Before I was a full time journalist, I believed that I was a full-time introvert. Meeting new people was painfully awkward, both for myself and for whoever I had to have a social interaction with.
Most people tend to believe that the gift of the gab is something that you’re born with, and not a skill that you can train. Having to finagle responses out of standoffish celebrities over a bad phone connection has taught me that it’s a skill that can not only be trained, but can also be reverse-engineered.
In case you haven’t read it yet, part 1 of this series can be found here.
1: LEAD THE CONVERSATION.
If you’ve read the earlier article in this series, you’ll know that I think of statements as emotive building blocks, and key to building genuine connections with anyone. But knowing how to ask the right questions can help you to move a conversation forward, or to find common ground with someone you’ve just met.
The trick is to avoid asking close-ended questions, and to start asking open-ended ones. Close-ended questions tend to sound interrogative and demand definitive answers, whereas open-ended questions invite the other person to engage more deeply in a conversation.
An example of the former would go something like ‘who are you voting for in this election?’, while an example of the latter would be ‘what do you think of the election candidates?’
2: ENGAGE IN HONESTY.
A lot of the time, we’re told to stay upbeat, not to sweat the small stuff, and to put our best faces forward. I believe that this is the main reason why people end up talking about the weather at cocktail parties. Building a genuine connection with someone has a lot more to do with empathy, and the only way to build that shared connection is to be candid about your thoughts and feelings.
When I say ‘be candid’, I don’t mean to constantly gripe about your boss, or to complain about the weather. I’m referring to getting your ego out of the way, and getting out of your own head; half the time, we’re too worried about saying something that makes us look stupid or crazy on first impression, which prevents us from picking up how the other person is actually feeling.
If you haven’t already watched it, check out this video by Brene Brown on the difference between empathy and sympathy, and why honesty is important in cultivating the former.
When you’re travelling, keep in mind that the worst case scenario is as follows: You’ll probably never meet that other person again. Unless, of course, you have a deep, soulful connection with him or her, and end up getting married. In that case, don’t forget to invite me to your wedding.
3: UNDERSTAND LOCAL CULTURE.
I like giving the thumbs up sign. It’s quick, economical and a good way to get your affirmation across without having to say anything.Thankfully, I’ve yet to do this in Russia, where it’s apparently the equivalent of flipping the bird at someone. Another interesting factoid: The ok sign actually refers to a certain orifice in Greece and Spain (you’re basically calling someone an asshole with a symbol).
I could go on, but every country you visit is likely to have its own idiosyncratic body language taboos. If you’re on a trip to a country that you’ve never been to before, the best thing you can do is watch out for unintentionally offensive gestures that may come naturally to you.
You may also want to learn the basics of the language of the country you’re visiting. Apps like DuoLingo can help. Alternatively, try to use the language to learn a skill that you’re interested in, as it’ll help double up on real world application, rather than making language learning an abstract study.
MIND TRICK 4: DEVELOP YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR.
Now, I don’t mean that you have to be a stand-up comedian in your interactions, but generally, people like to be around those who make them feel good. You don’t have to make everyone you meet crack up, but if you’re laughing at the same things, you’re also finding common grounds for rapport building.
The most important thing to remember is to embrace a growth mindset when it comes to humor, and to understand what makes you laugh. I personally find comedians like George Carlin hilarious, but his brand of comedy may be a bit too dark for some people.
For those who want to inject some comedy into their writing, here are some broad rules that I’ve been trying to implement myself.
A) Be incongrous.
“What do you call the useless piece of flesh at the end of a penis? The man.”
Humor is built on a sense of surprise, which is why punchlines are left until the end of the joke. Generally, the more incongruous or unexpected the statement the better it works. It works in terms of delivery as well; as Terry Pratchett put it, ‘multiple exclamation marks are a sure sign of a diseased mind’.
B) Find the absurd in the mundane.
If you’ve ever observed a kid, you’ll realize that they laugh at damn near everything. I’m pretty sure it isn’t because of their Prozac dealer.
Rather, it’s because kids retain their faculty of wonder; most everything is new and fresh to them, which means that they tend to see how absurd some of the things we take for granted are. The late, great Robin Williams employs this in a lot of his stand up comedy, like this particular bit on golf.
C) Exaggerate to absurdity.
I used to hum spirituals like Wade in The Water to myself back at my previous job, which amused my colleagues to no end. Exaggeration tends to be amusing because it makes us aware of how trivial a situation can be in the broader scope of things: in this particular case, it made the onerous work of writing listicles in an air-conditioned office seem laughably trite.