Archive for the ‘conversational tactics’ category

Ghastly-Brewer and the rudeness of rejected bids

August 15, 2017

A couple of days ago, “journalist” and all-round ghastly person Julia Hartley-Brewer tweeted:

My Uber driver just proudly told me that his car has “zero emissions”. I replied “I couldn’t care less.” Now he’s looking sad. #fromAtoB

People asked her why she had to be so rude. She responded:

“I was perfectly polite and friendly.”

I’m a bit concerned that some people might be doubting themselves at this point. “Maybe the posh lady knows more about etiquette than I do? Maybe what she said really is acceptable?” Nope. I can’t speak about other cultures but I can say with absolute authority that responding to a piece of information with the words “I couldn’t care less” is fucking rude.

Why? Because when the driver offered her that piece of information, it was a conversation-opener. It was an invitation to respond.

Drs John and Julie Gottman came up with the concept of “bids” to describe when someone in a relationship reaches out to their partner for affection/attention/approval/whatever. They claim (and I believe them) that how you respond to bids is the strongest predictor of whether or not your relationship will go the distance.

Of course, people make “bids” in other contexts too, not just romantic relationships. I’ve written in the past about social initiative, about the difficulty and importance and underratedness of making the first move.

“I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.”

But no first move will work, no “bid” can be successful, if you’re in a one-to-one conversation and the other person chooses to reject it. And – make absolutely no mistake about it – saying “I couldn’t care less” is a rejection. It shuts the conversation down before it’s begun.

Obviously the really polite thing would be to show some interest, however mild. (Last time I got a taxi, the driver started out with some boring story about cricket and my feigned mild interest meant that he got on to some interesting local history stuff.) It’s not like you’ve got anything else to do while you’re trapped in a metal box with this person. But sometimes your social barrel is empty and you really can’t summon up a proper response. As dozens of people pointed out in Julia’s mentions, in that scenario you just say “Oh” or “Right” or “That’s nice.”

I know some people prefer the “absolute silence” gambit, because you get a bit of plausible deniability. Maybe you didn’t hear! Maybe you replied appropriately and they didn’t hear! Maybe you’ve gone into a psychic trance and any minute now you’ll have ectoplasm coming out of your mouth followed by this week’s winning lottery numbers. But I personally find the silence thing kind of cowardly and annoying – you’re forcing the other speaker to second-guess you. So I go for the standard British nothingy response.

“This widget looks like a 23-B, but it’s actually a 22!”

“I managed to get 10 packets of mince nearly half price. It’s not the mince I normally buy, but I expect it’ll be similar.”
“That’s nice.”

“Looks like Crystal Villa are going for a six-way transfer in the mid-season boilerplate.”

I’ve already written a whole blog post on ways to respond politely when people talk about sport and you literally can’t understand what they’re saying, but they all require a bit more energy and imagination – I’m talking today about when you’re completely tapped out.

So what do you do when you really can’t bear to hear any more about the widget? When you’re afraid that even the most half-hearted “Oh” will open the floodgates and send forth a stream of thoughts on mince?

I’d say: go with the bland nothingy response and then change the subject immediately. The only way to reject a bid or kill an existing conversation without looking rude as fuck is to immediately do some work of your own. Show interest. Ask a question. Make a bid.

“The thing with cheap mince is it has a high water content, so you have to be careful when you’re cooking it…”
“Yeah. So have the kids started their holidays yet?”

“You get all these 22s that look like 23-As and 23-Bs and would you believe, the lads in the shop can’t tell the difference. I say to them, ‘A 22 is oblate and not spheroid!’ but you’d think they had jam for brains.”
“Oh dear. Has the Queen ever come in to buy anything?”

I mean, bonus points if your new opener has any relevance to what’s been said already, but don’t sweat it. The key thing is that you do the work. Saying “I don’t care” or “I’m not interested” is a refusal to do the work. It is an asshole power move based on the assumption that the other person is not as important as you.

Someone as well-brought-up as Julia Hartley-Brewer almost certainly knows all this. She knows when she’s being rude and she’s choosing to be rude.

Why do spammers spam?

August 24, 2016

I once wrote about handling confusing or open-ended requests with the “quick-question trick”: respond swiftly to ask for some clarification and watch the requester melt away.

