Learning about your world and being happy means engaging the people around you. This takes preparation.
MANILA, Philippines- Steve was married. The wedding was over. The drinking was done. The guests were starting their long journeys home. Those remaining sat around a picnic bench in the resort telling renditions of what happened the night before. During a lull in the story telling Steve raised up is arms in gregarious gesture and proclaimed, “I have all my people all in one place.”
But these basic social skills are not the only things that sets the Steve apart — conversation is empty unless there is an underlying spring of knowledge and experience that’s driving it.
He then went around the table, one-by-one and declared how he has bonded with each of us.
“I have Brian here, who I geek out about technology and video games. I have Shelby, who I geek out about food with. There’s Frank, who I geek out about movies with. And Wade, who I geek out about anthropology and travel with. I have everybody here in one place.”
Steve is the kind of guy that all of his friends feel as if they have a special bond with. You come away from a night of drinking with him feeling like you’ve put an additional stone up on your pillar of friendship. Steve doesn’t do small talk. He talks about things, he asks questions, he listens — all skills being lost in the me-generation. But these basic social skills are not the only things that sets the Steve apart — conversation is empty unless there is an underlying spring of knowledge and experience that’s driving it.
Steve knows about a lot of stuff.
Look at the above examples: tech, video games, food, movies, and whatever he talks about with me. He is at the top-end of lay knowledge in all of these categories — he knows the trends, what’s new, and can have deep and winding conversations about any of them. He knows all of this stuff not through telepathy or simple environmental absorption, but because he puts in the time and effort to continuously educate himself about the topics he’s interested in. When he comes to meet with you he’s prepared — he has something to talk about, he has something new to tell you, and he can pick up on whatever you start laying down.
We tend to categorize ourselves and others in accordance to inherent ability: He’s a good conversationalist, I don’t have good social skills, she’s really amazing at telling stories, he has a nice physique, she’s fat, I’m not a people person, she’s an extrovert, I’m an introvert. We’re trained to think that we are the way that we are and this is set in stone — indelible, unable to be changed — and then we build up the walls of definition cower down inside of them. The reality is that people are often what they are because of the decisions they make, and those who exhibit positive traits usually do so because they work at it.
Steve has all of these close friends all over the world and can have conversation an an array of topics because each day he educates himself, he engages experience, and he tries new things. It’s a simple formula, and if you can follow it people will more than likely like you a lot more, you will get closer to those around you, and will probably be happier. If there is one lesson that I keep reverting back to over and over again on this blog it’s this:
Take an interest in the people around you. It will make your life a lot better.
Putting this in practice:
1) Read the local news. Know the local politicians. Know the local sports teams. Keep up to date on what people are talking about around you. Know the conflicts. Know the problems. Know what’s going on. The news is less something to keep us informed about the world than it is raw fodder for conversations. Use it as a tool.
Bruce Chatwin was full of shit and he seemed to know it — he may even have thought it was funny. But that didn’t matter, as he was a social savant. But behind the scenes the guy was always preparing. If he had a meeting with experts on impressionist painting, he would read a book on impressionism the morning before; if he was going to a social event where there would be famous mountaineers, he would get his own (rather feeble) mountaineering stories ready to go. The guy took an interest in people — he asked questions, he told stories — and he was rewarded with the experiences that lead to his books. But Chatwin wasn’t always so loquacious. As a young adult he was described as excruciatingly common and not very interesting. He had to cultivate himself — like everybody else.
2) Know your topics well. As we see above, Steve has areas of expertise that he, as he puts it, geeks out over. What do you geek out over? Dive deep and use it to connect with people.
3) Search for points of commonality rather than difference. New Englanders have this horrible habit of disagreeing with people no matter what they say — as though being critical is a sign of intelligence. You know what? They may be right, but disagreeing or contradicting someone is a great way to end a conversation or stifle a potential acquaintanceship. Even if you disagree with someone, at first connect with them over what they say and then diverge into your opinion (you will hear me do this often on radio programs).
4) Make the other person feel smart. Ask questions and listen to the responses. Put the other person on the platform. You will learn more and chances are they will like you a whole lot better than if you entertained them all night with the incredible tales of your heroic deeds. You gain little from speaking — you already know what you know — so absorb what other people have to say and incorporate it with your knowledge.
5) Bring something to the table. Would you show up to the potluck without a dish to pass? Then why do you show up in social situations with nothing to talk about? Compile a short list of things to talk about, rehearse your routine in the shower (or somewhere), and be ready to share yourself with other people if the chance arises. If they are friend-worthy they’ll appreciate it. If they have no interest in you then they probably suck and need to read more self-help blog posts like this …