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Posts Tagged ‘conversation’

A few months back, I made a new friend, and we spent a fair amount of time chatting and getting to know one another. And I was struck by something he was doing.

He was asking me a lot of questions.

He asked me my opinion about a lot of things. He asked about my past. He asked about my work. He asked random questions, about my favorite color and Nala and what I like and don’t like. He asked follow-up questions. When I referred to something obliquely, he asked about that too.

In general, I have tended to be the one who asks a lot of questions. (More recently, I’ve been deliberately pulling back so as to strive for more conversational balance.) So I was fascinated by this turn of events, and I resolved to sit back and observe. And what I realized is, it is super flattering when someone asks a lot of questions. I was basking in the attention. And since I was asking questions in return, it built connection and rapport comparatively quickly.

And the result is now I have this new friend who, no joke, knows more about me than friends I’ve known for years.

That is the power of asking questions.

Photo Credit: Ann Douglas via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: Ann Douglas via Compfight cc

Okay, now bring this knowledge to dating. This is a bit more complicated.

Asking questions can potentially turn a date into an interview, and personally I don’t think this is a desirable outcome. However, I think the interview date isn’t too hard to avoid as long as you’re paying attention. As long as the questions are more or less organic (as opposed to sounding like a list you’re trying to get through), and as long as you are also speaking about yourself (which will be easier, of course, if your date is also asking you questions), the interview effect isn’t as likely to happen.

And then there’s knowing which questions are appropriate. There is more than one opinion on this subject. There are those who try to keep the first couple dates on the lighter side, and those who want to dive more deeply right away. I don’t know that there’s a right answer here, but I do know a few subjects I don’t want to talk about right away:

  • Money. I hate when people ask about this on a first or second date. Obviously I am solvent and, you know, doing stuff like paying rent and feeding myself and Nala, and we can discuss the details when I’ve spent more than a couple of hours with you.
  • Past relationships. A little of this is okay, but being on a date with someone who goes on and on about an ex….means this will be the only date. And I’m certainly not going to ask detailed questions right away.
  • Asking questions for the purpose of then being able to deliver a critique on how I live my life. Just…no.

But there are so many potential questions to ask, whether you’re looking to go deep or stay lighter. Movies, books, the article you read yesterday, music, pets, travel destinations. What makes you the happiest. What makes you sad. How you’ve changed over the years. The favorites game. What you’ve learned this week or this year. And on and on.

And yes, I’ll even take my least favorite question over no questions at all.

Now, there are some people who seem to rarely ask questions in conversation. And, um, I have eventually asked them the question of why they never ask questions. (Of course I have.) The answer, inevitably, is this: “I figured,” they say, “you’d tell me if you wanted me to know.”

No. Maybe this works for some people? But it certainly doesn’t work for me.

Having been in a huge number of conversations with people who don’t ask questions, I can tell you the stuff I never talk about tends to have very little to do with my desire to talk about it (with a few exceptions) and everything to do with whether I’m given an opportunity. I find myself looking for a moment where I can drop in a morsel of information so someone can actually–*gasp*–get to know me better. But looking for those moments, well, it takes effort, and it’s never as good as a conversation in which I don’t have to look for those moments because, hey, the other person is actually exhibiting active interest in me.

Now, I know sometimes conversations on first dates in particular can be…awkward, to put it mildly. And I know sometimes a good question simply doesn’t present itself. Even as a lifelong question asker, I sometimes come up empty.

But asking questions gets easier with practice. And it can be a powerful tool, in dating and in relationships in general. Questions allow us both to get to know someone more deeply and to make that person feel special.

What questions do you like to ask when you are getting to know someone? What questions do you like being asked?

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On a great date, the conversation will flow, there will be a bunch of questions you want to ask and a bunch of topics you want to pursue, and it will end with a continued sense of fascination about the person with whom you’ve been spending time.

Most dates aren’t great dates.

