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How to salvage awkward social situations by understanding conversation styles
Everyone knows about Interviewers. All networking and dating advice is pitched at pleasing Interviewers. These are people who like to be asked lots of questions about themselves. And if they like you, they’ll show it by asking you lots of questions.
I’m not an Interviewer. I hate being asked a tonne of questions — it makes me feel like I’m being interrogated. Instead, I like my conversation partners to offer up information about themselves, and then leave a pause so I can offer up some info about myself in return. “Offerer” is clunky so I call this type a Volunteer —as in, they freely volunteer information.
The difference is in what part of the conversation you see as the ‘work’. An Interviewer sees talking about yourself as arrogant and expects the other person not to do too much. A Volunteer sees talking about yourself as being vulnerable and expects the other person to do their fair share.
For example, a Volunteer will say “I like x because y…” They’ve revealed personal information and then left a pause which allows you to contribute your own response but doesn’t force you to, because there’s no direct question.
It’s important to know which kind of conversationalist you are, and to recognise what kind your conversation partner is, before you write them off as rude or boring.
Disclaimer: Sometimes rude people are just rude
Not everyone who doesn’t ask direct questions is a Volunteer. The difference is that rude people will talk over you, interrupt you, ignore you and generally show a complete lack of interest in anything not relating to themselves.
Whereas Volunteers will say their bit, then leave a little pause to invite you to contribute as well. When you speak, they’ll listen, and will respond with anecdotes that contribute to the topic you introduced, rather than de-railing it.
The boring date that turned into a horrendous date
Let me tell you how I figured this out. It was a Tinder date, so a first date between two people who hardly knew each other at all.
We were at a bar, and I was bored, because I was doing all the work. He kept asking me questions, but nothing I said sparked any follow-up from him.
He asked me about what books I was reading. I talked a little about that. He said nothing. Why did you bring up books, if you didn’t want to talk about books? I thought.
After a bit of an awkward pause, he asked me about music. I talked about a gig I’d been to recently. Again, he had nothing to say about that. Another awkward pause.
Then he asked me about movies. At this point I was starting to get pretty frustrated — why bring up topics you don’t want to talk about? Why are you making me say this stuff if you don’t want to have a conversation about it?
Nothing I said seemed to spark any interest in him. He never told me any stories or anecdotes or jokes — just kept changing the topic with a new question. I felt extracted from, like he kept dragging more and more out of me, without reciprocating anything in return.
Anyway, at the end of the date, he asked if I wanted to go out again some time (which surprised me, because hadn’t he found everything I said boring?) I said thanks but I didn’t feel like we’d clicked.
At which he point he got abusive. He started yelling at me: “How can you say you’re not interested? You don’t even know me! You didn’t ask me a single question about myself!”
Obviously this makes him an asshole, and I was pretty freaked out because I hate being yelled at by anyone, let alone men who are mad I don’t want to date them.
But putting that aside (we were in a public place, I got out of there, it was fine), I was really interested in how differently we’d perceived the date. He thought I’d been rude by not asking questions, and I thought he’d been rude by not contributing a single thing to the conversation and forcing me to do all the work.
How to win one type of friend and influence one type of person
Practically every article on networking contains the advice: “Ask lots of questions — everyone likes talking about themselves.”
It is so weird to me how this myth gets thoughtlessly repeated — even by people who hate talking about themselves! They know it’s not true, because it’s not true of themselves, but they think “I must be the weird one, there’s something wrong with me” so they keep repeating it anyway.
If you bulldoze ahead with your “ask a tonne of questions and never tell any stories of your own” approach, you’re going to find half the room loves you, and half the room thinks you’re an arrogant SOB.
Since I (and other Volunteers) see “saying interesting stuff” as the work of the conversation, when you do nothing but ask questions… well, you come across like you’re saying “Dance, monkey! Dance for my entertainment!”
Why Volunteers hate talking to Interviewers
Other than the “dance, monkey!” issue, revealing details about yourself is showing vulnerability. Even knowing something surface-level like what TV shows I like is still a partial opening up.
So what’s more polite: being vulnerable first, or pushing the other person to be vulnerable first? I know this isn’t how Interviewers see it, but it is how Volunteers see it.
