TAoN No. 98: Toward deeper conversations. Plus, a new (special edition!) icebreaker, and more
“Conversation,” by Tuncay on Flickr; some rights reserved
If you’ve spent time with The Art of Noticing (book) or you’ve followed this newsletter for a while, you know that I believe one of the things we could all get better at paying attention to is other people. That means listening and observing — but it also means asking interesting, thoughtful, surprising questions. Thus the series of Icebreakers I’ve been collecting and sharing for a while now.
More recently I’ve read about some research on asking questions. It came up the other day in professor of behavioral psychology and economics Dan Ariely’s advice column.
“I’ve mostly kept to my established circle of family and friends during the pandemic,” a reader identified as Michelle began, and now she worried that she had perhaps lost her mastery of “the art of small talk.” She was specifically nervous about meeting new people.
But Ariely suggested she skip the “small talk” altogether. What if, he asked, “you tried to replace shallow pleasantries with something deeper?” He continued:
“In an experiment, researchers paired up attendees at a small conference and gave each duo 10 minutes to discuss four questions. The questions were designed to bypass small talk and lead to greater connection—for example, ‘Can you describe a time you cried in front of another person?’
“After a few such questions and answers, the participants reported not feeling awkward at all—on the contrary, they came away feeling more connected to one another and happier than they had expected.”
To be honest, I can’t quite imagine myself asking a stranger such a question! (Or what I would say if a stranger asked me.) But according to a summary of the actual study, participants in general overestimated how awkward the practice would be.
“People seemed to imagine that revealing something meaningful or important about themselves in conversation would be met with blank stares and silence, only to find this wasn’t true in the actual conversation,” [one researcher] said. “Human beings are deeply social and tend to reciprocate in conversation. If you share something meaningful and important, you are likely to get something meaningful and important exchanged in return, leading to a considerably better conversation.”
If that crying question still strikes you as a bit much, Ariely more generally suggests asking others “what they are passionate about, or where they see themselves in a few years.” Or try one or more of the TAoN icebreakers — which are definitely not dull!
“We underestimate how much potential conversation partners care about deep talk over superficialities, as well as how satisfying such exchanges can be,” Ariely concluded. “The deeper our conversations are on any given day, the happier we tend to be.”
The Art of Noticing is Rob Walker’s reader-supported newsletter about creativity, curiosity, work, and staying human. You are reading the free Monday edition; paid subscribers get a Thursday issue, too. Subscribers make all this possible! Thank you!
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.
This week’s icebreaker is a bit of a special edition, as I’ll spell out below. It’s from reader Katherine: “As a trainee English teacher and dabbling writer,” she explained, “I'd love to contribute a metaphor-based icebreaker.”
What object, person, animal or situation is happiness? What about grief? Hope? (Emily Dickinson thought it was 'the thing with feathers ...') How about fear?
Katherine wrote to me a little while back about an icebreaker-related project of hers. “Frustrated by some years of dating incurious people, coupled with the annoyance of pandemic-centred conversation” and a certain “bland” NYT list of 36 questions that (allegedly) lead to love, she says, “I decided to make a massive (free) Google Sheet of interesting / provoking / lols questions.” (Some of the questions are adult, as they say.) Check out a more polished version of her project at interro.co.uk.
In her research she found the TAoN list — “I have recommended it to all my friends, and save it for a languorous coffee break read whenever possible” — and asked me if she could include some of its questions in her lineup.
Of course I said yes — with the friendly “condition” that she contribute one of her questions to the TAoN collection. And that is is exactly what she did above.
“I think [this question] can unfold conversations about personal associations, memories, and experiences without being too scary,” she continues. “And your interlocutor's willingness to go beyond the literal would tell me a lot about their levels of comfort with openness, how happy they are to think of themselves as creative and also just be really interesting! (I happen to think absolutely everyone is creative, but we can unlearn how.) If anyone wanted to send me their responses, I'd love to receive them! @kleedale.”
[“If my icebreaker is an example of cryptomnesia, I apologise whole-heartedly!” she adds. ;) ]
I love it! Thank you Katherine!!
As usual, I’m still working through the disorganized backlog of icebreaker submissions. But as always, I want more:
Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to firstname.lastname@example.org
In this coming Thursday’s post for paid subscribers, a case for eavesdropping. Plus a fresh installment of The Heard, sharing music that’s caught my attention (in a good way) lately.
Become a paid subscriber here. If you desperately want access to paid subscriber posts but you just can’t afford it, write to me at email@example.com and I’ll see what I can do. Give a gift subscription here. Underwrite a subscription for someone who doesn’t have the budget right now, here.
In Other News
Forget hygge, it’s time for uitwaaien. “Typically used as a noun, it describes the act of undertaking some sort of outdoor physical activity in windy conditions. Wind, as local wisdom goes, refreshes and recalibrates you.” Now you know.
Jami Attenberg on her new memoir; looking forward to it!
“A sonic cartography of the Canaveral National Seashore through its inhabitants.” Participants are shown listening to their favorite place in the park, “inviting the audience to listen with them.” From Félix Blume. (Thanks, Laura!)
Object In The News: The swab.
“Tiny Faces Animate Minimal Mugs and Planters by Ceramicist Rami Kim.” So great, I really love this work.
“En no liv reez-ee gah blee gloo jay go.” Thx to E for this week’s closing thought, below:
Okay that’s it!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: firstname.lastname@example.org. Or use the comments!
—> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032
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