But before we start talking about my own personal date conversation dislikes, let me suggest that we all try our best not to take this post too seriously. Because you know, life is short and we’ve all made a few of the conversational blunders I’m about to point out. ME TOO. That doesn’t mean they aren’t funny or worth talking about. That also doesn’t mean you fail at dating or socializing.

It simply means, hey, life is ridiculous sometimes. We screw up sometimes. Things that don’t work for me might work swimmingly for you. Etc., etc.

So with that out of the way, let’s talk about my least favorite conversational gambit of all time: the What Do You Like to Do in Your Spare Time question.

Sometimes this question can masquerade as “What are your hobbies?” Both questions are about equally wretched and boring. In fact, I hate this question so much that at this point I will endeavor to avoid having to answer it. Unfortunately, most people who have strayed so far off a good conversational path will inevitably HOLD THEIR GROUND, thereby consigning us both to an asinine few minutes. The only consolation, and it is a tiny one, is that I can then ask them the same bad question to see if they actually have a good answer to it. For science. (But they don’t. They never do. At least not so far.)

Okay, stop and take a deep breath if you often ask this question. I’ve asked it too. We are okay. Really. Just, you know, maybe think about it before you ask it next time.

Here’s why I think it’s such a bad question: because the response it encourages is merely a bland list of activities. Basically this question sucks for the same reason that my blog sometimes sucks, because it doesn’t give you nice, juicy concrete details. It doesn’t lead to stories. It doesn’t lead to connection. It leads to boring boring boring. (Or if you’re talking to me, it leads to me going completely blank and giving you a piteous look.)

Photo Credit: jwordsmith via Compfight cc

Photo Credit: jwordsmith via Compfight cc

A better conversational tactic is to talk about what the two of you have been doing recently, which will usually automatically give rise to talk about activities and subjects that interest both of you, but in such a way as to encourage anecdotes and details and maybe even an actual discussion. (I know, I know, I set my sights high.) Granted, if all you’ve been doing lately is working, this won’t be as effective, but here, have a nice reason to strive for a little bit of balance in life. You’re welcome. (Or, barring that, I suppose you could talk about what you want to be doing or what you’re going to do.)

Here are some other quality conversational blunders I love to hate:

  • “I know you don’t drink alcohol, so let me talk for a lengthy period of time about alcohol.” No. Just don’t do it. In a group, I will deal with it. One-on-one, this is totally unnecessary. If you have a huge passion for wine, or Scotch, or whatever, I accept that maybe someday I’ll have to listen to you talk a lot about it, just as you’ll have to listen to me blather about musical theater. But that time is not the first date. Or the second. Or probably even the third. Basically it just shows you’re not paying attention to what your companion finds interesting. (If, on the other hand, it hasn’t come up that I don’t drink, you’re totally off the hook. Expecting your date to be a mind-reader is not cool.)
  • Personal questions about money. I understand my date might want to be reassured that I’m solvent and responsible and not about to flee the country or file for bankruptcy, but beyond that, waiting a couple dates before prying into all the details of my financial situation is a good call. I know some people think this is totally fine behavior, which is their prerogative, but I’d never to do it on the first couple of dates myself.
  • “Here’s what you should do about x situation that you didn’t ask for advice about.” Ugh. This is often kind of annoying anyway because people usually want a different response (and that’s if they’re actively talking about their problems in the first place, which is rarely the case in early dating, when you’re merely trying to get to know one another). But on the first couple of dates, it’s particularly bad because the other person probably doesn’t even know enough details or information to actually be giving relevant advice. But then when I stand my ground and then try to change the subject, they won’t always let it go. Fun times.
  • Saying something mean-spirited/putting the other person down. Here’s the thing. Maybe the person was nervous. Maybe the person was making a joke (granted, a mean-spirited joke). But ultimately I don’t care why it happened. If someone says something kind of mean during one of your first times together, odds are it’s going to happen again. And again. And again. This isn’t just a red flag, it’s a get-the-hell-out-NOW flashing neon sign of doom.