It’s great to have a technique for making these people vanish, but I do wonder why a request for specifics works on this kind of person like garlic or sunlight on a vampire.

  • They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place.
  • They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.

That was how I saw it for a while, and it seemed bafflingly contradictory. Then I realised it’s more consistent than it seems.

Someone who contacts multiple people asking for something is likely to be the kind of person who contacts multiple people asking for something. People who hate asking favours and sending mass messages still do those things when it’s necessary, sure, but they make up a tiny minority of the people who do those things. The kind of person who does this is mostly pretty comfortable with it. Why? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to spend time trying to work out what they’re being asked? Are they really comfortable with expecting each person to do the work of saying no?

The answer is partly to do with the Askers versus Guessers divide. The kind of person who emails 70 people with a badly-written block of text doesn’t actually expect each person to labour over reading it, work out what’s required and respond. That’s why they emailed 70 people when they only need two or three to help. They’re playing a numbers game, assuming most people won’t take the message seriously. But the few who do? Great. When you think that way, it’s totally consistent for you to be flaky about your own inbox. Do as you would be done by. Send out emails you expect most people to ignore, then ignore most of the messages you get yourself. Don’t get me wrong, it seems like a sub-optimal way to handle your shit, but at least it’s internally consistent.

So “They ignore your response despite having contacted you in the first place” becomes “They feel comfortable about contacting you in the first place because they’re happy to ignore emails and they figure everybody else is too.”

Likewise “They ignore your response despite the fact that you’d assume a response was their hoped-for outcome.” Yes, you’d assume they had some kind of outcome in mind. You’d assume they had some kind of plan or system, starting with monitoring responses to the request for help, then following up on those responses, providing more information, allocating tasks… Nope. They ignore your response because they did not think about outcomes at all.

Some of it is probably a pseudo-pragmatic calculation of resources; mass-contacting people or organisations takes way less time per person/organisation than responding to questions. Some of it is about being a flake, some of this is about being the kind of person who wants lots of other people’ s attention and energy without having a plan for doing anything useful with it. And some of it is about having a cheerful “throw mud at the wall and see what sticks” attitude, or a “numbers game” attitude or a “well, they can only say no!” attitude. (We’re back to Askers versus Guessers again.)

Ultimately I think it’s just about having a fundamentally different atttitude to people’s time, attention and communication. If you only ask for help very occasionally, when it’s something that’s really important to you, you’re going to take other people’s requests for help more seriously because you “know” that asking for this kind of help is something that people only do when it’s important. And you’re going to be gutted when your own requests for help are met with indifference.

Likewise, if you ask for help all the time, and you don’t put too much emotional energy into it, to the point where you can’t really be bothered to explain what you’re actually asking for, you will not  be too upset when people ignore you. And when you get requests for help, you will feel free to ignore them because you “know” that people just throw this kind of thing out there. I think you get this type of thinking in jobs like sales and recruitment, because if you agonised over each time you didn’t get what you were pushing for in those kinds of jobs, it would be very bad for your mental health.

This reading of the situation makes it seem as if the person who reads emails properly and respects other people’s time and doesn’t make unreasonable requests…well, that person basically loses. And that the winning strategy is to be the arsehole who just makes badly formulated demands in a scattergun fashion and hopes to utilise other people’s niceness to get what you want without even asking properly for it.

If you’re reading this, you’re probably in the “respect people’s time and communicate clearly” camp and this post has made you think again about how the “throw it out there” camp is trying to waste your time and energy every day. My imperfect solution is to try to identify which camp people are in and then respond accordingly. The  quick-question trick is amazingly effective for filtering out the human spammers. But mostly, you can just carry on being respectful and thoughtful and articulate.

The thing is, you don’t actually win the “numbers game” by spamming a huge number of people and then being incapable of following up on the responses. You win by actually getting what you were looking for. The scattergun approach isn’t ultimately that effective if you’re not capable of building on what you get back. Because people are not, in fact, walls to throw mud at. Making things “stick” is about relationships and respect.

More on post-interrupting

August 17, 2016

I blogged recently-ish about the thing where people butt in at the exact moment a speaker has finished speaking. They’re not butting in with a reaction to what’s just been said (positive or negative) – they’re saying something completely irrelevant and thereby depriving the original speaker of any reaction from others who might have been listening.

