Tuesday, December 29, 2009

What to Say (Conversational Skills, Part 3)

Last week, I covered some of the conversational pitfalls to avoid. But what makes a *good* conversationalist? Being a good conversationalist is about doing most of the conversational work. This does not mean doing most of the talking. In fact, it can mean doing less of the talking than the other person.

One aspect of conversational work involves coming up with questions that make people feel interesting. Yes, I said interesting, not interested. People will love to talk to you if the questions you ask make them feel they are interesting. Such questions help people put forward their best, funniest selves. And people, self-centered bastards that we are, tend to like people because of how we feel about ourselves when we are around them. If I like who I am when I’m with you, I’m going to want to spend more time with you.

We’ve already established what these questions are not. They are not vague questions like “What have you been up to lately?” It takes no thought, no real interest in the other person to ask “What’s new?” You could ask that generalized question of anyone. And it makes your conversational partner do the work of coming up with a topic of conversation. An interesting question has more specificity. This may mean knowing and remembering things about people in order to ask questions tailored to them. It may mean thinking of a topic you’re interested in and asking the other person their opinion (rather than spouting your own viewpoint right off). An interesting question elicits conversational meat. You’ve got yourself some conversational meat when you are able to elicit someone’s opinion or strong feelings of excitement or passion. (Eliciting strong feelings of annoyance, anger or fear should be avoided.)

If you don’t know the person at all your first question may have to be a boring one, like “Where did you grow up?” The key is the follow-up question. Instead of saying “I hear it’s hot there” or “I’ve never been there,” ask:

“How is the culture different here than where you’re from?” Or if the person is from the place you currently are, ask “How is it different today than when you were little?” These questions will get you into the realm of opinion and people’s likes and dislikes. People love sharing their opinions about the crappy drivers in the city they’re living in now.

Another question that will lead you into the realm of opinion is “Did you hear about (a political issue, movie news, video on YouTube, etc.)? What did you think of it?”

Another potentially dull initial question you may find yourself asking someone you don’t know is the typical “What do you do?” On the one hand, this question shows your interest in the person, her background and an activity to which she devotes a large portion of her time. On the other hand, understand that most people’s jobs, let’s face it, are boring--either to the person who has to do it for a living or to you or to both of you. Even if the job seems interesting, really, the day to day of it is boring--even being a film actor is mostly boring. But your follow-up question does not have to be. You do not need to ask for details about what she does--unless you really care (or she seems really excited about her job). Instead ask “Is that what you went to school for?” Most people chose their college major because they were fascinated by the topic, so regardless of whether it matches their current job or not, you now know a topic that they’re passionate about. If you are interested in the day to day of what she does, it’s best to ask her a technical question that she can give advice on. Most people don’t want to list what they do all day or explain exactly what their job is--it feels too much like having to justify getting a paycheck. If you ask her advice, it makes the other person feel important and lets her display her knowledge and therefore feel good about herself.

Up on Friday: more on the art of conversation.

Friday, December 25, 2009

What Not to Say (Conversational Skills, Part Two)

Just a few more tips on what not to say in conversation, then next week I'll move to what *to* do.

Talking about People the Other Person Doesn’t Know. Telling an anecdote from someone else’s life, someone no one in the current conversation knows, is not usually a good idea unless the story has a strong emotional pull, e.g., they got all their skin burned off in an arson they started. Most people do not care about people they don’t know. Call us hard-hearted, but that’s how humans are. Tell your own stories about your own life.

Asking Vague, Generalized Questions. Do you like being asked “What’s new?” I don’t. I hate it. I do prepare myself for being asked this because it will always be asked of me by three or more people at even a small party. But it’s a hard question for most people to answer. It puts them on the spot to come up with something that will be interesting to you. Asking a generalized question makes people feel boring. You never want someone’s reaction to one of your questions to be “Damn--have I even done anything new or out of the ordinary in the last week? I really haven’t, have I? Geez, I’m boring.”