(Note: I’ve gotten some push-back in the past when I’ve talked about this particular neon sign, and I think it might be because people are worried their teasing will be interpreted as mean or negging or whatever. But if it is interpreted that way, then that means the two of you are not compatible, end of story. Your senses of humor simply do not mesh. Or else it means you are crossing the boundary between teasing and being disrespectful and aren’t aware of it. But nobody owes you a lesson in that; it’s something you’ll have to work out for yourself. Or maybe people are worried that I am too sensitive. Don’t be. My main failure at reading people is sugarcoating what I know and being too accommodating, and I’m fine with being willing to stand up for myself.)

In conclusion, most dates aren’t amazing out-of-this-world I-can’t-stop-talking-about-it dates. If they were, dating would be a simple and short process (and for the people for whom it is, hey, more power to you!) But dates are certainly a lot more pleasant when both people are kind and polite and make an effort to be in tune with one another. On that I suspect we can all agree.

PS: If you would like to share your least favorite conversational gambit of all time, I’d love to hear it!

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People will try to take your voice away.

They will try to make you shut up if you are different than them, if you have a different opinion than them, if you are engaging with an idea that makes them uncomfortable, if you are a woman, if you are below a certain age or above a certain age, if you have a darker skin color, if you are gay, if you belong to a different religious or political group, if the things you believe to be important are not the same things that they believe to be important.

People will try to take your voice away.

They will mock you, harass you, and make fun of you and what you are trying to say. They will tell you that women are inherently not as smart, talented, important, or fill in the blank as men. They will ask you why you have to think the way you think, why you have to ask the questions you’re asking, why you have to pick everything apart. Leave well enough alone, they tell you. You’re reading too much into it, they say. Be grateful for what you have. As if gratitude for the good requires a blanket of silence. (Anyone who tells you that you should be grateful has an agenda, and it’s not one that involves being particularly kind to you.) They will say that you are whining or bitchy or too negative.

People will try to take your voice away.

They will reward you for your silence. They will reward you for smiling, for agreeing, for not bringing it up, for being the nice one or the good one. You will get to avoid conflict and uncomfortable silence (until you start to realize that uncomfortable silence is not really all that bad a price to pay in order to refuse to be smothered). You will feel like one of the group, you might even be able to pretend that these people are your friends. (Except real friends will not try to pressure you into silence. They might change the subject or say they prefer not to discuss a specific topic, but they won’t try to make you feel small. And if they slip up, they will apologize.)

People will try to take your voice away.

They will feign ignorance, or maybe they genuinely will not understand how toxic they are being. They will be doing it for your own good. They will mean well. They won’t even notice. They will do some nice things for you, and you won’t realize your voice has died down to an inaudible whisper. Eventually you will internalize their voices and be harsh with yourself for doing positive activities like engaging in critical thinking. Their attempts to keep you quiet will become your own attempts to silence yourself.

People will try to take your voice away. But you don’t have to let them. You can keep talking, keep writing, keep singing, keep questioning, keep engaging, keep thinking, keep pushing out of your comfort zone. You can keep asking why: Why does the new Dove ad campaign make you uncomfortable? Why are you being criticized for doing something you didn’t do? Why do you like what you like and dislike what you dislike?

In both singing and writing, finding your voice is so important. Once you’ve found it, cherish the discovery and don’t let anyone take it away from you.

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When we think about social media, it is important to remember how much the internet, and the ways we interact with it, are evolving. The rate of change is fairly rapid, and because of this, it is easy for conventional wisdom regarding best practices to fall behind.

Think about it: the internet is still fairly new. Some of us might have trouble imagining life without it, and yet the first commercial service providers didn’t start up until the late 1980s, just a bit more than twenty years ago. Google got started in 1996-1997 (about 15 years ago); Livejournal began in 1999 (12 years ago); MySpace was founded in 2003 (about 8 years ago); and Facebook launched in 2004 (7 years ago). All of these services took time to develop and find their audiences. So even experts in social media haven’t been doing it for very long, because not long ago, nothing existed to do.

