Raw Thought

by Aaron Swartz

The Smalltalk Question

One of the minor puzzles of American life is what question to ask people at parties and suchly to get to know them.

“How ya doin’?” is of course mere formality, only the most troubled would answer honestly for anything but the positive.

“What do you do?” is somewhat offensive. First, it really means “what occupation do you hold?” and thus implies you do little outside your occupation. Second, it implies that one’s occupation is the most salient fact about them. Third, it rarely leads to further useful inquiry. For only a handful of occupations, you will be able to say something somewhat relevant, but even this will no doubt be slightly annoying or offensive. (“Oh yeah, I always thought about studying history.”)

“Where are you from?” is even less fruitful.

“What’s your major?” (in the case of college students) turns sour when, as is tragically all too often the case, students feel no real passion for their major.

“What book have you read recently?” will cause the majority of Americans who don’t read to flail, while at best only getting an off-the-cuff garbled summary of a random book.

“What’s something cool you’ve learned recently?” puts the person on the spot and inevitably leads to hemming and hawing and then something not all that cool.

I propose instead that one ask “What have you been thinking about lately?” First, the question is extremely open-ended. The answer could be a book, a movie, a relationship, a class, a job, a hobby, etc. Even better, it will be whichever of these is most interesting at the moment. Second, it sends the message that thinking, and thinking about thinking, is a fundamental human activity, and thus encourages it. Third, it’s easiest to answer, since by its nature its asking about what’s already on the person’s mind. Fourth, it’s likely to lead to productive dialog, as you can discuss the topic together and hopefully make progress. Fifth, the answer is quite likely to be novel. Unlike books and occupations, people’s thoughts seem to be endlessly varied. Sixth, it helps capture a person’s essence. A job can be forced by circumstance and parentage, but our thoughts are all our own. I can think of little better way to quickly gauge what a person is really like.

“What have you been working on lately?” can be seen, in this context, to be clearly inferior, although similar.

So, what have you been thinking about lately?

You should follow me on twitter here.

August 16, 2006


A friend of mine taught me that when meeting new people at school its better to ask ‘why’ questions than ‘what’ questions.

“What is your Major?” “Medical Science” “Why did you choose that program” {lengthy conversation started}

posted by Mike Morton on August 16, 2006 #

I like the question, but until it comes into common use, it will still be a bit awkward. I think because people don’t often hear such open-ended questions from strangers, they’re likely to infer a more specific question and answer that with the same problems you mentioned.

I’ve been thinking lately about how to encourage diverse self-selected communities without geographic constraints forcing us to spend time around people who annoy us (i.e. online).

posted by Scott Reynen on August 16, 2006 #

I often ask newly-met people what’s important to them. It definitely throws them off at first, but just generally taking an interest in something -they- find interesting gets it going just fine.

If what they thing is important is foreign to me, so much the better— I can learn something and treat them to a blank slate.

Simon Willison probably set a record in meeting people at SXSW a while back by asking everyone he met what they were excited about. By the time the conference was over, it seemed everybody knew him.

posted by Jeremy Dunck on August 16, 2006 #

I’ve been wondering what any of this has to do with an obscure programming language.

posted by Michael Conlen on August 16, 2006 #

From the title, I assumed this was about Smalltalk the language, which is a different type of conversation starter ;-)

I like Aaron’s question, and am often trying to figure out what type of open-ended question to ask people in these situations. Especially nerds, who are often the most interesting once they get rolling, but often slow to start talking to new people (myself included).

posted by mgc on August 16, 2006 #

“What do you do?” is somewhat offensive. First, it really means “what occupation do you hold?” and thus implies you do little outside your occupation. Second, it implies that one’s occupation is the most salient fact about them. Third, it rarely leads to further useful inquiry.

I’m not sure I agree with this - I was recently at a party where I didn’t know many of the guests, and this was used as the standard icebreaker by myself and others, and each time it led to interesting conversations. I think this is down to it being such a standard gambit that people always add something to their reply, so instead of ‘I’m a journalist’ or ‘I’m an artist’, you get ‘I’m a news journalist, I’m just back from the Lebanon’ or ‘I’m an artist, I’m hanging my new show tomorrow’.

That said, I do like the suggested question and will try it out, even if it would probably be met with a raised eyebrow.

I’ve been thinking about the (apparent) lack of contemporary equivalents to movements like Arts & Crafts, in which people worked collaboratively across different artistic disciplines.

posted by Jack on August 16, 2006 #

So I’m not the only one who thought of the Smalltalk language first.

posted by Mike Cohen on August 16, 2006 #

It took me half your post to realize that you were not going to get to Smalltalk the programming language;).

