Conversation Starters

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.

Rules

The other day my colleague asked for my opinion on whether or not she should purchase a handmade, three-stone ring or a royal blue beaded necklace. It was becoming apparent that either purchase would feel a bit impulsive and could very well lead to buyer’s remorse, but we reasoned why, in the end, she could take comfort in knowing that she at least supported a good cause, by purchasing jewelry that helped raise money for a local non-profit. 

“If you’re going to buy something, it should at least be ethically-made, and responsibly-sourced.”

“When you get an accessory, is it something you’ll find yourself wearing with most of your outfits, or is it a piece that you’ll use sparingly but when you do, it will make a statement?”

“If you shop at Zara, rest assured, they’re a ‘good’ company, overall. They’re owned by Inditex, and long story short, they make most of their clothes in Spain! So, yea, sweatshop-free…”

A few things to note: 1) I enjoy lists, if this isn’t apparent already. 2) I won’t shy away from an honest, practical conversation – about fashion. 3) I’ll find a way to employ an encouraging approach to telling other people what I think they should do. 

In fairness to my colleague, it wasn’t as if she didn’t make up her mind on her own. What’s more telling for me when I look back at our consumption-justifying was how sincerely, and eagerly, I tried to communicate to her the “rules” upon which I lived by. 

It helped that I was preaching to the choir, of softs. After all, we both work at a fair trade company, and so our zeal for ethically-produced items might be a notch higher than your average shopper. 

That said, I’m noticing more and more my tendency to, not only do my best to subscribe by my own set of life rules, but to justify them to others – in a passive enough way so as not to sound overtly preachy, but with a concerted enough effort win over some “converts”.  

This spills over into everything, really. In sports, for starters, and in pro hoops in particular, which dominates my free-time thinking and bathroom breaks. (Full disclosure: I practice my jump shot by repeating the flick of the wrist motion, without a ball, whenever I find a private moment.)

1. Win or lose, you choose a team to stay loyal to. If it is your home team, even more commendable. Because then, you’re stuck. (Good luck, if you live in Charlotte. And way to stick it out, if you’re from LA and bleed Blue and Red.)

2. As a fan, you’re allowed to irrationally hate certain players. Whether your spite is fueled by tabloid headlines about this figure or because they seem to be the one person that consistently, and single-handedly beats your team, whatever reason is acceptable. You’re allowed to hate players. It is like the 1st Amendment in the Constitution of Sports Fandom.

3. You’re also allowed to irrationally love a player, even if they do not belong to your chosen team. Brian Scalabrine, is a perfect example. Beloved by the fans of whatever team he ends up on, and yet his legend spans all basketball fans across the continent. He is your prototypical basketball everyman – the man that shouldn’t have made it, and yet did, and is making the most of it, even if he’s only utilized for the occasional corner three, and mostly as a human mascot for hire. 

Wasn’t I nice enough to convince you that I’m right?

It doesn’t end with fashion and hoops of course. The territory upon which all my rules apply spreads over the vast, sweeping region, within. Then it filters down into core things within me that require much more serious attention, and demand far more effort in implementing than those that help tailor my sense of style or direct my fanatical, basketball energies. 

And then it become overwhelming. The great sum of all my rules – those that guide my moral compass, the ones that dicate my relations with my loved ones, the lot of them that define my musical leanings and that help me determine what actually constitutes a “film” – all the internal organization can get, tiresome. And yet, the thing with rules, and with me, is that it seems as if I couldn’t, and wouldn’t operate any other way.

Still, there is a more dangerous thing – and the adherence to which, leading to consequences far more devastating. It isn’t a rule at all, but a lie, disguised as one. 

Once I start subscribing to these lies as if they were rules, allowing them to organize the tenderest, most vulnerable parts of myself – this is when it becomes truly insidious. 

The lie that “I’m not good enough, and therefore…” is crafted so cunningly – it is purposefully ambiguous that it could apply to just about anything about me that needs improvement. That it begins with a negative statement already sets the tone for the list of things which would then follow, none which likely to be rooted in the idea, that perhaps, I’m actually good at some things, at all.

I’d rather stick to the silly rules, and actually try to live by them, desperately. I find that these help me actually enjoy life a little more – to take myself a little less seriously, by taking something that isn’t so serious, more seriously than most. 

So, a final rule for the hipster that plays hoops – if you’re going to get yourself a pair of glasses, make sure to get some with an actual prescription. Then you’re free to pick the hippest pair you can find, and wear them, without pretending.”