What this means is that there’s still a lot of space for experimenting, being creative, and developing your own unique way of using social media. Take, for example, the author Tobias Buckell. A year ago, contrary to all advice, he decided to shut down the comments on his blog. Experts told him that this was crazy talk, that he needed to enable comments on his blog to encourage conversation and engagement with his audience. Some people went as far as to say that without comments, it wasn’t even a real blog any longer. But Tobias was feeling drained from all the time and energy he had to spend moderating the comments, and he was censoring what he allowed himself to talk about as a result.

He recently published the results of his experiment: he went from 20,000 unique visitors/month when he shut off comments to 100,000 unique visitors/month a year later, which is the highest traffic he’s had in the seven years he’s run the blog. And he sounds happier because of it too, saying: “It’s really been a lot more fun since I starting letting myself be myself.”

So obviously the conventional wisdom that a blog has to have a commenting option, and that you can judge a blog’s impact and degree of engagement by looking at how many comments are being made on it, is flat-out wrong in this case. Yes, the experts were wrong. Would the no-comments approach work for everyone? No, probably not. But apparently it’s not the deal breaker everyone thought it was.

When considering my own use of social media, I find this distinctly comforting. It’s human to hit a wall sometimes. I’m sure many of us have a social media tactic that we’re “supposed to do” but makes us cringe. I’ll tell you mine, although maybe you can already guess. I’m supposed to write blog posts that are less complete and leave more room for all of you to respond. (And I love it when you respond, really I do.) But right now, it’s hard for me to even consider being less than complete–the thought makes my inner perfectionist rear up and ululate in horror. I imagine a blogging horror story in which I deliberately delete something I really wanted to say in order to leave it for someone else to say, and then…NO ONE SAYS IT.

An example of ululation.

I know, I know, clearly I have my work cut out for me. In the meantime, it’s reassuring to think that I am sometimes allowed to experiment with a more essayist approach to blogging, even while I’m trying to improve my conversationalist style of blogging. And I hope you find it reassuring to know that if you can’t juggle five different social media platforms all at once, the world won’t end. And if you just don’t “get” one of the popular services, you can maybe just skip that one or do something completely different from the norm when you use it.

So, time to dish. I told you my social media cringe-point; what’s yours? Is there a service that you just can’t get into? Is there common advice that makes you want to throw your laptop across the room? Is there something that, if you allowed yourself not to do it, would make you enjoy social media more or allow you to be more authentic to yourself? Let loose below.

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I still remember the first time I realized that people who sound perfectly confident about what they’re saying are not always correct. It was sometime in my mid-20s (apparently I was a slow learner?) when I was in conversation with a friend of mine, and he said something about Yosemite National Park that I knew was incorrect. Mind you, it wasn’t something I thought I might have gotten wrong or was otherwise unsure about. I’d been going to Yosemite every year since I was born, so I was ninety-nine percent certain that my friend was stating something factually inaccurate.

However, when I offered my expertise on the subject, he didn’t admit to not being sure himself. To every outward appearance he was just as confident about his correctness as he had ever been. And at that moment I had an epiphany: People could be telling me inaccurate information all the time, and unless it was a subject in which I had personal expertise, I would never know the difference.

Dinosaurs and humans coexisted … um, right? No, but 41% of American adults think they did.

We hear a lot about how information on the internet may or may not be very reliable, but the internet is merely boosting the signal of an older problem. How do we know, not when people are maliciously lying to us (that’s another problem, but thankfully a much rarer one for me personally), but when they are misrepresenting their knowledge? And worse still, how can we avoid passing this ignorant knowledge onwards ourselves? (Incidentally, Wikipedia has an entire list of common misconceptions. Of course, you have to ask yourself: how much of this list is accurate? And the nature of the beast is revealed in all of its pernicious twistings.)

Another aspect of the problem is oversimplification. It seems to me that while my life can be very complicated, that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to the amount of complications in the greater world. And yet it’s so easy to think about an issue or subject for only a minute or two and pronounce upon it, failing to delve into the deeper implications, the bigger picture, the history, or what-have-you.

