Don’t ask what they do.

How do you learn something interesting about a new person you just met? Especially when you’re in the context of an event where people expect to meet and talk?

Maybe the main part is be interested? But that seems like a cop out of an answer.

Lately I’ve found it helpful to set a constraint: Don’t ask about what they do. That’s the first question everybody gets asked. If you’d just gotten laid off, or for many other reasons, you might hate that question. It’s also the kind of question that the person is likely to have a standard answer to, and if they’re bored of telling it, you’ll probably be bored hearing it.

There are other questions that I’d often really like answered, like, “What are you excited about these days?” “What are you watching, reading, or listening to lately?” The problem I’ve had with those questions, is that they’re kind of like getting asked, “What did you do at school today?” in that the person probably has a very interesting answer, but somehow the structure of the question inhibits them from accessing the relevant information in an interesting way.

I haven’t found my magic question to ask yet, and maybe I never will. I’m okay standing there awkwardly for a moment or two while I look for something to say or ask.

What makes a game a game is that there are arbitrary rules that are set, and you have to achieve the goal within those rules. Setting an arbitrary rule or two for social events (talk to one new person, don’t ask what they do), can make it really fun.

I’m getting better at meeting new people, but I can still have a hard time with talking to people I know already but see only occasionally. Many of those people are ones I see at industry events, so talking about work-related stuff is maybe more acceptable? But I don’t like to talk about what I’m working on. I’d rather talk about the tangental stuff around work that I’m really excited about, but which I don’t get to talk about at work. If that’s true for me, surely others are the same way?

Idea: Maybe try asking, “What do you wish someone would ask you?” Still maybe too vague.

If the question is too hard, people will mostly answer an easier question than the one that’s posed. That’s fine, it’s how our brains work. But maybe there’s a way to work that to advantage. Instead of answering “Working on anything interesting right now?” I could answer “Have anything interesting or entertaining you could tell me?” That’s still kind of a loose question to dredge an answer from. Maybe it’s enough to answer the question of “what was the last thing you worked on today?” and just do the improv thing and make like it was interesting, even if it initially seems dull and pedestrian.

That’s an idea, at least.

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