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The One Common Small Talk Question Frowned Upon By Many People In The World
By Mikelle Leow, 17 Jul 2017
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You might imagine most conversations between acquaintances to start with, “What do you do?” It’s also probably the first question you would ask somebody right after getting to know their name.
Unfortunately, the arguably most common question Americans and Canadians ask happens to be a huge turn-off to people living in the UK and Europe. But why?
The French think work is a boring subject
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The French have been known for turning away from conversations with Americans who ask the cringe-worthy, “What do you do?”
In the book The Bonjour Effect: The Secret Codes of French Conversation Revealed, authors Julie Barlow and Jean-Benoît Nadeau explain that the French are almost indulgent in pretending that they dislike their jobs. Like money, work is a boring subject.
Barlow tells Quartz, “They will be offended, believing you’re trying to put them into a box. And they just don’t think it’s interesting to work for a living. There are other things they’d much rather talk about.”
The French, Barlow elaborates, are not concerned about finding common points of view, but they’re interested in exchanging points of view.
Stay within ‘tier one’
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Etiquette expert Daniel Post Senning, co-author of Emily Post’s Etiquette, 18th Edition, says that there are three tiers of conversational topics.
Second-tier topics include religion, politics, and dating. Third-tier topics are for close associates and constitute more intimate topics like finances and family.
Among strangers, tier one is the safest. Topics include sports, pop culture, and hobbies. “People say hobbies are boring, but what if a person’s hobby is particle physics? Or painting. The arts are not boring,” Senning says.
What’s not in the first tier? Work.
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Granted, you have an innate curiosity about what someone does. Senning says to wait for an opening, such as a comment about a long day or a demanding boss.
However, it’s important to look for cues that the other person may be uncomfortable after a probe, and to back off when you sense it.
“They may just feel like: Look, it’s all I do 40 hours a week or more, it’s the last thing I want to talk about,” Senning explains.
A fresh topic to counter a person’s discomfort is a shared experience. The shared-experience strategy, also known as ‘triangulation’, is “made up of you, a stranger, and a third thing that closes the loop—that might be something that you’re both experiencing or seeing that’s worthy of notice,” author Kio Stark explains.
Stark enjoys noticing little things about people and granting them compliments such as, “Nice shoes.” With a compliment, people would naturally fill you in on details, possibly kick-starting a good-quality, profound conversation.
[via Quartz, images via various sources]
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