Seven Tips for Making Good Conversation with a Stranger.

Every Wednesday is Tip Day.
This Wednesday: 7 tips for making good conversation with a stranger.

I posted before about tips for knowing if you’re boring someone and tips to avoid being a bore. But while it might be fairly easy to avoid topics that are likely to bore someone, it’s much harder to figure out what to say if you want to be interesting. Making polite conversation can be tough.

“So where do you live?”
“Chelsea.”
“Really. I live on the upper east side.”
“Great…”
Painful silence.

Here are some strategies to try when your mind is a blank:

1. Comment on a topic common to both of you at the moment: the food, the room, the occasion, the weather. “How do you know our host?” “What brings you to this event?” But keep it on the positive side! Unless you can be hilariously funny, the first time you come in contact with a person isn’t a good time to complain.

2. Comment on a topic of general interest. A friend scans Google News right before he goes anywhere where he needs to make small talk, so he can say, “Did you hear that Justice Souter is stepping down from the bench?” or whatever might be happening.

3. Ask open questions that can’t be answered with a single word. “What’s keeping you busy these days?” This is a good question if you’re talking to a person who doesn’t have an office job. It’s also helpful because it allows people to choose their focus (work, volunteer, family, hobby) — preferable to the inevitable question (well, inevitable at least in New York City): “What do you do?”

A variant: “What are you working on these days?” This is a useful dodge if you ought to know what the person does for a living, but can’t remember.

4. If you do ask a question that can be answered in a single word, instead of just supplying your own information in response, ask a follow-up question. For example, if you ask, “Where are you from?” an interesting follow-up question might be, “What would your life be like if you still lived there?” If you ask, “Do you have children?” you might ask, “How are you a different kind of parent from your own parents?” or “Have you decided to do anything very differently from the way you were raised?”

5. Ask getting-to-know-you questions. “What newspapers and magazines do you subscribe to? What internet sites do you visit regularly?” These questions often reveal a hidden passion, which can make for great conversation.

6. React to what a person says in the spirit in which that that comment was offered. If he makes a joke, even if it’s not very funny, try to laugh. If she offers some surprising information (“Did you know that one out of every seven books sold last year was written by Stephanie Meyer?”), react with surprise. Recently, I’ve had a few conversations where the person I was talking to just never reacted to what I said. I was trying to be all insightful and interesting, and these two people reacted as though everything I said was completely obvious and dull. It was unsatisfying.

Now, what to do if a conversation is just not working, and there’s no way to use the “Excuse me, I need to go get something to drink” line? Recently, at a dinner party, the guy sitting on my right side was clearly very bored by me. He explained to me at length about how happiness didn’t really exist, but after setting me straight on that subject didn’t want to talk about it anymore, and after a few failed attempts at other topics, after an awkward pause in the conversation (my fault as much as his), he said, “Um, so where are you from?” It was such a listless, uninspired effort that I leaned over, put my hand on his arm, and said meanly, “Now, Paul, surely we can do better than that!” and changed the conversation. (It is moments like that that make me happy that I basically gave up drinking.)

So what can you do when the conversation is such a struggle?

7. A friend argues that you should admit it! “We’re really working hard, aren’t we?” or “It’s frustrating—I’m sure we have interests in common, but we’re having a difficult time finding them.” Clearly this is a desperate measure, but my friend insists that it works. I’ve never had the gumption to try it, I have to admit.

What are some other strategies for starting an interesting conversation with a stranger? What have I overlooked? On a related note, here are some tips if you can’t remember someone’s name.

* I’m a huge fan of Twitter, in part because it has helped me find so many great writers and great information, and one person –- and blog — that I discovered on Twitter is Gwen Bell. She writes about branding, social media, and creativity, and always has fresh, interesting things to say.

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I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 20,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.

Happiness is…Seeing 8,674 Species of Birds.

From time to time, I post short interviews with interesting people about their insights on happiness. During my research, I’ve noticed that I often learn more from one person’s highly idiosyncratic experiences than I do from sources that detail universal principles or cite up-to-date studies.

I just finished a fascinating biography: Olivia Gentile’s Life List: A Woman’s Quest for the World’s Most Amazing Birds, the story of Phoebe Snetsinger. In the 1950’s, Snetsinger was a brainy, shy housewife with four children, and she was feeling depressed and trapped. A neighbor showed her a bird through binoculars (it happened to be a Blackburnian Warbler), and she saw a “blinding white light” – “Here was something that had been happening all my life, and I’d never paid any attention to it.” She became an ardent birder in a flash.