Think of the questions you don’t like being asked. These are the same ones other people would be thrilled not to have to answer. So don’t ask them.
Trumping the Other Person’s Story/Cleverness. If you are starting to tell a story because it’s better, funnier, more awful than the one the other person just told, stop yourself. It will come off as one-upmanship. No one wants to be with someone who makes her feel her story was boring, not good enough, etc. You want to make others feel good about themselves when they’re around you. A conversation is not about you building your own self-esteem. It’s about building the other person’s self-esteem by enjoying her stories, being interested in her life and finding her jokes funny.

It’s perfectly fine to contribute your own anecdote about your hellish Christmas with the family after someone else has just finished telling hers, but don’t do it to trump her or because you feel jealous that she’s the center of attention when your story is so much better. Tell your story because you can relate to the other person’s tale, and because you think others will actually enjoy your story (not only that you will enjoy telling it).

Am I saying that you are going to crush someone’s self-esteem if you tell a better story than she does? No--unless the person is really insecure. But you do not want someone to walk away from a conversation feeling that she came out as second best. Conversation is not a competition. *Neither* of you should walk away thinking your story was second best.

Making Obscure References that Only Amuse You. Tell those in your head. Not out loud. No one likes to have a joke or reference explained to her. Don’t do it. Ever.

Putting Yourself in a Bad Light. It’s one thing to laugh at yourself, which invites others to laugh *with* you, and another to put yourself down, which invites others to say “Oh, you’re not that bad,” or “Poor baby.” Or “What a loser.” It’s the difference between “I emailed this girl on Nerve and she never even emailed back and she was the only one on the site that was interesting to me” [Loser], and “So I check my Nerve account and I’ve got these messages from some woman who lives in Albuquerque and another woman who wants to date only green-eyed Libras, and I’m like, I can’t date either one of these women. They’re both illiterate. I live in New York, I’m a Taurus and I have brown eyes” [Funny].

P.S. It does not matter if the joke on yourself is a vast exaggeration as long as it’s funny. If you’re tempted to tell a story that makes you look bad, pathetic or lacking control over your own destiny, make sure it will make people laugh. The only exception to the it-must-be-funny rule is if you’re talking to someone whom you want to say “Poor baby, poor baby” or to your therapist.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

What Not to Say (Conversational Skills, Part One)

What follows are some basic tips on what *not* to do if you want to be an interesting conversationalist. You may say to yourself about each of these suggestions “that’s obvious,” but I challenge you to listen to yourself the next time you’re at a party and count how many times you start to do anything on this list.

Spouting Facts and Correcting People. Now, spouting facts can be interesting, but this is an advanced skill. It’s very difficult to do without coming off as a know-it-all. Believe me, everyone knows you’re the smartest person in the room. No need to prove it. Over and over again.

It’s all right to say occasionally “Oh, I thought that blah, blah, blah was true.” Notice the ‘I thought that’ phrasing. Use this expression even when you don’t *think* it--you *know* it--you’ll come off as less of a jerk. And take note of whether the other person is actively engaged with you about whether it was the first season or second season of when Galactica met the Battlestar Pegasus. If she isn’t doing any of the talking, she does not care. Move on. Whether it happened in the first or second season is not in any way the point of the conversation. If it is, you’re being a bore.

And, for God’s sake, never bring up the argument the next time you see the person, saying “Oh, by the way, I looked it up online and I was right.”

It comes down to this (you’ll hear me say this again and again): Would you rather be right all the time and spend your life alone, or be with someone? Lighten up.

Being Weird. Take note: being random is not interesting in and of itself. Let me repeat so you fully understand: being random is not interesting in and of itself.

When I was four years old, at any opportunity, I would stand up on something I had determined was a stage (the top of a staircase, a porch, a couch) and I would begin talking apropos of nothing. I called it “committing excesses.” Where I got that from I don’t know. At any rate, I thought I was fascinating and deserved to be the center of the universe as I spouted non sequitors and random facts and thoughts. And, okay, yeah, at four years old it was probably pretty adorable. Okay, yeah, *I* was pretty adorable.

