The other day, my wife ran into one of her old high school friends at one of those food truck gatherings. (Still awesome how those are totally a thing now) We soon find out that he and his wife live in a relatively affluent neighborhood nearby us, after which I am ashamed to admit how I immediately felt the sudden urge to ask him that age-old, icebreaking question: “What do you do?”
I won’t get into the implications of asking such a question. I think, inherently, we all already know what we want to know. (…As in, how does that person live there??)
So before we all try to quickly psychoanalyze the strangers we meet, we might have a better shot at actually befriending them if we worked on the preliminary questions we asked.
I’m working on trying to erase the following from my list of default icebreaker questions:
1) The aforementioned, “What do you do?” – Can it get any duller than this question? Plus, we might want to check our motivations for even wanting this piece of information right away. I’m not willing to give us the benefit of the doubt here – there’s a good chance that we might not be all that interested in what the person actually does, but more so how what that person does allows him or her to live a certain way. And in particular, a way worth either envying, or belittling.
2) “How old are you?” – Unless you’re four years old and trying to figure out why your classmate looks like a giant compared to you, I think we can afford to retire this question when we exchange pleasantries. Not only is this simply not interesting, but it lends itself to another set of internal questions that will only tickle our own insecurities – namely, the sort that sound like, “well, what had I accomplished when I was x years old?” or “what have I done in the last how many years?”. Besides, we risk offending the stranger when we can’t hide the surprised look on our face after finding out that he or she is “that old” and doesn’t have kids yet, or is “that old” and is dating so-and-so that’s a decade younger. Worst case scenarios, worth avoiding at all costs.
3) “Are you single?” – Perhaps I belong to a church that’s a little too eager to play matchmaker, but in some cases, it really doesn’t take very long for this particular question to rear it’s ugly head in a conversation. Even if you have the “safety net” of being with someone when you ask this question to someone else, I can’t imagine it being anything but a tad off-putting. Why lead with an over-eagerness to know someone’s status, when you can find out what you’re looking for in a far more subtle (albeit slightly stalker-ish way). Facebook and every preceding social networking hub has made it far too easy for us to figure this out anyway. And again, we run the risk of offending. I think we take for granted how sensitive of a matter this could be for so many. Sure, it’s a fun-fact worth finding out about someone, but it can really wait.
So, what’s a better alternative? Here’s two:
1) “How do you know, so-and-so?” – This way, we’re just taking what social networks do for us virtually, and applying it to our real world conversations. (Genius, right?!) It’s a straightforward approach to figuring out how you two are connected. And really, it isn’t that hard to remember. It isn’t awkward, it’s harmless, and it’s a good way to subtly learn about another person’s social networks and can easily lead into a multitude of other preliminary questions.
2) “Are you from around here?” – As common sense as it sounds (so does the previous question, I realize), I think we take for granted how easy it is to get to know more about people if you simply ask the right things. Taking this question for example, if the stranger says, “yes”, then you can ask where they grew up exactly, what it was like, what are their favorite spots to go to, or how much it has changed. If the stranger says, “no, I’m from ______”, then you ask the same set of questions for that place, PLUS asking them what brought them out here – at which point, you can find out much more smoothly the sort of information you may have been more eager to ask earlier on, like what they do for a living, or whether or not they’re single.
I want to say it isn’t rocket science, but everyone says rocket science. So, it isn’t the quadratic formula. No one wants to waste their time with that.