Time went on, and Snetsinger received a terrible diagnosis: she had cancer and just one year to live. Instead of giving up birding, she pursued birds for her “life list” with ever increasing zeal. The cancer never caught up with her, and she traveled the world, had astonishing adventures, saw more than eight thousand bird species, and became one of the world’s leading birders, until she was killed at age 68 in Madagascar on a birding trip.

On the one hand, Life List is a beautiful story of intellectual passion, love of nature, self-education, self-reinvention, and high adventure. On the other hand, Snetsinger’s family paid a high price for her devotion to birding, and she seemed, many times, to abandon the proper instinct for self-preservation.

I’m fascinated by happiness projects of all sorts, and Phoebe Snetsinger’s happiness project enthralled me. There’s practically no overlap between the things that made Snetsinger happy and the things that make me happy, and I certainly have no interest in birds, and yet I learned a lot about happiness from reading about her life.

I asked the book’s author, Olivia Gentile, to do a happiness interview, because she’s obviously done a lot of thinking about happiness and the elements of a happy life. (For more info, check out her author website, which is much more interesting than the average site and well worth a visit!)

Gretchen: What’s a simple activity that consistently makes you happier?
Olivia: Spending time in nature! This might mean a walk in Central Park, a morning of watching the birdfeeder, a swim in a pond, or a hike up a mountain. I even get a little burst of happiness from flipping through my National Geographic.

What’s something you know now about happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Well, I certainly didn’t know how soothing nature could be—I don’t think I gave the natural world a moment’s attention until I was in my twenties. And I didn’t really start appreciating nature until I began learning about Phoebe.

Also, when I was 18 I thought success (which to me meant getting good grades, winning a tennis match, getting into college, etc.) would bring me happiness. Since then I’ve realized that while those kinds of things might bring me satisfaction, they don’t have a lot to do with my happiness. Happiness is more about how we experience something than about whether we’re successful at it—i.e., I might be made happy by the feeling of the sun on my face during a tennis match, but I probably won’t be made happy by winning the match (at least not for more than a second, and not in a very deep way). Look at what happened with Phoebe: birding made her ecstatic year after year, until she began focusing more on becoming the number one birder than on the inherent pleasures of being in the field.

Is there anything you find yourself doing repeatedly that gets in the way of your happiness?

Yes! I spend too much time on the Internet and watch too much cable news. And I worry too much about what people think of me.

Is there a happiness mantra or motto that you’ve find very helpful? (e.g., I remind myself to “Be Gretchen.”) Or a particular book that has stayed with you?
I still get shivers whenever I pick up Walden—I’m a real sucker for all those exhortations to be true to yourself and make the most of every day.

Is there anything that you see people around you doing or saying that adds a lot to their happiness, or detracts a lot from their happiness?
Some of my friends have gotten into meditation, and it has helped them get and stay happy. (I keep vowing to meditate regularly, but never seem to be able to do it.)

Have you always felt about the same level of happiness, or have you been through a period when you felt exceptionally happy or unhappy – if so, why? If you were unhappy, how did you become happier?
My happiness has gone up and down a lot. My unhappiest time was during college, because I suffered from a lot of anxiety, and also because I was ashamed of my anxiety. After a few years of this, I finally got some good therapy and did some deep thinking about what kind of life I wanted for myself—this was how I started to realize that happiness is more about the way we experience things than what we accomplish. (By the way, I don’t claim to have mastered this lesson. I still get caught up in overachieving, but at least I know it’s bad for me.)

My happiest period began a couple of years ago, when my husband asked me to marry him. I was happy before he proposed, because I was in love with him, but it was hard for me to trust my happiness—to really relax into it—until I knew we were going to get married. This happiness was interrupted (to put it mildly) last fall, about eight months after we got married, when he became gravely ill with a twisted and perforated colon. He nearly died, and he was sick for three months. Now, he’s as good as new, but we’re both still recovering emotionally. We’re trying to use the experience as a reminder that you have to seize the moment and live each year as if it might be your last, because it might be. Phoebe’s story had taught me that, too, but I learned the lesson more vividly last fall.

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Life’s Cruel Truth: You Get More of What You Already Have.

One of my happiness-project resolutions is to Meditate on koans. In Buddhist tradition, a Zen koan (rhymes with Ken Cohen) is a question or a statement that can’t be understood logically. Monks meditate on koans as a way to abandon dependence on reason in their pursuit of enlightenment. The most famous koan is probably: “Two hands clap and there is a sound. What is the sound of one hand?”

