A Personal Approach to Meeting New People
How many times have you sat nervously with a group of strangers at a dinner party, everybody trying to figure out what to say? You could slice the atmosphere with a knife.
Small talk is one solution. With small talk, discussion is limited to safe and relatively impersonal topics such as the weather or the latest Netflix release. Sometimes serious issues are discussed, but always in a superficial way: “Isn’t it awful about the high cost of living? I remember when you could buy a coffee for less than half of what it costs at Starbucks..”
Small talk can be a fun and playful way of breaking the ice and finding common ground. Often, however, it is a painfully uncomfortable and slow approach to getting acquainted.
Years ago, I saw an alternative; an elegant solution to the problem of first encounters. At a dinner party, one person started asking the others; “Who are you? Where do you come from? What do you do?” The directness was a breath of fresh air.
Embarrassing? Silly? Nosy? Making a fool of yourself? These are the fears that keep us silent.
Probably 90 percent of all people who are approached in a personal and direct way are delighted by it. In general, people want contact that is more honest and direct than what they are getting. They will welcome an opportunity to talk about themselves. They appreciate that you are interested in knowing them. They will also appreciate it if you talk openly about yourself.
A young couple on a first date – like the nervous partygoers at a dinner table – faces the difficult task of getting acquainted. It’s a tense situation. They can make it easier by going to a movie. They can rehearse for it by preparing topics of conversation for “spontaneous” use later. (Lots of work and not much fun!)
Once again, there is an alternative. One way to cut through the tension is by using the personal touch: “Tell me about yourself. How do you spend your time? What do you like to do? What is important to you in your life?”
It is ironic that people often avoid the most direct and straightforward approach to getting acquainted – telling about ourselves and asking about each other.
Let’s move from the dinner party and first date to the soccer field where parents watch their children play every weekend. Frequently, the faces become familiar and the greetings become friendly without people ever knowing each other’s name. That is, not until a brave soul comes along and makes some introductions. “Hi, I’ve been noticing you for weeks. Id’ like to introduce myself. My name is Kevin. I’m Chris’s dad.”
Of course, there are introductions and introductions. When people go around a circle just saying their names, it may be a good moment to request that everyone say a little more about themselves – something personal.
Those of you with a mathematical mind could be wondering: If 90 percent of the population likes the personal approach, then what about the other 10 percent? Well, they might. In fact, think that you are being silly and making a fool of yourself when you get personal. (Fears are generally less “crazy” than we imagine.)
Still, if you add it up, the odds are on your side. It’s probably worth the risk. The payoff is relationships that are open, alive, and spirited.
For 8 years, Robert Schwebel Ph.D. wrote a weekly psychology column for the Sunday edition of the Arizona Daily Star. This article is one of many.