The “Do You Blog?” Litmus Test

I’m trying to hone my ability at sizing someone up. My first impressions have been wrong often enough that I’ve been thinking…What questions can I ask and behaviors can I look for in the first 10 minutes of meeting someone to help me develop a baseline assessment of the person?

When I was in high school, I used to ask my friends what their parents did for a living. I was curious, sure, but it was also a litmus test: if somebody didn’t know what their daddy or mommy did for work, it signaled lack of caring about a basic force in their life. How else was food arriving on the table?!

Interestingly, whether someone blogs is also a good litmus test for me. When someone maintains a blog, it usually means their mind is cranking so quickly that they need one more outlet through which to channel that energy and express their thoughts. It usually means they’re engaged with the world and what’s happening. It usually means they like to write and believe in the idea-generation that comes from writing well. Yes, it probably means they’re a little self-involved and self-important, but I prefer that to someone who lacks self-confidence. In other words, I like people who have a "posture" in the world.

Asking someone about their politics is another litmus test. I don’t really care either way what someone’s views are (I’ll most likely respect them), but how they arrived at those views is important to me. Perhaps it will give insight into how they form beliefs in other parts of their life.

What other litmus tests do you use?  Are there subtle questions you ask someone new that helps you understand them? I realize that the best way to improve your intuition is to accumulate lots of experiences (the more people one meets, the better one gets at discerning quality), but are there "micro-hacks" one can use to facilitate all this?

32 Responses to The “Do You Blog?” Litmus Test

  1. Tim Taylor says:

    I usually ask them questions in the rhythm of the conversation and if I find them interesting I will ask them if they blog.

    I’m amazed at how many people won’t blog because they don’t believe they have something important to say.

    I think the question, as a litmus test, is limiting right now.

    I’ve found a good litmus test question is: “What do you think?”

  2. gregory william says:

    This is a good topic. If there were a book on it, I’d probably buy it.

    I personally try and peer into the persons awareness of world events, politics or general trends to get an idea of whether this is a person who is switched on.

    Another point. I think you may find when asking people what their parents do(I realise it may not be something your may do now). You might be hitting some unexpected blocks. Not everyone’s parents are an investment banker or a high power lawyer. Some people can be ashamed of what their parents do, or being associated with that. Particularly if they have very high aspirations. Some people may also be offended that you seem to be judging them based on what their parents do.

  3. Jesse says:

    An inevitable topic for me is what makes someone passionate. While seemingly shallow, you’d be surprised by how many people I’ve ran into that simply cannot answer this question. “I don’t know” comes up so often that I simply can’t understand it. The lack of passion genuinely makes for a boring person, in my own personal experience.

  4. Anonymous says:

    This may be a somewhat shallow answer, but I judge people pretty quickly based on how they respond to what *I* do. Any hint of “I could never be self-employed!” or “Wow, that’s the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard!” quickly leads me be to believe that the other person has little to offer me if they think so little of themselves.

    I echo the earlier commenter that asking what someone’s parents do may not be the best opening, especially given that we’re all old enough now to be ‘doing’ ourselves. An increasing number of people aren’t raised by their parents (like me) so while I have a vague idea of what they do, I really couldn’t tell you for sure.

    I read someone recently that a good cocktail party question is, “What project are you working on right now?” I think that makes a pretty good litmus test — if someone can’t think of *anything* they’re probably not for me.

  5. Toli G. says:

    Yeah, I don’t use the parent question anymore, but I don’t think it refers to judging what their parents do for a living, but rather a basic understanding of the processes that have shaped them and of how they get their food, as Ben mentions.

    It’s something funny you see in conversations. If all they tell me is their parents are investment bankers, it doesn’t tell me much. It’s something to tell me your Dad is a chemical engineer, and another one to say “My Dad curbs the effects of acid rain.” I believe that a person who knows what their parents truly do is more important than if their parents have some cushy position or not.

    I think my litmus test is if the other person has a core idea about who he or she is, with clear boundaries and a strong sense of self shining through in their communication.

    A good microhack is to write down those 10 or 20 things that you most identify with, things that you are passionate about, things that make up who you are at the deepest level, and use those 20 things about you to fall back on in any conversation when you go out and meet new people. I have a list of the things I want to reflect to make sure the people I attract in my life are on the level and know who I am, while not closing off the people who could bring a level of freshness and randomness into my life.

    This way you can size anybody up in several areas that have to do with who you are as a person, and thus get to the place where you can offer mutual value to each other. If people focused on setting their boundaries and really thinking and honing down those 10 or 20 areas that make up who they are, then coctail conversations would be much more interesting, and people would stop “I don’t know-ing” even the most basic questions about their life.