I’m haunted by my own koans – lines that flicker through my mind and evade logical thinking. One of my koans is from the Bible, Mark 4:25: “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

This doesn’t really sound fair, on first reading! I think the meaning of Jesus’ words is something like, “Those who have sought to understand divine truth will learn more, and those who haven’t tried won’t even remember the little they’ve learned.”

But whatever Jesus meant in the context of that verse, I find myself thinking about it in the happiness context, and I’ve often reflected that this statement sums up one of the cruel truths about happiness, and about human nature generally: you get more of what you have.

When you feel friendly, people want to be your friend. When you feel sexy, people are attracted to you. When you feel confident, others have confidence in you.

This truth is cruel because so often, you want others to give you what you feel you’re lacking. It’s when you’re feeling isolated and awkward that you want people to be friendly. When you’re feeling ugly, you want someone to tell you how sexy you are. When you’re feeling insecure, you wish someone would express confidence in you.

During my happiness project, I’ve been startled to discover the efficacy of the third of my Personal Commandments: Act the way I want to feel.

This commandment is important for two reasons. First, although we think we act because of the way we feel, often we feel because of the way we act. So by acting the way we wish we felt, we can change our emotions – a strategy that is uncannily effective.

Second, the world’s reaction to us is quite influenced by the way we act toward the world. For example, in situation evocation, we spark a response from people that reinforces a tendency we already have — for example, if I act irritable all the time, the people around me are going to treat me with less patience and helpfulness, which will, in turn, stoke my irritability. If I can manage to joke around, I’ll evoke a situation in which the people around me were more likely to joke around, too.

Life isn’t fair. People with a propensity to good cheer will find themselves in a friendly, cheerful environment, while people who are already angry or crabby will find themselves surrounded by uncooperative, suspicious people. “For he that hath, to him shall be given: and he that hath not, from him shall be taken even that which he hath.”

Which leads, as always, to the same conclusion: that even though it’s tempting sometimes to think that I’d be much happier if other people would behave differently toward me, the only person whose behavior I can change is myself. If I want people to be friendlier to me, I must be friendlier. If I want my husband to be tender and romantic, I must be tender and romantic. If I want our household atmosphere to be light-hearted, I must be light-hearted.

Goethe wrote: “I have come to the frightening conclusion that I am the decisive element. It is my personal approach that creates the climate. It is my daily mood that makes the weather.” And he that brings a sunny day will find a sunny day waiting for him.

* The folks from the terrific site Wise Bread have done a great new book, 10,0001 Ways to Life Large on a Small Budget. It’s an excellent resource, and the information is presented in an attractive, accessible, and even funny way. I got a lot of great ideas from the book.

* I send out short monthly newsletters that highlight the best of the previous month’s posts to about 20,000 subscribers. If you’d like to sign up, click here or email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (sorry about that weird format – trying to to thwart spammers.) Just write “newsletter” in the subject line. It’s free.

Everything Gains in Grandeur Every Day.

“The more I work, the more I see things differently, that is, everything gains in grandeur every day, becomes more and more unknown, more and more beautiful. The closer I come, the grander it is, the more remote it is.” — Giacometti.

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.

Be Happier: Make a Break in Your Routine.

I’m working on my Happiness Project, and you could have one, too! Everyone’s project will look different, but it’s the rare person who can’t benefit. Join in — no need to catch up, just jump in right now. Each Friday’s post will help you think about your own happiness project.

Lately, I’ve been feeling a little stale. My routine, which I usually love so much, is starting to feel like a run on a hamster’s wheel.

Perfect timing – I can keep my resolution to “Make a break in my routine” and also to Stay connected to my past by going to Kansas City this weekend, for my high-school reunion.

Kansas City is beautiful in the springtime, I can’t wait to see my old high-school pals, one of my best friends is taking the same flight from New York City to K.C. so we’ll have three hours to talk, and – huge bonus – my sister was five years behind me in school, so she’ll be home from Los Angeles to go to her reunion at the same time (my parents are out of town, unfortunately).

I know that having a short break from my usual habits will re-invigorate my appreciation for my everyday life.

I’m off!

* I was so pleased to hear that one of my favorite sites, Gimundo, is up and running again. It went dark for a while, but now it’s active again and better than ever, providing “good news…served daily.”

* Interested in starting your own happiness project? If you’d like to take a look at my personal Resolutions Chart, for inspiration, just email me at grubin, then the “at” sign, then gretchenrubin dot com. (Sorry about writing it in that roundabout way; I’m trying to thwart spammers.) Just write “Resolutions Chart” in the subject line.