2015.09.06 Conversation Starters

I admit that one of my "guilty pleasures" is reading Pulse articles on LinkedIn where I particularly like those that turn into discussions.

Part of me is lamenting the unlimited choice of entertainment that so fragments what people consume. It is difficult to maintain a common culture when people select totally different corners of popular entertainment - from reading LinkedIn articles to watching ESPN to Comicon videos.

This became very evident for me when reading Karthik Rajan's Pulse article on conversations among strangers; a subject relevant to all people but particularly to those moving to new places.

In the article, Karthik Rajan tells how he as a new immigrant discovered interesting tidbits about American culture by watching the TV series Seinfeld. He noted that it had been a great conversation starter to ask if other people also watch this program; a much better opening than discussing last night's game (or the in America inevitable "What do you do?" which makes many people wonder if this is a game of one-up-manship).

TV programs as conversation starters have the potential of being much more interesting than discussing the weather.

But picking a subject from the media can also become a "gateway question". It can reduce the possibility that we speak with people "not like us." - in this case people with different taste in or access to entertainment.

What if you asked me "Do you watch ...?" (Add Seinfeld, House of Cards, Game of Thrones ... whatever is your favorite show) and I hadn't watched a single episode?

If a negative reply leads to your embarrassment because you disclosed that you spend your time on something that I evidently don't find interesting enough to spend my time on, it may become a very short conversation.

But who says that I made a negative judgement of you based on your spectator habits? That is an assumption you made about me (note that the evidence really is pretty thin; I might just be a new immigrant, be ignorant about the program, or not subscribe to cable/Netflix to mention a few other possibilities.)

Would you write me off as not interesting if I don't share your taste?

Chance is that I might be embarrassed that I haven't watched whatever you have suggested - particularly if it is such an icon among local entertainment options that you would think I had seen it; embarrassed that I am letting you down when I can't continue on your conversation lead; embarrassed that you came up with a good conversation subject while I didn't; embarrassed if I can't afford HBO/Netflix... So I may fear that you are judging me wanting, but that is my assumption about you.

What if a negative reply, "No, I haven't watched ...", would only lead you to say "Well, what else might we then have in common?" out loud with a laugh and invite me to come up with the next suggestion?

As both of us already wonder what can be a subject we might both enjoy, we could have an interesting search for a subject to discuss and by naming "the elephant in the room" - that getting to know strangers is really anxiety provoking for most people - neither of us would need to be embarrassed about the "no's" to come.

Or I can give an open-ended reply and either ask you about the program and what you like about it, pose a counter question about another program, or bring in a totally different subject if I don't do much watching at all. (Books, radio, or local events are all safer than job, vacation destinations, religion, or politics.)

That leads to Karthik Rajan's central point: Be interested in the other person. You don't learn anything about the other by listening to yourself speak.

I should add that the other person doesn't learn anything about you, though, if you turn the conversation into an interrogation. Because that is what it can feel like if you keep popping questions but hold your own opinions and experiences all private.

It is a difficult balance to assure enough disclosure to make the other person comfortable without becoming overly personal. Disclosing your preference in entertainment is very neutral ground.