I’ve been thinking about it some more, about the contexts where it’s happened to me or I’ve seen it happen to others. And I’ve come to the conclusion that there are several motivations behind it.

There’s the mistake eraser. They think you’ve just said something inappropriate, or something that might lead to an inappropriate response, but tackling the issue head-on  would make things even more awkward. So they’re going to smoothly come in with a complete change of subject before anyone can react to the original thing. (Sometimes this is an absolute godsend.)

There’s the status reinforcer. They have higher status in the group than you, and they’ve internalised the idea that conversation is a competition for attention, so they want to stop people reacting to what you say. They especially don’t want anyone laughing at your jokes, because you “shouldn’t” be funny. (The status reinforcer probably does a lot of regular interrupting as well, especially when there’s some plausible deniability.)

Obviously, there’s no clear boundary between the mistake eraser and the status reinforcer, because sometimes your “mistake” is to say something inappropriate to your status.

But I think the most common type is the distracted clunker. This person probably isn’t really following the conversation in the first place. They’re distracted, but unsuccessfully trying to hide it. They’re actually trying not to interrupt, because they realise that might seem rude, so they’re  listening out for what sounds like a pause or the end of a sentence before jumping in with whatever’s on their mind. A distracted clunker might be the man on a date who’s so focused on impressing the woman he’s with and getting the date “right” that he forgets to listen to a word she’s saying. Or the over-achieving host who’s obsessing over the food and getting the party “right”.

This person probably isn’t socially inept all the time; but social skills, like most skills, depend on context, and in this context the person is struggling because they’re tense and focused on other things.

Of course, it’s still hurtful and annoying, because of the realisation that you’re not connecting with this person at all. You thought the point of seeing them was to have fun, connect, get to know each other better, but then you realise they’re playing their own secret game with different rules.

But a word in defence of these people: they’re more likely to be trying too hard than not trying hard enough. Yeah, they probably don’t understand that social initiative is work, which is why they don’t seem to be bothering on that front. But they’re nervous and out of their depth, which is why they’re focusing on the stuff they think they can control.

I can’t make her attracted to me, but I can turn up on time and wear my good shirt and come up with a great idea for a place to go next. Hey, she’s talking. She’s smiling as well, so does that mean I’m doing OK? When she finishes I must buy another round.

I can’t make my guests have fun, but I can put a good playlist together and make sure everybody’s wine is topped up. I can’t follow the conversation because I’m too focused on watching my husband putting out the cheeseboard and waiting for him to fuck it up, but interrupting is rude, so I’ll wait for what seems like a gap before I say anything… For God’s sake, he’s putting out the wrong knives. Darling! Not those knives for the cheese. Oh, was that the doorbell again?

I’ve been on both sides of this behaviour. Yes, I’ve been on dates where I’m wondering why the other person asked me out in the first place if they have no interest in me. I’ve been the guest wondering why they don’t just replace me with a giant cuddly toy. But I’ve also been the over-anxious host, date, friend who’s more focused on getting it “right” than enjoying the time with the other person. I’ve been the one jumping in with something irrelevant because I’m trying too hard.

So yeah. We all do it. But if you like someone enough, maybe this behaviour won’t put you off, and you’ll decide you still want to see them again. And maybe next time, or the time after that, everybody will relax enough that real connections and real conversations can happen.

How can you interrupt me when I’ve already finished?

July 13, 2016

We all know that being interrupted when you’re talking is a bit annoying. And if you’re interested in verbal communication, you’ve probably read some of the copious research on interrupting and will know that the phenomenon is linked to factors like nationality, status and gender. Most of the findings aren’t really surprising: people interrupt friends more often than they interrupt strangers, different people have different conversational styles that aren’t always compatible, men interrupt more than women, and so on.

We also know that culture and context matters. I’m perfectly well aware of how
my own tendency to interrupt varies wildly with the context. I’m unlikely to speak over a colleague in a work meeting, and if a colleague spoke over me I would interpret it as a dominance play. But with my fast-talking close family, I’ll expect to be part of conversations where everybody excitedly overlaps each other and there are very few pauses.