  6. Sheraan says:

    Hi friends

    I love the Internet and enjoy thinking deeply about many things, but don’t maintain a blog because I personally think that my blog should be packaged as a “product” of some sort, and don’t feel the need to share my general thoughts with the world right now.

    Instead, I keep several group email lists and am a member of several knowledge communities, and share/discuss/interact on intelligent topics using those forums. I also know plenty of amazing people that just aren’t interested in managing their own blogs for a variety of other good reasons (such as necessary time investment). So I personally wouldn’t rate the blog-question technique highly at all.

    I think a great way to help evaluate people quickly is to ask them what they enjoy reading. Simple question; many possible answers. I think that a well read person can quickly sum up their company when analyzing their choice of reading (in magazines, Internet, fiction and non-fiction books). It’s also an open-ended, and very non-invasive question. Its even a conversation promoter.

    I also look out for a firm handshake and/or smile, and I believe that a crisp accent and clear speaking voice goes a long way to describe a person’s level of self-education. I also employ the tactic of allowing the lion’s share of a first exchange to go to the person I am meeting- that way I learn much more about them (and can better size them up as a result), and they generally feel more comfortable around me because of that fact.

    Addtionally, my “6th sense” connection senser (which subconsciously spots good and bad connection potential) rarely lets me down. Of course, it’s more difficult to spot somebody who is trying to “fake” rapport with you, but that is a different discussion.

    What do you think friends? What techniques do you like?

    Thanks

    Sheraan

    Note: I think blog-type Internet exhibitionism has its place, and while I have a blog I am meticulous in updating my Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter profiles :-)

  7. Sheraan says:

    I am also guilty of popping the parent question from time to time. But one that I prefer to ask is “What do you do?”.

    If I say that to a person who is working full-time, and I get a one word response like “Car salesman”, I’m not too impressed. A one minute crash course in what they do impresses me much more (and shows passion!)

    If I ask that to a student and hear “nothing” or “management studies”, I’m not impressed. When someone tells me “I study x *and* …”, it’s that “and” that demands my attention and often gives me a chance to make a better opinion.

    I’d love to hear your thoughts friends- this conversation topic is fantastic!!

  8. Fred Destin says:

    Ben, i am not sure i like this particular litmus test. I have a blog b/c I love to write, and share. I know many people with fantastic presence and a very rounded view of the world who would never blog b/c it just does not fit them as a modus of communication. I like the comment above about checking “world views”. Having a relative sense of wo you are, a grounded view on Iraq, the US trade deficit, genetic innovation, Ben’s blog, etc. Just take poeple laterally outside of their normal comfort zone and you will probably get a good sense of how rounded and mature they are fast. the parents’ question … pffutt :-)

  9. Ben,

    There are a few litmus tests I use.

    1) What’s it mean to be happy? Are you happy?

    2) The firm handshake. Cliche but true. If someone looks me in the eye, and shakes my hand, I know right then and there.

    3) If you had a magic button to get rid of something in the world, what would it be and why?

    4) Tell me about something amazing.

    5) What’s a question you’ve recently answered?

    6) Tell me a story. It doesn’t have to be true. It’s better if it isn’t.

  10. Well, asking if someone blogs is a great way of finding out about them- it doesn’t mean you have to dismiss everyone who doesn’t blog, as a boring fool! Any question you tend to use can be added to with other questions, if the answers come up blank.

    Interested in the parents question. It seems good for Gen Y, less so for Gen X, which seems to have experienced more stressful family relations while growing up. If your family background was troubled, it can be hard to come up with a suitable response on anything to do with your parents, even just what their jobs were, without some awkwardness for either the speaker or the listener.

  11. Myles says:

    So I guess I failed your Litmus test?

  12. Shefaly says:

    I agree with the views expressed here about ‘what your parents do’ line of enquiry. As a civilian child, from year 7, I attended schools in cantonments. Each Army/ Air Force child was aware of every other child’s dad’s status and there were many problems. Children of Commissioned Officers often ill-treated or looked down upon Non- or Junior- Commissioned Officers’ children. Another layer to our stupid caste system, I remember thinking even as a 12 year old.

    Asking someone if they blog also assumes too many things about the person. I attended a dinner party with friends each of whom has 2 or 3 kids, a full time job and some non-profit interests. None of them blogs, uses Facebook, or Twitters. It does not mean they are useless in society.

    Asking people what they do is too clichéd. Some people genuinely dislike their jobs and you are more likely to get a conversation stopper than a starter. Also frankly if someone says I am a full-time homemaker (yes, people do say that), I am often stumped what to ask next. A cake recipe? Or should I brace to hear about their lovely, special children??

