The Social Lubricant of Self-Awareness

When I meet someone new who seems interesting, I tend to ask him or her a lot of questions. My attitude is, I already know about myself and I know nothing about this person, so why not try to learn more about the unknown?

If someone tells me she flew somewhere, I ask what airport she flew out of, about her flight route, her experience on the plane, how she bought her tickets.

If someone pulls out a credit card to pay for a meal, I ask about the card, the point system associated with it, why he chose it, how he tracks expenses, where he banks, etc.

If someone asks me what books I’m reading, I’ll answer quickly, and then ask him what books he’s reading, whether he buys or rents books, whether he takes notes or scribbles in margins, whether he reads fiction, how he decides what to read, etc.

Here’s the problem: it can make people uncomfortable. Once a friend took me aside and said, "Ben, you’re, like, interrogating the guy."

Here’s how I’m dealing with it: if I feel like the conversation is too one-way, I say something like, "I’m not trying to play 20 questions, I’m just really interested." This tells the other person that I’m aware of what’s going on and am, in fact, genuinely interested, not interviewing her for a police report. Even a simple one-liner of this sort lubricates the social interaction in a helpful way.

Aren’t you more accepting of someone who says, "Sorry I’m a backseat driver!" before or during her criticism of your driving skills? Or more accepting of a long-winded person who at least acknowledges his tendency to be verbose? This principle applies in various situations.

Bottom Line: Showing an ounce of self-awareness around potentially annoying / intimidating behavior goes a long way to making people comfortable with it.

14 comments on “The Social Lubricant of Self-Awareness
  • Oh dear. I grew up with a military father who interrogates people in lieu of actually conversing with them. It used to really irritate me growing up. Hell, it still does.

    So speaking from experience, here are my top 3 tips for preventing that under a spotlight in a dark room feeling: 1) Allow for pauses in the conversation to allow the other person to take a breath/catch their thoughts. 2) Limit the “what you did” questions e.g. “How did you get here today? Which travel agent did you use?” Too many of those questions really really make a person feel interrogated. 3) Feel free to occasionally add a comment or observation of your own. People do need to feel heard & approved in a conversation so if you occasionally intersperse a “that is so true! My neighbour says the same thing…” or similar, the person feels like you are ‘approving’ as opposed to secretly thinking “this guy is an idiot. If I make him answer enough questions, I’ll catch him out”.

  • I tend to run into the same problem.

    I learning about people, and listening to them talk. Which also makes me an avid Charlie Rose fan.

    My wife and I starting calling the trait of asking too many rapid questions “being Charlie Rose,” as in, “Honey, you pulled a bit of the old Charlie Rose back there didn’t you?”

    You gotta remember, it’s not all about you. You’re having a conversation – not conducting an interview 🙂

  • Ben your humility is acceptional.
    Often times I feal this interogative style and its inherent limitations when working with young people who I just met or haven’t seen in awhile. They clam up quick!

    You are naturally inquisitive and amazingly open. It just seems natural to want to find out as much as possible especially with your schedule, I’m sure. To expect those we are just meeting (or in my case seeing for the first time in a long while) to embrace this in you asks a lot.

    Your concept of admissions for the sake of ‘lubrication’ I plan on trying. One cautionary statement is that (I’m sure you’ve heard this) labeling is limiting.
    In conversations, especially with new acquaintances, I am listening to what a person labels themselves to learn as much about who or what they think they are as well as to what they aren’t just by their personal labels.
    The dealing with young people has taught me that time spent with a person provides for the process of learning about them. Once they are comfortable with you they most likely begin to open up to you naturally. I find that people generally love to talk only about themselves and will tell you everything you could ever want to know without asking.

  • You are on the right track, but one sure-fire way to make the other person comfortable is to ask questions that they generally want to talk about. Not many people get excited talking about their process of choosing credit cards, but they do enjoy 1) talking about themselves and 2) talking about things that they enjoy liek hobbies, music, etc. Hope this helps.

  • I think your idea works, as long as there is a tiny bit of guilt displayed along with the statement. Otherwise, it sounds like “I know, I’m annoying, deal with it.”