I do not engage in this behavior now. Because, as I found out when I started school the next year, I am not, unfortunately, the center of the universe.

Do not add non sequitors to the conversation to “liven things up.” In fact, this usually kills a conversation because there is no real response to a non sequitor, except “Does not compute. Does not compute.” If you want to liven up a conversation, change the topic. This, of course, takes a lot more skill than blurting out some nonsensical comment, which is why you don’t do it (skillfully change the topic, that is). We’ll discuss how to change topics in a later post.

Do not talk about inappropriate topics, like masturbation (unless it is organic--I said, *organic*--to the conversation).

Do not tell racist jokes, or make sexist comments (not even just to “get a rise” out of someone).

Telling Details No One Cares About. Are you talking about something everyone does or experiences? These topics include: dealing with traffic, not being able to find a parking spot, doing laundry. Really any domestic chores.

No one cares.

You may say one sentence on the topic (“I was late because traffic was so bad”) and no more.

Unless you are skilled at being humorous while talking about missing the bus (or looking for orange jell-o), do not attempt to discuss these things. Humor is achieved by exaggerating (it was the worst experience ever) or making fun of yourself. Clue as to whether you are being funny or not: If you’re talking in a group, it is only humorous if at least two people are laughing. One doesn’t count--there will always be someone who just can’t help herself from being polite even though it drags out an anecdote that’s driving her crazy.

Up on Friday: More Things Not to Say in Conversation

Friday, December 18, 2009

First Date Etiquette, Part Two

If she does come over to your place, make sure you have enough toilet paper. Hang a hand towel in the bathroom and the kitchen. Clean cat hair off the couch. She doesn’t want to go home with cat hair stuck to her butt. And clean the cat box. If you have a dog, make sure the yard is clear of poo and the dog has been washed. Even if you can’t smell it, she can. Unless she owns a dog herself, she will be less than impressed if your dog (1) slobbers on her clothes, (2) sniffs her crotch, (3) jumps up on her or (4) barks for more than two seconds.

If you asked her, you pay for both of you. If she asked you, pay your half. You can offer to pay for her but don’t feel you have to if she’s the one who did the asking out. I know, it’s a bit of a double standard. But your female equivalent in the work world gets paid 70 cents for every dollar you make doing identical work, so quit bitching. And don’t use coupons/gift certificates on a date. Do you really need to save that five dollars?

Do not answer your cell phone during a social situation. Don’t recognize the number? Don’t answer. It’s your mom? Let her leave a voicemail.

Swallow your food before talking. Tucking it in your cheek like a squirrel is not the same as swallowing.

Again, I know I’m repeating myself, but geeks can be very (overly) opinionated: Be careful about criticizing the food, movies, books that other people like. Okay, some food (raw oysters), movies (“Schindler’s List”) and books (“The Da Vinci Code”) are just so awful that I would not tell you to hold back. But most of the time taste is a matter of opinion. Don’t be a fascist. People are allowed to like Frankie and Annette beach movies.

Up on Tuesday: Basic tips on what *not* to do if you want to be an interesting conversationalist.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

What to Wear and First Date Etiquette, Part One

What to Wear on a First Date. If a woman your age has complimented it (assuming the compliment was within the last year), wear that. Otherwise, ask a woman in your life what you should wear--the girlfriend of a friend, or your gamer girl online friends. But, for God’s sake, don’t ask more than once. Don’t do a poll of everyone you know. You don’t need to obsess about this. Once you’ve picked a first date outfit, make it easy on yourself and stick with that outfit for all your first dates (weather permitting).

First Date Etiquette. If you do end up driving to pick her up, now is not the time for talking to yourself (or other drivers), or driving like a maniac. Stop for crosswalks, don’t run yellow lights, and don’t tailgate. Women are not impressed with dangerous driving. A sixteen year old might be but you’re not dating a sixteen year old. Right? Unlock her door first--I do not care if you have electric locks and it’s raining and it’s just as fast for you to go to your door and unlock both doors at the same time. Gas up before you get her. I hope that goes without saying.