So interrupting, as a social and linguistic phenomenon, is well and truly noted. But a while back, I noticed a behaviour that bothers me way more than interrupting. And I don’t have a name for it! It’s when you’ve actually finished speaking, but the other person behaves in a way that you’d otherwise associate with an interruption. They might chime in with something completely irrelevant the second you finish speaking, with no acknowledgement that you’ve said anything at all. Or they might behave as if they think they’re interrupting – putting a hand out as if to silence you, saying “Sorry” or “Hang on” before changing the subject.

It’s not the “overlappy” kind of interrupting where the other person is basically finishing your sentences, it’s a complete halt and subject change. It annoys me more than a straightforward interruption and I’ve been trying to work out why.

I guess it’s annoying partly because it denies the speaker a reaction. If you’re mid-flow and someone silences you to urgently say “Darling, is that the coffee boiling over?” you can go back to what you were saying once the emergency is dealt with. But if the coffee suddenly becomes a problem the split-second after your hilarious punchline or dramatic revelation, you’ve lost that moment when you would otherwise expect a reaction, and the conversation moves on.

I like to keep track of conversational threads, so I’m often the person who will try to get someone to resume an interrupted story. With a straightforward interruption, the person usually remembers roughly what they were saying and is pleased to be invited to plunge back into their story. With this weird post-speech “interruption” thing, it’s way more awkward because the speaker is already done. They usually say something like “Oh. Well. That was it, really. The clown had a gun on him…that’s all.”

I would be interested in finding out what Verbal Tea readers think about this.

  • Is it a “thing” that needs a name, or am I just describing normal interruptions that just occasionally happen to be mistimed for the split-second after the speaker has finished?
  • If it’s a thing, what kind of contexts make it more likely to happen and why do you think people do it?
  • If it’s a thing, what should it be called? (Enderruption?)

Dealing with vague requests: the quick-question trick

September 21, 2015

I get a lot of vague requests for help. I don’t know if this is a problem that most people have, or something specific to my situation. In my professional life I’m in the field of organisational communications and in my personal life I’ve volunteered for a lot of different organisations in a communications/publicity capacity. So I’m guessing that I get this more than average, but others get it too.

The vague request usually comes in through email or social media. Sometimes it takes the form of a big chunk of information followed by a request to “link up” or “do something with this” or “discuss this”. Sometimes it’s just a big chunk of information on its own, with no context, but I know or guess that I’m expected to do something with it.

This stuff drives me crazy, because I’m  a Guesser rather than an Asker, so I feel some obligation to take requests seriously. But I inwardly groan because I can’t easily see what they want me to do, and I resent the fact that the sender is forcing me to do the interpretative labour of working it out. (And then they presumably want me to burn through some more cognitive resource deciding whether or not I can/should/will do it, and then either saying no (which takes energy) or actually doing the thing. That’s really a lot to ask from someone when you haven’t even bothered to explain what you want.

Actually, there are lots of reasons why people send this kind of non-specific request.

  • The sender might feel embarrassed about asking for help directly. This seems especially common with women. I think the cultural training not to be “demanding” leads to asking for things in a roundabout way.
  • The sender might have no theory of mind, so they assume that if they tell people what they’re planning, we’ll all understand exactly what is required and offer relevant help.
  • The sender hasn’t actually worked out what help they need but they want either attention or the feeling that they’re doing something (or both), and they can get this from alerting strangers to their project.
  • The sender has really poor communication skills.
  • The sender is basically just spamming.

Whatever the reason, they’re a potential time-stealer and I get something like this every couple of weeks. My tendency when I get this kind of message is to be avoidant, because I resent the fuck out of having this confusing and boring thing land on me. And then I feel guilty about being avoidant. And by the time I do get back to the person (or delete the message) I’ve used up a lot of energy on badfeelz.

But I recently discovered an amazing trick for dealing with this kind of thing. Almost as soon as I see the message, I get straight back to the person with a quick question. Usually: “What exactly are you asking me to do?

I’ve said before that I get something like this every couple of weeks. I started the quick-question trick a few months ago. Want to know how many people have got back to me after I responded with my question? None. Zero.

I’m actually astonished by this. I was expecting to weed out the vaguest 20% so that I could actually deal with the other 80% on clearer terms. Instead, I have sweet, sweet silence from 100%.