I’ll give an example that I see a fair amount. I happen to know something about the geopolitics of the Middle East. Do I have a complete understanding? No. Am I an expert? No again. Why not? Because the situation is complicated, and because it’s difficult to find reliable sources of information, and because I live far away and therefore can’t rely on firsthand experience. Also because I come from a different country and bring my own cultural expectations into my reasoning, and in spite of my best efforts, I’m sure some of that leaks through to color my opinions and observations.

However, I do know enough to be able to tell when others know what they’re talking about (and when they don’t). I also know enough to notice when people seem to have formed opinions about situations in the Middle East even though they lack the background information necessary to develop a deep understanding. I don’t mind so much when I speak to people who have different opinions from me on this topic (on the contrary, it’s such a complicated topic that I welcome the chance to learn more, especially from those who are more personally involved and/or affected).  However, when it becomes obvious that they’re not likewise trying to educate themselves even when they lack information (which is easy to lack when you live half-way around the world), well, then once again ignorance has won. And it will spread.

I’m worried because this isn’t an inspirational post, and I like the inspirational posts the best. But for a problem like this, I don’t have any real answers. I try to do my best to be accurate in the information I pass along, but sometimes I make honest mistakes. I try to educate myself about the issues I care about, and I try not to profess knowledge I don’t have and instead ask questions to improve my understanding. (Six years ago, I knew nothing at all about the Middle East, for example.) When I hear information I know to be incorrect, I try to speak up, even though I often don’t feel like being assertive.

But in an information-heavy world, there will always be information that is inaccurate or incomplete. And there will always be people who aren’t interested in listening.

What do you think about this problem? How do you deal with it in your daily life?

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Last week I got some exciting news.

I’d been on an airplane for several hours, flying home from a very successful vacation. I was slightly brain-dead, and I’m sure my in-flight dinner of Pringles and peanut butter cups hadn’t helped matters. After having survived the little dog frenzy of homecoming, I settled by the fire to check my e-mail, happily procrastinating from unpacking my suitcase.

I clicked on one of my e-mails, read the first sentence, and screamed. Literally. I think my husband thought I’d seriously hurt myself, because he came running from the other room.

What did that e-mail say? It told me that I sold my first story! Daily Science Fiction wants to publish my story “Forever Sixteen”. Hooray!

(And no, I don’t know when it will come out, but I’m guessing it will be awhile. Stay tuned….)

I was feeling pretty good about myself, in an I’ve-spent-all-day-on-a-plane sort of way. And I felt even better when, the very next day, I found out that I’d received an Honorable Mention in the most recent quarter of the Writers of the Future contest.

(Taking my moment to bask, giggle, jump around the room, and basically celebrate!)

******
Okay, I’m back.

Now I’m going to share a bit of unproductive thinking that went along with this good news. When I found out about the sale, I was happily sharing my news on Twitter and Facebook, celebrating with the great people who have been supporting me. But, when I found out about the Honorable Mention the next day, after the requisite excitement, I turned to my husband and said, “I don’t know if I should tell anyone about this.” He asked me why not, and I continued, “Well, it’s just too soon after yesterday’s good news. Plus won’t it seem like I’m bragging if I say anything?” Then I paused, thought about what I’d just said, and cried, “Oh no! I just did that thing!”

Do you see that thing I did? I automatically wanted to downplay my success instead of sharing it. I worried about “bragging”, even though I would never think that of another writer posting the same news. Is this because I’m a woman who has been trained to be a team player and never toot my own horn? Is this because I’m a writer with the prerequisite insecurities so often found in my profession? Even after noticing my strange behavior, I still rationalized with a “Maybe I should say something on Twitter but not Facebook.” Because somehow that would make a difference? Hello, irrationality!

I’d love to say that this was an isolated case, but the truth is I see it all the time. Just this past weekend I was spending time with two lovely women writer friends of mine. Both of them have blogs. Both of them are active on Twitter and Facebook. But neither of them regularly post notifications of their new blog posts on Twitter or Facebook. This drives me crazy because I forget to read their blogs as a direct result.

