It's a moment we all know — and dread. You've been chatting with a new acquaintance (maybe a potential date, a powerful colleague, or a would-be client) for a few minutes and no topic has seemed to take off. You've run through your supply of small talk starter questions and now you're frantically casting around what to say next while the other party takes quick glances over your shoulder as they (presumably) try to come up with a polite way to get away.
How can you resuscitate this sort of near-dead conversation?
A new, irreverent business book offers a suggestion. New York Magazine's Science of Us column recently mined "Works Well with Others: An Outsider's Guide to Shaking Hands, Shutting Up, Handling Jerks, and Other Crucial Skills in Business That No One Ever Teaches You," a new book by former Esquire editor Ross McCammon for actionable tips for dealing with work's most awkward moments. Among them was a secret to restarting stalled conversations, which McCammon perfected while interviewing reluctant celebrities for his former job.
How do you work?
We all know to ask new connections about their work, but the form these questions take usually focuses on the what of a person's career — What's your job? or What do you do? While failing to engage model Bar Raefeli in conversation during a 2009 interview, McCammon came up with a better alternative. Don't ask what someone does. Instead ask how they do what they do.
"People love talking about what they actually do for a living. Not their jobs but their work," he explains in the Science of Us post. "There's so much technical stuff — even if you don't have a technical job, there are so many little technical things that even your partner or spouse might not know about, just these little triumphs or bursts of creativity, or failures, mistakes, that go into a single workday. And I'm kind of obsessed with those small things, those little mistakes."
Not only is McCammon obsessed with these details, but he finds just about all of his conversational partners are just as excited as he is to dig into the minutiae of their work. Which means "when you're backed into a conversational corner, asking someone not what they do but how they do it is a surefire way out," says the post, summing up this valuable trick.