I was genuinely worried that asking a follow-up question means engaging with the person and implicitly showing interest, making it harder to say “no” further down the line. But it turns out that the follow-up question is an amazing filter for this kind of crap. And as far as I can tell, it doesn’t matter what the follow-up question is. I’ve also tried “What organisation do you represent?”, “Why are you sending me this?” and “Can you give me some more details?” with huge success. (Success in this instance is defined as silence.)

Of course, of course, of course many people will have read this post and thought: “What? Why don’t you just ignore these people in the first place?” Well, come back to me when you’ve had a lifetime’s cultural training to be obliging. Come back to me when a big chunk of your day’s paid work involves handling confusingly worded requests, and you don’t have the tools to distinguish a stranger-who’s-really-important from a random spammer.

The quick-question trick allows you to a) get the message out of your inbox/headspace as quickly as possible while b) looking obliging and helpful and c) not feeling guilty or worried about ignoring something that might have turned out to be important if you’d just puzzled over it a bit longer. It also allows you to d) push the work of formulating the task required back to the person who’s asking you to do the task, which seems only fair.

Don’t let it go

July 30, 2013

Recently my partner made a remark to friends which was misinterpreted. Attempts to clarify were washed away in the general tide of people saying “You’re wrong!” I felt a bit got-at but we both decided to let the misunderstanding go; there was more chance of being caught in the oncoming rain than actually having our explanations heard, so we just left. No big deal.

I found out yesterday that the people who did the misinterpreting didn’t let it go. They’ve been talking about it to people who weren’t even there, and the misunderstanding has been set in stone as fact.

I don’t like it because the thing-that-wasn’t-actually-said makes my partner and me appear spoilt and clueless. (We’re not, we’re really not.)

If I wasn’t so upset, I’d be able to laugh at the irony: this comment was worth discussing at length behind our backs, but it somehow wasn’t worth actually understanding in the first place (and my partner’s fresh attempts to clarify have been met with laughing disbelief).

This is why I don’t like “letting things go”. Because every time I let something go, trying to be laid-back, trying to smooth things over, it comes back to bite me. It comes back as the misinterpreted remark suddenly set in stone, or the bad behaviour that gets worse because the other person takes my silence as tacit acceptance, or some other upsetting problem that I suddenly have to fucking deal with anyway.

On bad days, I think the whole concept of “letting it go” is just a rhetorical technique to make the injured party feel bad about standing up for themselves. Whether or not I let something go is my decision, not anybody else’s. I’m the one who’ll have to deal with the consequences of letting it go, whether that’s “Oh, you didn’t insist on a receipt?” or the “People who ignored previous creepy comments also get the following creepy comments…” sleazeball algorithm.

This time, I wish I’d stood there and argued the toss until the heavens opened; better to be judged argumentative and stubborn on accurate grounds than be thought of as stupid and spoilt on completely false grounds. Anyway, it’s confirmed that my general approach is right: try to avoid letting things go.

By the way, I’m back! Did you really think I was going to let this blog go?

Social initiative: underrated but important

May 17, 2013

Right, it looks like I’ve gone back to writing about initiative again. Today I want to make the point that not all initiative is about starting your own business or organising a protest or doing something creative; social initiative is important too.

I’ve touched on the idea of social initiative very briefly before, in a story about two people who sat in silence because neither of them had the social initiative to start a conversation. But the concept deserves wider attention.

I think we’ve all had the horrible experience of being an unwelcome newcomer. You turn up somewhere, you don’t know anybody, and nobody talks to you. Nobody approaches you. It feels like hostility, but often it’s just a lack of social initiative. Nobody thinks it’s their job to talk to you, nobody wants to make the uncomfortable effort of talking to a new person, so they stay in their comfort zone with the people they already know.

It feels like a problem for you, but it’s actually a problem for the group. Because almost all groups – businesses, voluntary organisations, social scenes – benefit from having new people there who feel welcome and happy. The process of benefiting from new energy starts when you welcome someone. The process of conveying unspoken rules, so the new person can be a beneficial member of the group, starts when you welcome someone. The process of integration starts when you welcome someone. If your group can’t welcome new people because nobody thinks it’s their job, your group has a colossal problem.

My dad helps to run an amateur sports club. The club often gets visiting teams coming for friendly matches, and the other people who play or volunteer at the club are hopeless at dealing with them. No malice is intended, but my dad’s teammates huddle in the corner with their drinks. So my dad has unofficially taken on the job of welcoming the visiting teams, which does require courage: he has to leave the group huddled over their drinks and walk across to the strangers.

