What do you like to ask as the first few questions when you meet someone or just say something to a random person you don’t know “in the real life” (aka offline)? Or if you had a question or a piece of information you needed an answer to and got it, what do you ask the person next?
I’m puzzled by Americans attempting small talk with complete strangers so easily. It’s a cultural thing, apparently, and it also seems like a very regional thing too. People in more Northern states like Minnesota seem to leave you to mind your own business instead of attacking you for the sole purpose of small talk when you are somewhere and doing something. But here in the South… avoidance of small talk attempts by strangers may be less successful. And I hear people try the stranger small talk even while waiting to pay at a grocery store, or occasionally in commuter buses. Odd. While there are some pretty creative topics, most are pretty boring and predictable.
My least favorite questions when asked by a complete stranger in the meatspace (offline) as the first thing they say? “Where are you from?“, “Where are you really from?” and “what’s wrong with your eyes?” Why those, you ask? It’s very simple. I’m somewhere minding my own business, trying to feel like I belong in the city and country I live in. There comes a random person that doesn’t even tell me their name first, making questions that highlight that I sound different, that I don’t really belong here, or if I’m lucky, maybe my spoken language doesn’t have that obvious accent but I still pronounce some letters wrong so maybe I have a hearing issue… then continuing with the same logic about moving into the medical details. No, hold your horses, random strangers offline. If you want to know any of those things, first of all I consider them all quite personal, secondly… at least have the common courtesy to tell something about yourself, respect the disability etiquette, and phrase your interest in a much nicer way. It’s that simple really. I get it, sometimes you meet someone that looks and sounds different and interesting, and you want to ask more questions to get to know them better. Still, ask better questions.
The typical American asking me whereyoureallyfrom is just so bad choice of question. If the person that gets asked has an obvious or any kind of detectable foreign accent, they are supposed to tell them about the country and language where they grew up and so on. Then the person who asked will get completely sidetracked trying to launch into stereotypes of said country, culture or language, and the whatever that would have been more interesting to talk about, will never get talked about. Maybe the asker will also volunteer info about their ancestry, telling how some of their ancestry came from some related location. When this same question gets asked the “wrong way”, that is, by the person with a foreign accent asking an American in USA about wheretheyreallyfrom, they get so confused. “What do you mean, where I grew up? Or where my ancestry came from?” well, what do you think? I don’t care; treat it as a counter question to what you wanted to know from me but asked poorly. How you ask something can make all the difference. Now, here’s a lovely version someone said to me after a meeting (so not as an interruption) a while back (rough idea, not his exact words): “I just wanted to tell you speak good English. I’m not going to ask you where you grew up but I grew up in Czechoslovakia. I was also wondering how do you manage with your circadian rhythms…” Now that is a much nicer way to start, and get pretty much straight to the point. So this time him wondering about both of the issues that usually annoy me came from a much nicer perspective and observation. So while telling briefly where I grew up or what kind of school I went to and what kind of things I do to keep my days as awake time and nights as sleep time, the observations from his part seemed to come from openness, kindness, and better timing.
Other ways to nicely go to those topics pretty fast could include e.g. making some observation or a compliment first. Like maybe noticing that I always have dark shades on or that there’s something funny on my t-shirt or maybe my tattoos might make you wonder something or or maybe just tell someone they have a pretty voice. That works no matter what kind of voice qualities they have, accent or no accent. I personally use that quite a bit, adding usually that since I recognize people from voice, anything interesting, even imperfections like slight stutter or deaf accents can make someone easier to recognize for me. A pretty laugh can make it easier to recognize someone as well. And with that opening, people can tell whatever they want that might be related to their voice, or just leave it as it is (also ok).
I guess everyone has their least favorite frequently asked questions by random strangers offline. What are yours and why? (and don’t need to provide the answer to the specific questions then, see example here, I sort of skipped mine too).