    That said, I find a good litmus test in asking a person their views about a current controversial news headline. It usually tells me – if they are in tune with the world, if they have an opinion, if that opinion is well-formed, how it came to be formed, and is a door opener in general.

    I met an Iranian lady at a House of Lords reception last week. I asked her what she thought of Ahmadinejad’s treatment at Columbia Uni. She said a few things and then when I asked her to share her views on the issue on my blog, she readily agreed.

    In a social gathering, I would ask a stranger how they know the host.

    At a ‘networking’ event, I would ask what their interest in the network was and then depending on how they respond, carry on the chat.

    I decidedly do not ask what people read. I do not read (much) fiction, so I often find I open this line of conversation and then people are discussing some random chick-lit (because going by numbers, you will be amazed how many people find them stimulating) while I stand around and gape, or politely excuse myself. So much for ice-breaking… Also I have been told when I speak about the latest book I have read, I come across as a pompous ass :-/ Why? Because it usually is not some popular fiction book. Why shoot myself in the foot? :-)

    The more important question to me – HOW DO YOU EXIT QUICKLY AND GRACEFULLY IF YOU FIND YOURSELF STUCK WITH A BORE? A person who complains about his job, his company, his tiredness, how expensive London is, how insufferable some people in the gathering are… Any tips will be welcome. :-)

  13. Jadagul says:

    Sheraan (and others): I really don’t like the “what do you do?” question. I can be pretty passionate about most of what I do, and can talk about it for hours. I’ll talk about it until my audience’s ears start pulling out little razor blades and popping little cyanide pills to get away from me. But I know this, and so deliberately don’t launch into the spiel when someone asks me what I do—most people don’t want to hear the five-minute summary of my research on monoids, they want to hear that I do math, spend twenty seconds talking about how wonderful it is that I do math, and wouldn’t it be nice if more people were studying math, and then move on to safer conversational territory.

    Or at least, that’s my impression. It’s possible all those people really do want the capsule summary of my research, but I’m skeptical. And therefore I don’t give it unless it’s asked for; and therefore I’d fail the test, for the wrong reasons.

  14. Hubbard says:

    I don’t have litmus tests–people are too complicated to be reduced to a single factor–but I do like to find out about people, and one of my favorite questions (at least these days) is to ask a person what he majored in at college, and would he do it again. Many people I meet would do things differently, majoring in classics instead of business, for example. With this question, you find out what someone once did and how he’s changed (or not changed, as the case may be).

  15. Ben,

    Great post.

    Here are some of my litmus tests…

    1) When I ask a question…do they answer it and then ask me something else?…or do they answer it and then look off….This is a pretty good indication if the person is really worth your time. If they are interested in what you have to say, and want to get to know you more they will ask…and if not…you can easily say “Next.”

    2) The handshake…if I get a crappy handshake…immediately I think….Wow…this person has no backbone…

    3) Is the person looking at you when talking to them…or are they looking away and easily distracted

    4) I like talking about the books people have read…If they don’t like reading, or think it is boring…its hard to carry on good conversations with these people

  16. maria says:

    I like to ask people about their taste in music & books. Don’t really care what their preferences are, but if they have no particular taste it’s a turn-off. All top-40 music & no interest in literature is a big minus, but offsettable if they’re passionate about something else. On the other hand, I find that people who are SUPER into music tend to judge me by the music I listen to – which is a bit stressful.

    I also listen to what might be called the “hum of discontent” – when a person describes past experiences (past jobs, past boyfriends/girlfriends) is there an undercurrent of unhappiness/suppressed anger? If that’s there, I don’t want to deal with that person.

  17. TK says:

    I am not sure “Do you blog?” works very well.

    Many of the interesting people I know do not blog. They don’t for a variety of reasons: lack of technical understanding, lack of caring to be known, etc.

    As many people have said on here books are a good topic.

    Politics is a good litmus test as well.

    I also try other off the wall questions:

    1. If you were a piece of fruit, what would you be?

    2. If you were stuck on a deserted island, what one item would you have to have?

    3. Who is the one person you most like to to have dinner with (dead or alive)?

  18. Meem says:

    Asking what their parents do for a living is a terrible way to get to know someone’s personality. Or asking whether they blog. It’s not what a person says about himself, it’s what they don’t say that you should really pay attention to. Their body language. The kind of people they hang out with. How they treat other people. Their mannerism. All these could explain so much more than an answer to a litmus test could ever reveal. I think there’s no short cut to this.

