics.

Its a VERY dangerous area to make criticisms of their culture.  If you tend to be a negative person and this is what you’re most comfortable doing, criticize your OWN culture.  I met an Iranian man a while back. who since we’ve become very friendly but he opened with telling me everything bad about Canada.  I was able to agree with him on most issues (and throw in a few shots at Canada myself), but I walked away thinking he’s got to annoy some people if that’s his opening line.

4. Keep your comments brief & 10. Make whatever points you need to make in a hurry, and then leave.

I’ve had fellow students come to my office and ask me really inane questions about a class we’re both in.  I often get the feeling they’re just looking for an excuse to chat and be my friend.  While I love someone wanting to be my friend (clearly they have great taste in people), it gets awkward when they just stand around smiling after I tell them I don’t know what the marking scheme is going to be for the next assignment.  This may be more common in computer science departments than elsewhere…

11.  No one needs to “earn” your respect.

I don’t encounter this as much as when I was younger, so hopefully people outgrow this attitude.  I’ve had a number of people behave quite rudely to me, with the outlook that I have to “prove” to them I’m worth being polite to.  At one job interview, the guy who ran the place was behaving very badly towards me.  Once his head techie and I got bantering about editors and software development methodologies his demeanor clearly started to change.  By that point I had seen how rude he was and didn’t want to spend my days with the S.O.B.

Similarly, don’t count on an age difference or a perceived status difference to talk down to people.  The time for that is far in the past, and its going to bite you if you try to pull it these days.

12.  Interested is interesting

This is related to a few of Mr. Stein’s points, but I honestly find people fascinating.  Often when I meet someone, I’ll find something about them quite interesting (their job, where they’re from, or an unusual experience they’ve recently had) and pump them for information.  Luckily I must come across as sincere since people seem to like being interviewed rather than finding it creepy.

This weekend I met a guy who had backpacked around Iceland and talked to him extensively about that trip, met another guy from Iran who had spent his high school years growing up in the Canadian prairies (we violated a couple of Ben Stein’s rules by discussing different view on religion within a family, how the climate has changed for Canadian immigrants from the middle east since 9/11 and overt vs. covert racism) and talked to a lesbian couple about raising a son with 4 mothers (the original couple broke up and both of his mom’s now have new partners).  I figure he’s going to have a few sessions worth of things to say if he’s ever in therapy and get’s asked to “tell me about your mother” :-).

I think the people around us all have interesting things going on in their lives, and they usually love to tell you about it.

13. Have a conversation, don’t look for a 1 person audience

I struggle with this myself sometimes.  My friends assure me that I include other people in conversations, but I can certainly be a chatterbox if a topic comes up I’m interested in.  If you’ve been talking for a couple of minutes and the other person hasn’t said anything meaningful, its well worth getting them involved in the conversation again.  Ask an open ended question (“So what were the biggest difference between Iceland and Canada?”) and let them talk for a couple of minutes.

14.  In a group setting, avoid “in jokes” or topics that are only interesting to a subset of the group

A good friend of mine and I constantly make obscure Star Wars references to each other.  The best was when a friend of ours was talking about her younger sister not being able to handle babysitting, he said (in perfect Yoda inflections):  “Not ready for the burden was she” (to which I laughed hysterically for about 15 seconds).  This is pretty rude of us, and we should knock it off.

At the dinner party I heard a 10 minute story which basically amounted to getting better seats at a Madonna concert.  Wow, thanks for stealing a bit of my life that I’ll never get back.

What tips would you have for connecting with people you’re meeting for the first time, in a business or personal setting?

7 replies on “How to Have an Adult Conversation”

4 mothers? Haha.

Good advice about letting the other person talk – some people I work with could use that advice.

Madonna tickets – yah some people have a habit of talking about inane things like they are a big deal. Blah..

Is this a guest post by one of your moms?

This is one of those things that is easy to criticize in other people, very difficult to see in yourself, in my experience. I’m sure we all have a “tiny outrage” along the line of bad madonna seats we’ve over shared.

My advice would be “make the other person feel smart.” The art of getting along with people really boils down to making them feel respected, intelligent, and at ease.

Guinness: I think I was probably channeling my mom for this one. You’re totally right, this is the sort of thing that is awful when others do it, and we don’t even see it in ourselves.

As George Carlin said: “Have you ever noticed that anybody driving slower than you is an idiot, and anyone going faster than you is a maniac?”

Nobleea: Agree with you the council does.

Some of the points you cited sound exactly like points raised by a news-talk radio consultant who’s lecture me and some of my colleagues over the years … and they’re equally applicable to one-way conversations as they are to interactive ones. Especially “interested is interesting” — conversely, bored is boring. Nobody wants to hear a speaker (or read a blogger) who isn’t legitimately interested and excited about what they’re discussing.
Speak from the top of your intelligence, but don’t go out of your way to make yourself sound smart — making your audience feel stupid won’t win any points. And, of course, know when to share the spotlight. If everyone involved can seem like a star, you can bet you’ll look good, too.
It’s really tough to drop the “I know more” and “I know better” attitude — gawd, I sure know it — but it pays off when people feel valued and welcome in the conversation.

Clearly you have no idea about stroller etiquette, of course you should have jumped out of the woman’s way!!!! Hahahaha, just kidding, but speaking from personal experience, it probably was a case of: oh my god my hormones are raging, the baby won’t stop crying, I am bored out of my skull yet oh so tired, I think I better get out for a walk so I don’t have to smell my unwashed body any longer and OH MY GOD why won’t that guy get the hell out of the way! (this being you Mr Cheap). On another day she might have apologized and had adult conversation skills. NO EXCUSE, I just have more sympathy than I used to I guess :))

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