One of the counterintuitive things about initiative in general: it’s more about training and habit than you’d think. It’s not about reinventing the wheel. And it’s the same with social initiative. It starts when you realise it should happen, and it gets easier the more you do it.

My own experience of taking social initiative is that it’s fucking scary at first. You think “what the hell shall I say?” My advice: keep moving, keep smiling, just say something. I’d imagine that my dad probably just walks up to the visiting team and says something along the lines of “All right, boys? You found us OK, then?”

I’m no Oscar Wilde myself with my conversation-openers; it’s usually something along the lines of “Great to see you here,” or “What are you drinking?” or “God, it’s a bit cold today, isn’t it?”

And nine times out of ten, the other person will recognise the lifeline you’re throwing them. They don’t care if you’re pointing out the obvious about weather or traffic or the décor. They just see the smile and the intent to welcome and they appreciate it. They will grab that lifeline and before you know it, you’ve got a conversation going. And, again before you know it, other people are joining in, people who were terrified to make a move before.

A casual remark from a 1990s It-Girl (probably Tara Palmer-Tompkinson) got me thinking about this stuff in a systematic way. In an interview she described herself as “good at parties” and teenage-me had a lightbulb moment. It had never occurred to me before that socialising was a skill, a skill you could be good or bad at. Teenage-me had the “turn up and hope for the best” model of socialising fully internalised. That remark from a pampered socialite was the start of my thinking about social initiative, although I didn’t have a handy phrase for it at the time.

The next “aha!” moment came when I was studying mediaeval Welsh literature and came across the concept of the “ymdidan wraig”, or “conversation wife”. (Modern Welsh would spell it “ymdiddan”, I think.) Anyway, the idea is that it’s the nobleman’s wife’s job to welcome newcomers to the court, to go around with drinks, to get conversations going. The phrase is the basis of the rather forced multilingual pun in this blog’s tagline.

Of course women have been acting as social glue and conversation-starters for centuries; nothing exciting about that. What I love about the concept of the ymdidan wraig is that her work is explicitly acknowledged. Because today, it really isn’t acknowledged half as much as it should be. Yes, some wives still flit around pouring drinks and introducing people… but that work is usually ignored and unrewarded.

As a society we train ourselves to devalue this kind of work by pretending it’s unadulterated fun and not work for the person doing the work. In other words, we train ourselves to underrate social initiative. We decide that socialites are just bimbos, politicans are insincere, the barman who asks how you’re doing is nosy. (I’m not saying that those judgements are always incorrect; I’m just saying that we’re more likely to dismiss people when we don’t grasp the importance of the work they’re doing.)

Most of us don’t even grasp the concept of social initiative, which means that  when it’s lacking in a social situation, we misread the atmosphere as unfriendly or hostile. (Actually, if you build up your own social initiative you get a lot smarter at differentiating poor social skills from genuine hostility.)

I’d like to usher in a world where we understand what social initiative is, understand the power of conversation and communication, reward people for stepping forward and saying something. I’m tired of power-socialisers being written off as frivolous. I’m tired of seeing people with zero social skills benefit from the hard work of a power-socialiser and then use the relaxed atmosphere created by that person to mock them for being too talkative.

I’m not saying I’m a social genius myself; sometimes I absolutely can’t handle social situations and I’ll use weak coping strategies like drinking too much, clinging to my friends or hiding in the toilets. I’m just saying: when I do overcome the temptation to run away, I don’t want anybody writing me off as stupid just because I have the courage to get a conversation going.

Note: I’ve been writing this blog for nearly six years and nobody’s ever asked me what the tagline means. I hope that means you all just saw the joke first time and required no further explanation, but I suspect you just didn’t have the social initiative to ask. Ask me! I won’t say “no”. How could I?

Pretending to hear

April 30, 2013

We’ve all done it. Someone says something to you and for whatever reason – it’s noisy, you’re not listening, you’re not wearing the hearing aid you need – you don’t hear them. And for whatever reason –  you’re tired, you’re bored, you’ve already asked them to repeat themselves once – you can’t face asking them to repeat themselves. So you just pretend to hear. You adopt what you hope is a suitable facial expression and nod and hope.