  19. Sheraan says:

    Despite some of the comments made here on the complexity of people (to which I agree wholeheartedly), I still think it’s critical to be able to size people up quickly. The most successful people in the world are generally brilliant at this, and for good reason.

    Shefaly, I see your point but can’t agree. If someone tells me that they love math, and am involved in complicated experimental modelling (or something like that) and don’t want to get into the complexities of it then and there, I will still take away a lot from those 60 seconds.

    It’s not only what someone says, it’s also the way that they say it.

    Another good tip I can offer is to always make an effort to remember people’s names. Now my name is quite original so I expect people to forget it and for me to remind them of it later (just the usual protocol), but when they remember my name after only hearing it once I am truly extra impressed. The same applies if you meet someone only briefly and then find them again later on (during the evening function etc) and they still remember your name. It’s quite a winner.

  20. Sheraan says:

    Not Shefaly, Jadagul- sorry!

  21. Saul Lieberman says:

    Your litmus tests will reveal the extent to which you share common interests or characteristics. And may cause you to turn away from some of the most fascinating, accomplished, caring (pick your superlative) people you will meet.

    Your call.

  22. My name is Sukhpreet Singh – a little complicated name for most people. So one of my litmus test is: (1) whether the person i just introduced myself to, made any attempt to call me by my name within first few minutes. Since its not an English name, did he make an effort to ask me my name again or try to pronounce it. This tells me how much he value others. “Sweetest sound in any language for a person is his name”.
    (2) I also see whether the person i am talking to talks more about himself or does he make me talk. If he makes me talk that means: he is inquisitive, good listener and genuinely interested in what other person has to say.

  23. kv says:

    As someone else commented, people are way too different to be segmented and picked out based on a few simple questions, however, some questions lead people to share a lot more information about themselves. So, its not necessarily the question, but what makes the other person share more and if they try to find a common ground with me.

    I will agree though, a firm handshake, eye contact, and a general curiousity is absolutely necessary.

    I hate answering the question, “what do you do” because it tells me the other person cares more about my profession than me as a person. I love answering the question (and asking) “what do you do for fun?”

    Some of the most interesting conversations I have had were where the other person asked a lot of questions. So now, I try to do the same.

  24. Sheraan says:

    This has been a great conversation topic and I’ve really enjoyed reading such good posts. If anyone would like to chat about some of this stuff further (I know that I would), I invite you to connect with me on Facebook and/or LinkedIn at:

    link to uctac.facebook.com

    and/or

    link to linkedin.com

    Thanks.

  25. Akshay Kapur says:

    Some of the most fascinating people I’ve known and befriended have been those who have been able to take as much as they give. I’m not talking insults, but rather discourse on any given topic. If someone is shaky at the core with respect to their beliefs on religion or politics or their parents, it comes out pretty quick. And I like to know not only who is confident but also who can recover from hearing a radical idea or statement.

    My piano teacher once said that its not how perfectly you play the piece but how well you recover from your mistakes that matters.

    Lastly, 10 minutes is a very short. Similar to trying a thing twice to make sure you like it, I always like to talk to a person on another day, because we have no idea what is going on in the background on any given day. Great topic!

  26. Shefaly says:

    “Another good tip I can offer is to always make an effort to remember people’s names.”

    “Not Shefaly, Jadagul- sorry!”

    Hmm…

    Quod erat demonstrandum.

  27. Jude says:

    I know I’m late responding to this, which is good, because who will read it? When I went to college the first time, I was stuck on a floor with an ethnically mixed group of people. It was summer school, so the university had a floor of African American students, a floor of Hispanic students, and our floor. Ethnicity became the overriding concern of the summer. A beautiful girl from Guam whose dad was German-American and mom was Japanese asked me, “What’s your ethnic background.” I mentioned what I knew then–mostly English, some French-Canadian, some Dutch, and a Cherokee great-grandmother. “Oh,” this beautiful girl replied. “I wish *I* were part Indian.” I thought this was silly. The girls on that floor stood in awe of me because I have a Cherokee great-grandmother. It would be equally vacuous to dismiss someone because they had a boring ancestry or because they perhaps blog for a different reason than the ones you listed.

  28. Sheraan says:

    Yeah Shefaly, I incorrectly thought that the comment poster’s name was shown above the post instead of below it, my bad :-)

  29. DavidT says:

    In response to what Akshay Kapur said, i think that ten minutes really is enough. This is demonstrated many times in Blink: Thinking Without Thinking by Malcolm Gladwell. I know that i am much much likeley to seek repeated contact with someone who was engaging the first time i talked to him/her. And it is those people who ten to STAY more interesting. So, those that stand out at first continue to stand out later.
    -DT

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