    People probably won’t be bothered by your questioning Ben, as long as they know you’re not a weirdo. I have a friend who is like you, who asks questions about everything, and it’s one trait I am actually very fond of in him (and not because I love being the center of attention all the time -_-).
    He is exceptionally smart, and his quality of being such an assiduous observer probably takes some credit for his intelligence.

    No doubt, questioning the details of everything increases memory greatly.

  • My first reaction to your description of your conversation habits was that they seem a little one-sided!

    You “tend to ask… a lot of questions,” yet you “answer quickly” when the tables are turned. What if the other person wants to know more about you, too? I love to learn about others, but I tend to stop asking questions when I’m given a short answer. I usually interpret that response to indicate that the person is uncomfortable with talking about him/herself.

    I usually try to equalize a conversation. If I feel like I’m asking a lot of questions, I’ll try to balance it with some information about myself.

    I suppose this could all be based on an incorrect assumption, however. I guess I assume that, since I want to know about others, they want to know about me.

  • I do this in a far more subtle manner. I’m an interesting person (in some ways amazing), but I hate talking about myself, so for me it’s always about getting the other person to talk. Most people are happy to talk to a good listener; I only meet a couple of people a year who have any interest in learning anything about me because most people lack that listening skill. I am fascinated when I find a listener on the other end of the conversation (not that I can tell if that’s what you are from this posting). As an example, one of my colleagues just found out last week (after knowing me for three years) that I have an adult daughter. In reality, people don’t care; because we all know that’s true, your technique must seem particularly intimidating.

  • Ben:

    I am surprised at this post. My mental image of you is far more sophisticated so I cannot imagine you asking this sort of questions of people you have just met 🙂

    Being interested in people does not necessarily mean having to find everything about them in one go, with a Spanish inquisition. A bit of ‘mystery’ will keep some interest alive and indeed provide opportunities for future interactions and serendipities.

    A disclaimer, oddly enough, would make me even more wary than I might otherwise be.

    Surely there are other ways to keep conversations going. Like pick a thread from something they said and run with it?

    Last Friday I met a friend after 14 years. We had a long catchup over 4 hours. He works with Oxfam in Afghanistan, making him unique amongst my b-school classmates. Oxfam? Afghanistan? There are 2 possible threads that can keep a conversation going for days! No?

    With strangers too, this is possible. We hear, we abstract and we choose a thread that they may be likely to discuss happily. After all, that is what blogreaders do with bloggers’ writing. No?

  • Wow, a lot of comments on this post! Must have struck a nerve.

    Another reason to prefer the self-aware: Only the self-aware have the tools to self-improve. It’s hard to become a better basketball player if you never keep score or watch video; the same holds true for being a better person.

  • That can be really annoying.

    At work I was visibly agitated, and then the agitator says: “I can see you are mad why don’t you say something?” And then another half hour of annoyance. But if I weren’t getting paid that person gets a black mark & a 10′ radius. The day is too short to waste on some bore hammering you about details, or otherwise wasting time.

    Acknowledging something does not make it better unless you also stop doing it at the same time—it isn’t necessary to acknowledge it. Although the person may just give up and take on an air of depression rather than anxiety.

    BUT, asking a lot of questions can actually be good and extremely attractive at the right times, like anything it is a matter of degree.

  • Your point about self awareness as a social lubricant is a good one.

    There’s a tendency to be more accepting when someone explains a behavior that others may perceive differently from their intentions.

    I have been in situations where such an explanation reframed my interactions from that point and helped me “ease up” a bit.

    Nonetheless I have also been in situations where awareness by itself is not enough. Especially, when it is not acted upon. In some ways it’s worse.

    For example – I know someone who many people find annoying because of his excessive contrarian personality.

    No matter what it is – if consensus starts to form around any topic, he immediately takes the opposite position; while acknowledging that he doesn’t really believe in the position he’s arguing for.

    Usually he starts off – “I know you might find this unecessarily contrarian but…”

    In many ways, his self awareness makes it worse because a listener gets the distinct feeling that he’s aware that he annoys people but doesn’t care to do anything about it.

    In one sentence, my point is – self awareness sometimes can have the opposite effect of being a lubricant.

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