I have a lot of “there are two kinds of people” theories, because it’s fun to categorise things, but this one is probably the most tangibly useful; figuring this out was like gaining a magical power to turn around awkward social situations.
There are two kinds of conversationalists: ‘Interviewers’ and ‘Volunteers’
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, according to my own comfort level. “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.
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 selfish and inconsiderate.
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!”
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?”
Family is a pretty reliably fraught topic, but other stuff is harder to predict. Everyone has their own things they’d prefer not to talk about, and those aren’t easy to guess from the outside.
I’m not actually trying to push a pro-Volunteer 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.
It’s not about one or the other being right, it’s about knowing which kind of conversationalist you are, and recognising which your conversation partner is, before you write them off as rude or boring.
I wrote an expanded version of this into an article, so click here for:
Bad date story (the catalyst for me developing this theory)
More reasons why Volunteers hate talking to Interviewers
The difference between a Volunteer and someone who’s just rude
How to recognise an Interview/Volunteer dynamic and salvage the situation
PS I left this out of the bad date story because it’s not really relevant, but it is funny. Among the things the dude yelled at me was “Go read some Whitman!” — meaning Walt Whitman, the poet. I gather he felt that this would teach me how to be more grateful and appreciative of the benefits of interacting with the glorious diversity of humanity (i.e. him).
I once read a thread of “worst reason someone gave for breaking up with you” and the two I remember were “found out I can’t read kanji” (this is a non-Japanese person breaking up with another non-Japanese person) and “plans to be president one day, and said that, although he likes me, I’m just not First Lady material”.
I was thinking how, if someone breaks up with you because you’re not First Lady material, you almost immediately stop being sad about the breakup and switch into “dodged a bullet” mode.
Also, you have a funny story.
So, logically, the kindest way to break up with someone is to give some insane reason that makes you look like a pretentious, ridiculous asshole.
If I ever divorce my husband I’m going to tell him it’s because his life doesn’t provide me with enough newsletter material.
Squirrels are immune to poisonous mushrooms
Squirrels put mushrooms and toadstools up on tree branches to dry before burying them, to preserve them for the winter. [BBC, no more details sadly]
“Pan-pan” — the low-key version of May Day
Mayday is the call a ship sends out when there’s an immediate threat to life or the ship is at risk of sinking.
Pan-pan is the call you give out when you need help, but no one’s in immediate danger.
(It comes from the French for “breakdown”: panne.)
I like this because I have a bit of a personal policy of being really clear about how much I need help when I’m asking a favour. Like if I’m asking for a lift to the airport, I try to be clear whether it’s “a lift would be nice, but I can just catch a cab, so don’t say Yes if it’s gonna put you out very much” vs “I don’t have any other way of getting there, I really need this, so I’m asking you to say Yes even if it’s a pretty big hassle.”
And “Can I call you because it’s nice to chat to friends” vs “can I call you because I’m desperately sad and need support.”
If you don’t make it clear, you risk someone breaking your heart by letting you down when you needed them, just because they had no idea it was important.
Similarly, if a friend asks a favour and it’s going to be really difficult for me to help, I can ask if it’s a pan-pan favour or a mayday favour. If it’s a mayday favour you drop everything!
But if you drop everything, causing serious hardship to yourself, and your friend didn’t even need it that much, you end up building up resentment for pointless, preventable reasons.
(By mayday-favours, I don’t really mean “imminent threat to life” because I don’t live in an action movie and that rarely happens. But it’s like the difference between “lend me money so I can pay rent” and “lend me money so I can buy this necklace while it’s on sale”. I’ll probably do both if I’m flush, but only the first if I’m skint).
It’s a mask with weighted “bullets” at each corner, which all fire simultaneously; it basically works the same way as a bolas, an old-timey weapon.
(Watch the rest if you like! But those are the best moments, and only takes 35 seconds from your day.)
Unsolicited Advice: Go easy on yourself next week
I know the majority of people reading this, wherever they are in the world, are deeply interested in the US election and whatever happens in its aftermath. It might be hard or impossible to pull away from the news cycle, to focus on your work, to feel at all emotionally balanced.
So my unsolicited advice is: bake that assumption into your plans, and don’t beat yourself up if you’re a distracted mess and can’t get through the workload you’d normally expect of yourself.
See you in a fortnight for interesting facts and a complete lack of election coverage.
If you want to talk about this issue or suggest a pretentious reason for breaking up with someone, here’s the link to the comments section!
Thanks for reading everyone!
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FYI I’m behind on my email replies again, but I’ve read them all and enjoyed them and will reply ~ some day soon ~