On topic, though, “What have you been thinking about lately?” will cause the majority of Americans who don’t think to flail, so it’s really not much better than the reading question.

posted by Joseph Knecht on August 16, 2006 #

I’ve always used, “So what’s your story?”

posted by PJ Doland on August 16, 2006 #

Inquiring so directly about one’s occupation seems to be largely a phenomenon of the US. Most other cultures try to gleen the information from you, or ask other questions before asking such a personal question.

I like your suggestion, but I wonder how well it would go over in most social situations. While I am all for making people think, the icebreaker shouldn’t be the time for an unexpected question. Most people would fumble with the notion, and you’d be off to an awkward start 9 times out of 10. “Uncomfortable” is not the first impression I generally try to make.

posted by greg on August 16, 2006 #

I thought the chapter entitled “Relationships” in Scott Adams’ God’s Debris: A Thought Experiment had a good explanation about small talk (two words, which distinguishes it from the programming language). God’s Debris is even available on Adams’ site for free as a pdf download.

posted by Reg Aubry on August 17, 2006 #

One commentator on the show “This American Life” asks people which super power they would chose between if given the choice of having invisibility or the ability to fly. The one rule is that you are the only person with a super power, nobody else can have one.

posted by Chris Barna on August 17, 2006 #

What’s the most amazing thing you’ve seen today?

posted by Julian Bond on August 17, 2006 #

I also prefer the variation “what have you been interested in lately?”. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But - having been given limited actor skills - it’s one of those questions I can almost always pose with an honest smile.

And talking of honest facial expressions… when fronted with the question “How ya doin’?” I usually tend to answer honestly, unless there’s a really good reason not to. This probably has something to do with my national (Finnish) heritage, and not really understanding the finesses of small talk.

Lately, during the past 10 minutes, I’ve been thinking that there are probably people who don’t consider themselves thinkers. Thus, I’ve been thinking that the question Aaron suggests would be of best use in thinkers’ parties, which he no doubt already visits frequently.

Also, for some odd reason, I’m currently interested in finding out what the other readers of this blog have lately been interested in.

posted by Tommi on August 17, 2006 #

my favorite: what did you do this weekend? its informative, revealing, and easy to answer. what have you been thinking about is too personal for me

posted by divya on August 18, 2006 #

I’m with Tommi; I answer honestly, though not immediately in great detail. At least, I don’t say “fine” if I’m not, and I will mostly say “fantastic” if I am. I figure if you’re going to ask the question….

I also find your preferred question to be a little awkward to say. If “What’s on your mind?” didn’t have such a negative connotation to me I’d probably lean towards it, instead.

I find this notion: “Fourth, it’s likely to lead to productive dialog, as you can discuss the topic together and hopefully make progress.” interesting because it seems to bespeak a singularly male perspective. Dismissing the vapidity of the “Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus” meme, I find that the ideas behind that book ring true in my relationships - men often see language/conversation as a tool for problem solving and women as a means of connection.

posted by cori on August 19, 2006 #

One of my favourites is “What have you been excited about recently?”

posted by Ping on August 21, 2006 #

I tend to stick with what got us together in the first place. Relationships are based on shared experiance and ideology so I try and home in on that. We are both at this event for a reason so I start with that: what did you you think about the presentation? or

How do you know the groom? or

Do you teach here?

Somthing like that. I guess it is like the “what do you do” question but it is relevent. It’s more like a friendly “what are you doing?” It makes it likely the responce will be somthing we are both interested in and can continue to talk about.

posted by Andy on August 21, 2006 #

My husband, Kragen, always asks “What are you interested in?” and that seems to get the conversation flowing, after a little bit of the questionee being slightly taken aback because it´s not the normal small talk question.

I also thought you were going to talk about the programming language and I don´t even program. =)

posted by Beatrice M on August 21, 2006 #

similar to beatrice’s husband, i find a good question to be ‘how do you like to spend your time?’. that leaves the other person open to talk about their work or study if that is what is most important to them, but if they prefer golf, or art, or anything else, they can talk about that instead.

posted by anna on August 22, 2006 #

But some times it is better to have leasgin questions, and then proceed to the more enlightening whys. What about questions about small details? And then go from there. Jim Collins said that you have to be interested, not interesting.

posted by Camilo on August 29, 2006 #

“Where are you from?” — I loathe that question. Am I from where I was born (and lived until I was 4)? Am I from where I grew up (a different country)? Am I from where I spent the last seven years (yet another different country)?

posted by Faried Nawaz on September 4, 2006 #

“Fourth, it’s likely to lead to productive dialog, as you can discuss the topic together and hopefully make progress.”

Productive dialog? If I’m talking to somebody in a social environment I neither need nor want productive dialog, just an interesting chat!

posted by Martin Wisse on September 7, 2006 #

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