Conversation: The Quintessential Social Skill

Dale Carnegie will tell you that the secret to being a great conversationalist is to be genuinely interested in the other person. This is a good first-order approximation. Sure, if your partner is in a chatty mood and wants to tell you about his current business venture or his latest casserole recipe, it won’t hurt to indulge him. But if everyone tries to follow this rule and listens attentively, eventually someone will have to say something. This post isn’t about conversation as a whole. I’m not going to delve into the details of calibrating body language or of judging when to change topics. Instead, this is about what to say and the content of enjoyable conversations.

Most importantly, if you want to tell exciting stories, lead an exciting life. Add variety to your routine: talk to homeless people and sign up for pole dancing lessons. Do things for the sake of the story, and then tell the more outrageous of your stories. Let everyone know about that time you woke up hungover to a call from Larry Summers responding to your interview request, which you forgot to prepare for but pulled off anyway.

Ok, that’s all well and good, but what if you want to have interesting things to say without actually having to do interesting things? It turns out that it is enough to do so vicariously. This is best done by reading the news. If you have the opportunity to flip through the Harvard Crimson (or your college’s daily publication) while munching on your steel-cut oatmeal, you’ll find that it is rife with conversation topics, topics that your peers can relate to. What do you think of the new admissions policy? How about Occupy Harvard?

More generally, you can jump start a conversation by throwing out a thought-provoking idea. Any one of Peter Singer’s ethical thought experiments is sufficient to fuel a good-natured discussion about the consistency of conventional ethical frameworks or the challenges of assigning value to things like happiness. In a nerdier crowd, riddles and brain teasers are a lively choice.

The political issues of the day are good ideas as well because people feel strongly about them. A single pass through the Economist will turn up several meals’ worth of material. Similarly, a cursory glance at the Op-Ed section of the New York Times is likely to unearth a relatively stimulating, if rather innocuous, Friedman article on the merits of globalization or the state of American education. This all sounds trivial, but I’ve sat down at countless lunches only to hear the familiar questions about whether I’m done with classes for the day or if I had a good weekend. That’s alright, but I’d much rather hear about the pizza guy who’s running for president.

Most of this is broadly applicable. You need not save the good stuff for your close friends and family. Next time you’re chatting up a group of strangers, feel free to skip over the formalities of where you’re from, what you’re majoring in, and what your name is. Don’t ask questions when you don’t care about the answers. Instead, ask them if they’ve read that controversial WSJ piece about Chinese Mothers, or if they think it is appropriate for a student to flirt with a teaching assistant (people love talking about romance and related topics). The point is to provide relief from rehashing the mundane questions we hear every day. It’s easier, after all, to be “genuinely interested” when the topic of conversation is genuinely interesting.