If she’s picking you up, don’t criticize her driving unless you’re in real danger or she’s about to hit something. In those cases you have an obligation to say something.

We’re talking about chivalry here, otherwise called Basic Consideration. Geeks can be very self-absorbed people. Doted on by parents who constantly referred to you as their little genius, or just being amazingly self-conscious because of your lack of social skill, has made you used to not thinking about other people. So some reminders:

Watch your voice. Geeks are notorious loud talkers and because they hang around other geeks whose unfortunate social code is never criticize the personal habits of others (lest their own personal habits be judged), no one has ever told them they talk too loud. Also, what is it with kids these days? Am I just old or do twentysomethings mumble? E-nun-ci-ate. If *anyone* has *ever* told you that you talk too loud or that you mumble, you do it all the time.
Hold open doors for her. This is not old-fashioned. It’s polite. This is not sexist. She’ll open them for you, too.

Pay attention when she is hesitant about a movie or restaurant choice. Don’t steamroll over her. She’s being polite by not saying no outright, but, if she’s hesitating, she does not want to see that movie or go to that restaurant.

Don’t shoot down her ideas out of hand. This bluntness may be acceptable online but it isn’t in real life. If you really can’t go somewhere that she suggests due to an allergy or complete dislike, do not go on and on about why. No one cares about how you finally got diagnosed with a seafood allergy after having gone to five different doctors. One sentence, one phrase will do. “Nah, I’m not so fond of sushi” is all you need to say. No one cares about your allergic reactions or your reason for hating things. Negativity has no place on a first date. Also, people do not like having what they like criticized. So don’t call things she likes “stupid,” or “puerile.” Don’t say “I don’t know why anyone would like such and such”, or “Why on earth would you [fill in the blank].” Your world is very, very small already. You do not need to be cutting yourself off from stuff by being so close-minded.

Quit interrupting. It’s not all about you. If you forget what you were going to say by the time she finishes what she is saying, that’s okay. Your thoughts aren’t that profound. Don’t be thinking of your next question while she’s talking. This disengages you from active listening.

Don’t order for her. It’s supposed to be romantic or something, but it ain’t. Unless she asks you to, don’t do it.

Up on Friday: Date Etiquette, Part Two

Friday, December 11, 2009

The Dating Game: The First Date

How to Pop the Question. No, not that one! We haven’t gotten there yet! I’m talking about asking her out for the first time.

When to Ask. If you meet at a party/bar/church (i.e., in person), unless you’re getting a really good vibe, ask for her number but don’t ask her out. If she gives you her number, even a work number, that’s a good sign. If she won’t give you her number, well, aren’t you relieved that you didn’t ask her out and get rejected in front of all those people at the party?

Let’s assume you did get her number. Call her! Not that night, though! But don’t wait too long. A week is too long. She could be dating someone else by then. She could forget who you are. Calling two days later is good. Shows that you’re not desperate and that you aren’t trying too hard not to look desperate (calling her the same night does look desperate and/or weird). But don’t be anal about how long you “should” wait to call her; the next day is fine, three days later is fine.

What to Say. If you’re asking her out on the phone and you’re nervous about it, write out a script in natural conversational language. You don’t want to *sound* like you’re reading from a script! Destroy all evidence of the script afterwards and no one need ever know… Here’s an example:

“Hi. Is [Kate] there?”

This is she.

“This is [John Smith]. We met on Saturday at [Marty’s party].”

Oh, hi!

“How are you?”

Great! How are you?

Ask a follow-up question to something she said directly to you at the party--e.g., how was [blockbuster movie that she said she was going to see]? Caution: if she did not mention this activity directly to you, do *not* mention it. It’s a little creepy that you were listening *that* closely.