I talked to one of them about it, and she said, “Oh, I don’t know if people would really be interested.” And that’s the clincher, right? I think most of us have moments of thinking the same sort of thoughts. Why would anyone care about what we have to say? Maybe it’s not a good idea after all to put ourselves out there.

Newsflash! People are following you because they’re interested in what you’re doing, and they’re interested in what you have to say. So if you don’t let them know about your newest blog post, you are shooting yourself in the foot. After all, they don’t have to click on the link you provide if they don’t feel like it. You’re not forcing them into anything. You’re just letting them know what’s available.

This ties directly into Sheryl Sandberg’s advice to women on the video I linked to earlier this week. Her first point? Sit at the table. What did she mean? That if we sideline ourselves, letting other people sit at the table while we hang off at the edges being self-effacing and shy, we aren’t giving ourselves the same chance at success. We aren’t giving ourselves the same respect that we give others. And if we don’t give ourselves that respect, then why will anyone else?

Sit at the table. I dare you.

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“Loneliness is the endemic disease of our time.”

My husband broke out this sentence last weekend, and of course, my response was, “Where’s my laptop? I need to write that down.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that sentence: at its most basic, the state of being lonely and all it entails, the idea of loneliness as a disease (and a widespread systemic one at that), and whether loneliness is more prevalent now than it has been in the past.

And once I add in the context of the conversation, which was about social media, there’s even more to think about. How does social media (Facebook, Twitter, the blogosphere, forums, online dating, etc.) affect loneliness? Does it make us feel more connected and satisfied on the whole, or does it, by diluting our pool of friends and sometimes encouraging quantity over quality and surface over depth, make us feel even more lonely?

I don’t think there’s a one-size-fits-all answer. Even if I examine my own personal experience, I’ve had both positive and negative reactions to social media.

The Bad:

1. Hearing about a party that all your friends went to, to which you were not invited, is not so fun. On the plus side, this means that when the party comes up later in in-person conversation (which it inevitably will), at least you’re not blindsided and can respond with the appropriate blasé remark.
2. Reading the never-ending stream of advice and opinions about writing and the publishing industry can be draining and kill my own inspiration and ability to work. I imagine this is true in other fields as well.
3. Time sink. Enough said.
4. Having a lot of Facebook friends is not the same as having friends who form my support network, with whom I have a private and personal relationship. And yet, sometimes Facebook distracts from the need to maintain those deeper relationships.
5. Friends’ internet time is not equal, so I will end up with more interaction with those friends who check their social networks frequently, as opposed to those friends with whom I have the closest in-person connections.
6. Social media makes me feel like I know what’s going on for people, and it makes people feel like they know what’s going on for me. Which is great, until I start to think about all the things I never say because they are too private for public consumption.

The Good:

1. One of the reasons I love blogging so much is because it allows me to use social media in a very content-heavy way, helping me balance the whole breadth vs. depth issue. Plus it gives me the chance to be a conversation-starter or to respond in depth to interesting conversations begun by others.
2. I am able to keep myself very informed and up-to-date on any of my interests or career concerns.
3. Social media makes it easier to reach out and create or find a community of like-minded individuals.
4. I can stay in at least nominal touch with a lot more people than I could have even ten years ago. Contacting someone out of the blue is also a lot less weird than it used to be.
5. Getting multiple birthday wishes (and having an easier time remembering and acknowledging others’ birthdays) makes me happy. Yes, I love birthdays.
6. Sometimes social media is great entertainment, pure and simple. And I love the way it lets people share content.

On the whole, social media makes me feel more connected, as long as I remember that it’s not a substitute for in-person time (or e-mail for those of my friends who aren’t local). What has your experience been with different forms of social media? Does it make you feel more or less isolated?

On Thursday, I’ll be exploring the idea of how loneliness fits into modern American society, and why it might be on the rise.

UPDATE: An interesting recent article on how Facebook helps people overcome shyness. It ends with the insight that some users become more lonely because of Facebook.

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