My conversational tactic isn’t for that part of the conversation. I assume you’ve already got that covered. You use the other person’s facial expression and gestures and whatever words you can catch to mould your response to something appropriate. Advanced but more high-risk techniques include verbal responses like “I really feel for the team” or “Wow, I didn’t know that.”

My tactic is for just after the pretending-to-hear moment. And it’s more of an anti-tactic, because it’s about what you mustn’t do.

Within five minutes of a nod ‘n’ smile fake response, try to avoid broaching new topics of conversation. Be especially careful about drawing the other person’s attention to interesting nearby objects or landmarks. Also be careful about very obvious remarks.

Why? Because those topics may well not be new. If you nod and smile at a comment, then minutes later make an identical comment yourself, your cover is blown.

This didn’t properly dawn on me until I’d been on the other end of a few cover-blown nods ‘n’ smiles myself. Most recently this happened at the supermarket when I pointed out an item near the conveyor belt to a fellow shopper and explained why it was there. She half-laughed as if my comment had been a joke, which aroused my suspicions that she hadn’t really heard me, but I couldn’t be sure until three or four minutes later when she finally spotted the item herself, pointed it out to me and asked if I knew why it was there.

When a surefire conversational winner is met by an expression of surprise and slight hurt, rather than the interest or amusement you were expecting, that’s when you know you’ve just blown your pretending-to-hear cover.

So the key thing after a nod ‘n’ smile is: think before you speak. Think about what you’re going to say. Unusual or curveball topics are probably safe. But always, before you start, ask yourself: “Could the thing I’m about to say possibly be the thing I just pretended to hear?” Suddenly launching into a tale of your travels in China might make you appear boring and self-obsessed. But it’s way safer than pointing out the funny thing happening on the next table at the restaurant, especially when the thing-you-didn’t-hear was, now you come to think about it, accompanied by subtle pointing in that very direction.

Spending time

April 19, 2013

My latest conversational trick: the phrase “spending time” can make a lot of activities look more impressive. For example:

“Tonight? I’m spending some time with my mum.”


“Tonight? I’m watching X-Factor with my mum and we’ll probably get blitzed on white wine as well.”


“I’m leaving work on the dot because it’s important to spend time with my kids.”


“I’m leaving work on the dot because I’m going to run around the garden with my kids, pretending to be a dragon.”


“I need to spend some time with the team in Bristol.”


“I need to go to Bristol, wander around the office asking everybody in turn about their work, get on their nerves a bit, surf the internet on my phone for half an hour, then suggest a pub lunch.”

Whatever you’re actually doing, technically you’re spending time doing it. But using the phrase “spending time” implies intentionality. It implies responsibility. It implies making a decision. That’s the key, I think. As a culture, even if we don’t explicitly acknowledge it, we respect the ability to make a decision.

The Eighties concept of “quality time” has fallen out of fashion. We now acknowledge, I think, that quantity time is important. Showing up, being there. But we don’t really have a catchy phrase to acknowledge that actually, the pub lunch with the team in Bristol could matter just as much as the awkward one-to-one questioning. Contact doesn’t have to be serious or important or intense to matter. But to matter, it has to happen.

So use the “spending time” trick. Add a martyr face and use words like “should”, “need” and “serious” to strengthen the effect. Then go and enjoy yourself!


March 28, 2013

A reader draws our attention to the German word genau. Apparently people (mainly English-speakers?) are moaning about its overuse.

Genau literally means something along the lines of “Precisely” or “Exactly”. And as in English, you can use those kinds of words to confirm what someone is saying to you.

“So you’ll be looking to switch paper-towel supplier?”

But in German colloquial use, it seems to have taken on a more casual meaning. The reader who  originally contacted me suggests that it’s used to mean something along the lines of “Yeah” or “OK” or  “Right”.

When used in this sense, the word is doing a different kind of job.That’s why it’s being overused. Repeating “genau” is phatic communication: it’s a way of saying “Yes, I’m still listening,” or “Yes, I still understand you,” or “Yes, I’m still invested in being part of this social or work group.”

(Disclaimer: I’m not German and I don’t speak any German, so my take on this could be complete rubbish. As opposed to my take on everything else in life, which is stone-cold accurate at all times.)