Chit-chat about the movie.

“I had a really good time meeting you and was wondering if you wanted to go out for [coffee, a beer or something equally casual and plan-less].” Suggesting something like paddle boating at the lake is too thought-out and fake-y date sounding. Equally bad is suggesting a movie, the theatre, a symphony, etc. How weird is it to sit in the dark next to a stranger you’re with but can’t talk to? Doing something casual in the afternoon still leaves you the option of extending the date into dinner if things go well.

I’d like that.

“I was thinking we could meet up at [coffee shop, bar]. Do you know where that is?” [Always default to meeting the woman at the location of the get-together (not at her house or yours) for at least the first date, even if not the second and third. It’s a safety thing for women. And it allows both of you the freedom to leave at any time and have the date be done if it hasn’t gone well.]

That sounds good.

“Does next Saturday work for you?” [Hopefully she’ll suggest a time.]

Yeah. Around 2 would work best for me.

“That’s good for me too. Well, I’ll let you go, but I’ll see you on Saturday!”

You could start a real conversation with her and not hang up so soon, and do stay open to that if she initiates, but I would advise against it. I've written a bit about this before, and here’s why I'd generally not get into a long phone conversation. One, she may be busy, so you don’t want to monopolize her time. You can ask “Is this a good time to talk?’ (which is often a good idea even for a short phone call), but isn’t that what the date is for, so you can talk more at length? Thing is, most people are awkward on the phone, even normal people, much less you. Starting a conversation out of the blue is difficult enough in person when you have visual cues to scan for to tell you how bored/interested she is in a particular topic. And when you meet in person you have something in common to talk about (the weather, the location, how good the coffee is, how busy the place is, etc.). Not that you want to dwell on those superficial conversation topics for more than a minute or two, but they provide a jumping-off point. So, in the beginning, stick to using the phone as a tool to set up a time to talk to her unless you feel comfortable with phone conversation.

If you met online, it’s pretty easy to ask her out. Just send a normal email like you’ve been sending her and append to it one line: “Do you want to meet up for coffee this Saturday?” If she doesn’t respond to your query, she’s not into you. There is no reason a woman would not respond in some way to your question. She wouldn’t “forget” that you asked. And if she’s just not ready yet to meet, she’ll say so.

Up on Tuesday: What to wear on a first date and first date etiquette.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Speed Dating and Other Places to Meet Women

Speed Dating. Come prepared with interesting questions to ask--not “What do you do for a living”-type questions. Yawn. And not off-the-wall questions that make you sound creepy (“Which serial killer do you find most fascinating?”) or weird (“If you could be any kind of tree, what would you be?”).

Some good questions:

“What job have you either quit or been fired from?”

“Who’s one of your favorite authors/bands/movies?” This one sounds a little generic but can foster some interesting conversation and points of commonality. Be sure to ask it as “one of your favorites.” It always stymies people to make them select their absolute favorite.

“What did you hate (or love) most about high school?”

“Whom did you have a big crush on when you were a kid that you wonder now ‘what was I thinking’?”

If the person looks put on the spot, say “Let me go first” and then give an example while she gets her bearings and can think up a response.

And again, when it comes time at the end of the evening to indicate your preferences, say yes to everyone. Unless she was seriously scary. I don’t care if she bored you or wasn’t pretty enough.

Other Places to Meet Women:

Your neighborhood. Get out and walk!

On Your Way to Work. Take the bus or subway. You’ll see the same people over and over again and, unlike in a coffee shop, you have a reason to sit next to someone, and you can strike up a conversation on the bus without it seeming like you’re on the prowl. Ask about the book she’s reading.

Reunions. No, not family reunions! High school or college reunions. These can be your own reunion, or you can tag along with a friend who is dateless for his.

The Least You Can Do:

Post an online profile.

Practice talking to female acquaintances (at work, on the bus, in your neighborhood) *without* the intention of asking them out. Don’t get all nervous: this is just practice for your small talk skills.