When someone expects you to reveal information about yourself while not first offering any about themselves, it feels unequal and frankly like they’re cops or something. It’s a bad power balance. It quickly starts to feel gross.
Also, asking people questions puts them on the spot. You never know what sensitive territory you’re stepping into.
Let’s say I had an abusive childhood. You ask me, “Are you seeing your mum for Mother’s Day?” Now I’m frozen, presented with the fun choice of lying or disclosing abuse to a new acquaintance. People whose mothers have died are in a similarly painful position.
But if you instead volunteer that you’re going home for Mother’s Day, I have a whole array of topics to choose from other than my relationship with my mother. I can talk about flowers, or how many [Type of Person] Days there are now, or commercialism, anything — I can turn it back to you and say “oh, how lovely! Where does she live?”
Another reason why leading with a topic often works better than asking a question: I want people to talk about stuff they’re interested in, because that’s usually the most fascinating and enlivening topic. If I’m a stranger, I have no clue what they’re interested in. We could get mired in a topic neither of us cares about for hours, because we both asked questions instead of leading.
I’m not actually trying to push any kind of agenda here: I don’t think there’s a “right” type of conversationalist to be. I’m just explaining this side of things, because the whole rest of the culture and the self-help industry has explained the other side already.
How to spot an Interviewer/Volunteer dynamic and salvage the situation
Just before lockdown, I met up with a fellow newsletter-creator. We’d had great conversations on Twitter, but never met IRL. (Twitter — and newsletters — are both Volunteer-friendly spaces. People lead with conversation topics, rather than questions.)
But it wasn’t going well. I somehow kept dominating the conversation, even though I didn’t want to. He just wasn’t really saying anything, even though we had heaps of stuff in common. I wanted to talk about newsletter writing, but he was asking me small-talk questions that I didn’t have anything much to say about. Unlike the bad date, neither of us are assholes, so it was fine, but it was also a bit disappointing.
Except I realised what was happening, and I made an effort to change the dynamic, to switch to Interviewer mode. After I shared something about myself, I consciously crafted the topic into a question, and asked him directly what he thought. It was uncomfortable, and I felt like I was pressuring him, since that’s how I feel when I get asked direct questions, but it worked.
The conversation picked up, we moved on to more interesting topics, and began sharing the metaphorical mic more equally. We parted keen to meet up again.
Knowing about Interviewers vs Volunteers really can save an awkward conversation.
(If they’re a certain type of nerd, you can also just literally tell them about this theory —I’ve done that with success. But it’s not necessary. You can turn the dynamic around without telling them what you’re doing.)
Advice for Interviewers
You’re asking all the questions, and they’re not asking you anything. Figure out if they’re a Volunteer or just rude by listening for pauses. That pause is an invitation for you to share a related anecdote or opinion. Hear it as one.
Then, when you feel the urge to ask another question, change it into a statement. Lead with your own answer to the question instead. So switch out “Do you have any side-projects?” with “I’ve been thinking of starting a newsletter.” Then leave a pause for them to talk about their side-project, your side-project, or newsletters in general — whatever they’re most comfortable with.
Advice for Volunteers
You’re doing all the work, and the other person is barely contributing anything. Sorry, you’re going to have to start asking questions. It feels uncomfortable and awkward, but it’s the only way forward.
After you’ve shared your perspective, actively ask them the question you just “answered”. So instead of just talking about your favourite book and then leaving a pause, add on a “have you read anything good lately?”
Lastly, a secret I learned recently is that you don’t actually have to answer Interviewers’ questions directly.
Volunteers don’t ask questions unless they really want a specific answer to that question, so you assume Interviewers are the same. They’re not! They’re just trying to find a way to connect, like you are when you share a personal anecdote.
That means 99% of people won’t mind if you answer a tangential question they didn’t actually ask, instead. I find it really hard to do this — my brain isn’t wired that way — but you genuinely can and people don’t mind.
Advice for both
Talking in your opposite ‘style’ will feel unnatural and weird and rude. But the conversation is already going downhill by the time you notice the mismatch, so what have you got to lose?
This piece was originally published in my newsletter, The Whippet. Subscribe to get the next issue in your inbox!
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