In our How To Talk To A Strangers post, we discussed the need to have an arsenal of questions ready to deploy in different social contexts. Being prepared makes conversation a little more automatic and a lot less terrifying.
In this post, we’re going to walk through a few tips for having conversations with acquaintances. Strangers are one thing. You may never see them again. But acquaintances are here to stay, even if they are scattered throughout the periphery of your life. So it makes sense to have a strategy for talking to them.
The Three Types of Acquaintances
In conversation, all strangers are created equal. Any one of them could be the most interesting person you have ever met. Each stranger has the same potential. So having a simple, one-dimensional approach (The Battleship Strategy) to conversation makes sense.
But acquaintances are not created equal. You know these people. You are friends on Facebook. You’ve had conversations before. You have the same friends. You probably know their answers a lot of the “Battleship” questions. You can’t just keep asking them about their hometown every time you see them at a wedding.
So depending on the type of acquaintance, we will have a different strategy for successfully navigating the conversation.
Acquaintance #1: I wish we could be best friends!
When a man’s best friend is his dog, that dog has a problem.
Acquaintances are the people we see so irregularly that friendship never has a chance to flourish. We all have acquaintances that we genuinely enjoy, but for one reason or another it doesn’t make sense to become closer friends. I’m here to say that that’s OK. Just because friendship isn’t in the cards for two people doesn’t mean that they should give up on developing a deeper bond.
For those people in your life that you can’t genuinely call a friend (but you wish you could if circumstances were different), the solution isn’t another list of questions. You don’t need to find another common interest. If you already like this person, screw the small talk and do something memorable.
While we may not see acquaintances frequently, we’re going to keep running into them. And if we’re going to keep running into the same person (that we actually like), we might as well create some memories.
So this isn’t really a conversation tip, per se. I’m just giving you permission to do something out-of-the-ordinary to impress your cool acquaintances. Maybe you ditch a party together and kick around a soccer ball. Maybe you invite them out for beer or coffee randomly. Maybe you message them an article (about your common interest) and talk to them about it the next time you see each other. Maybe you just start daring each other to do stupid stuff.
Not all acquaintances are created equal. Treat the good ones like they’re actually the good ones and enjoy the little time you get to spend with them.
Goal: Create shared experiences and inside jokes to make the next encounter more enjoyable.
Acquaintance #2: I like talking to this person, but we don’t have much in common.
Do not imagine that if you meet a really humble man he will be what most people call ‘humble’ nowadays: he will not be a sort of greasy, smarmy person, who is always telling you that, of course, he is nobody. Probably all you will think about him is that he seemed a cheerful, intelligent chap who took a real interest in what you said to him. If you do dislike him it will be because you feel a little envious of anyone who seems to enjoy life so easily. He will not be thinking about humility: he will not be thinking about himself at all.
There are a lot of really good people with whom I do not click. I enjoy them and I think that they are interesting, but we don’t have a lot of shared interests. Conversation isn’t hard with these people, but it’s also not easy.
Most of my acquaintances fit into this category. These are the girlfriends of my friends. These are the neighbors. These are my friends’ friends from high school or college. These are my parents’ friends from high school and college. These are most people at church. These are the people on the periphery of my life that I like, but don’t expect to be in my wedding. There’s a 50-50 chance they’re even invited.
So how do we talk to these people?
Well, the default strategy is boringly generic small talk. It’s easy. It’s rooted in the not-so-interesting aspects of everyday life (weather, sports, Netflix). It’s easy for some and torture for others. But no one really wants to do it.
The trick to avoiding small talk is not to stop interacting with acquaintances. The trick is to change how we think about these acquaintances.
Normal perspective: I don’t have a lot in common with this person. Because we do not have many shared interests, this is not an interesting person. Small talk is the only option.
A better perspective: I don’t have a lot in common with this person. That means their interests are different from mine. This must be a very interesting person, just in a different way than me.
With this second perspective, conversation with an acquaintance moves from monotonous small talk to a mini-TED talk. By viewing our acquaintances as a source of unique stories, ideas, hobbies and interests, we can expose ourselves to a wealth of culture. This is the same reason we travel and read. Why not apply your wanderlust attitude to people? Even if it’s only a passing 3-minute conversation, you can learn a lot about the world be being inquisitive and engaged.
But even more importantly than learning cool things from interesting people, taking this attitude toward small talk gives you an opportunity to practice humility and to make a person feel known.
By asking open-ended questions about a subject that matters to them (not you), you learn to put the interests of others above your own. By continually saying “tell me more!” you communicate that this person matters. By allowing a person to talk uninterrupted, you learn to listen and you communicate worth. By allowing a person to share the boring, disinteresting, or unpopular aspects of their life, you grow in love.