Up on Friday: I’ll be starting a series on The Dating Game (when/how to ask her out, what to wear, etiquette,

Friday, December 4, 2009

When You Meet

There are arguments to be made both ways on when to meet up for the first time with someone you’ve met online. Getting together right away will dispel all the fantasies that you can build up when you haven’t met, and if you meet earlier on, you’ll know if there’s chemistry or not, which you can’t tell from an online relationship. On the other hand, building a relationship via email may be more comfortable and easier, especially for the socially awkward, and you may even be able to get to know someone better online than you would in person.

On the whole, though, doing it sooner rather than later is better. One, you need the practice (have I said that enough yet?). And putting it off too long makes it that much harder to do because you have more invested in it working out. So after a couple of emails back and forth, and maybe a week or two has passed since your first email, suggest getting together. Probably not a great idea to suggest getting together in the first email. That works fine for some women but for others, they’d rather they had a better sense of whether you’re a psycho or not. For a woman, there are safety concerns, so don’t suggest picking her up at her house or dropping her off after your date. She doesn’t want you to know where she lives!


May I engage in a brief tirade? What is it with men who think they can walk up to a woman in a deserted parking garage and ask her the time and get miffed when she doesn’t answer? Does it really not occur to men that she isn’t a snob, that she’s protecting her safety? Men need to be aware that when women go out in the world, as sad as it is, they think about their safety in a way men are free not to. Most women will not walk down an alley in the middle of the night. Most women will not be willing to engage in chitchat with some guy in an isolated area, like a bus stop late at night. Most women do not want a stranger they met online to know where they live or what their last name is--at least not at first. Be aware of these security issues and don’t cross the line. Let her lead the way. Let her be the first one to suggest going to your house or her house, etc.

On Tuesday I’ll wrap Where to Meet Her with speed dating and a few other suggested places. I’ll write more about the “Dating Game” and first dates starting next Friday (what to wear, what to talk about, etc.).

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

When You Finally Talk on the Phone

Talking on the Phone with Someone You’ve Met Online. I know very few men who like to talk on the phone, and, apparently, women do like to, though I’m not one of them. If you don’t like talking on the phone, don’t feel compelled to do so at length because it will not be to your advantage if you‘re terrible at it.

I’ve noticed that men who don’t like to talk on the phone, but feel they have to, end up expecting the woman to carry the conversation. This is not her job. Especially if you called her. So have a reason when you call. Know what you’re going to talk about. If this is the first call and you’re calling to set up a meeting, script out the conversation if you’re nervous about it.

And do what you can to put yourself at ease and relax before you get on the phone (see earlier posts about relaxation).

And remember that just because you have a reason to call and you’ve fulfilled that reason doesn’t mean it’s time to hang up. If you do want to wrap it up after setting up the date, be sure to leave the conversation by saying something upbeat like “I’m really looking forward to meeting you.” No need to make this first phone conversation much longer than that. If you want to talk more, or sense that she does, asking broad open-ended questions is fine (how was your day? How’s work going?). Such questions leave it very open for her to respond anyway she wants--details or no, and what tangent in particular to focus on--her hated boss, a cool co-worker, a fun project at work, how she’s looking for another job, etc . If you ask a very specific question, it locks her into responding in a particular way and she may not care at that moment to talk at length about why she recently put her cat to sleep, so you’ll get a short answer, and then silence as she waits for you to ask another question (that hopefully won’t be a yes/no question that again will result in a short answer, then silence…). Your best bet, anyway, is to wait to do in depth conversation in person. It’s hard to gauge a person’s reactions on the phone since you’re missing all the body language. But if you do end up chatting for a bit, keep the following in mind:

Avoid saying/doing anything that makes you seem like a psycho/weirdo: sarcastic joking (really hard to judge how any type of humor is being taken on the phone but especially sarcasm); being “cute” or indirect; being too brusque; long silences.

Keep it light. Save the deeper conversations for in person.

Up on Friday: When You Meet