So ask open-ended questions and listen well. It might be hard and it might require practice, but it is so much better than small talk. And if the conversation gets a little flat, you can always end it.
(And let’s be real for a second. This can backfire. Some people are kind of boring and aren’t actually interesting, even to themselves. And some people take a mile if you give them an inch. That just leads me to my last point.)
Goal: Uncover the other person’s quirky interest and let them talk about it.
Acquaintance #3: Talking to this person is emotionally draining
“Never argue with stupid people. They will drag you down to their level and then beat you with experience.”
I need you to play a game of Pretend right now.
When you read the phrase “emotionally draining,” a person came to mind. I need you to imagine that you are that person. I want you to do a thought experiment and imagine a day in their life.
Imagine that you are talking to this person’s mother on the phone. She goes into great detail about how you are a continual disappointment to the family. Or maybe she tells you that the medical bills keep piling up. Or maybe she is excited about another Ponzi scheme that will leave her broke (again). Or maybe she just wants you to know that your sister will be in town and you are excited to see your best friend.
Now imagine that you (as this person) are at work. You walk into the building and no one really recognizes you. Or maybe they avoid you. Or maybe they pretend to love you, but you can tell it’s fake.
Imagine that all of your social interactions are foggy. You can’t really pick up on subtle social cues. All of your words leave your mouth a second later than they should and they’re always a little meaner than you intended. Imagine that you don’t always know what people are talking about, so feel compelled to steer the conversation toward a topic no one enjoys.
Imagine that you are angry or depressed all the time. Even the safest things in life feel like an attack on your self-worth. Even the happiest events feel bland.
Imagine how this person feels when he runs into the Real You at a party. Do you keep looking at your watch? Are you listening? How do you feel? Angry? Depressed?
When we talk about people we don’t enjoy, it’s easy to talk about them like parasites that leech the happiness out of our life. But I don’t think that’s fair. Whether they are narcissistic a-holes or social handicaps, odds are good that they are having a bad day. They’ve probably been having a bad day for years (even if it is self-imposed).
But even though I’m trying to inject a little empathy into your heart, I don’t think that you need to become their best friend. I don’t think you have an obligation to rescue them from their selfish pride, anger, or depression.
But I don’t think that you should make it worse.
In my opinion, the best way to interact with these people is to take control of the conversation. Put them on a short leash. Set boundaries.
If they are socially handicapped, talk slowly and be clear. Talk about their day and try to relate to their experiences. Ask them to share a story. (Stories are easier than small talk.) Give them grace to not pick up on your social cues. Be clear when you are done talking. Set the tone and the structure for the conversation.
If they are jerks, remember that even Hitler was a dog person. No one is 100% evil. You probably have similar opinions. Talk about those. (And honestly, these are the easiest people to talk to because they are so self-absorbed that they don’t actually want to talk to you. They will get bored with you quickly because you aren’t letting them talk about themselves.)
Goal: Control the conversation. Respectfully.
General Principles of Conversation
“There you are!”
Pride is the least attractive quality in the world. It automatically turns you into the emotionally-draining Acquaintance #3. This is how the self-absorbed sound:
Here I am! Look at me!
Listen to me! I am so interesting! I am so smart!
Let me tell you something…
Do you want to hear a funny story? Because my life is so interesting.
Here’s the thing. What you need to know is…
Humility—on the other hand—is pretty sexy. Humility transforms you into the easy-to-be-around Acquaintance #1. Here’s how they talk:
There you are! So glad you’re here!
Tell me more.
I remember that…
I would love to hear your perspective on…
What do you think about…
So when we enter a room, we want to be thinking: “There you are!” and not “Here I am!”
I don’t care what you’re watching on Netflix.
I don’t want to talk about it.
I don’t want anyone to talk about it.
If a conversation devolves into talking about television, I have failed. It is the litmus test for conversation failure. It means I haven’t done my job of asking good questions. It means that I don’t think the other person has anything valuable to offer me except TV suggestions. It shows how little I actually value them as a human being.
So no Netflix. You are more than what you consume.
All of the life-changing things in life come from acquaintances.
Acquaintances are the people who have cute, single friends you’ve never met. They read books and blogs you’ve never read. They know about jobs that aren’t listed. They can make introductions to decision-makers that seemed unknowable. They know about better restaurants. They have thoughtful opinions on politics. They listen to better podcasts. They are vegetarian for honest reasons. They have traveled to different countries and have cool stories to tell.
Sure, not every acquaintance is a fountain of awesome. But some of them are. And if you choose to discount all of them so that you can hang out with your Echo Chamber friend group, you will miss out on the real diversity and wonder of the world.
This is why talking to acquaintances is so important. “Weak ties” connect you to something bigger than your tiny circle of influence. They broaden your horizons and introduce real diversity into your life.
But that’s just my perspective. What’s yours? Leave a comment below.