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Modern etiquette: When striking up conversation, it's not about you

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By Mary M Mitchell

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On the other hand, turn that camera onto the other person and watch what happens. The gift of your time and attention showered on him or her will make the other person blossom, I guarantee it.

... unless they also read this article, in which case they'll try to turn the conversation back to you... and in about 10 seconds the conversation will fizzle out and die because there's nothing to talk about.

Try a simpler trick, tell someone a few interesting things about yourself. Open up, expose yourself a little. Then make it their turn. By having opened up a little you set a good example and they'll likely follow suit.

I keep meeting people who refuse to disclose anything about themselves and instead try to find out about me. You know how this comes across?

Suspicious... in fact it makes them look downright paranoid, as if they're afraid people will find out about them.

Selfish ... yes, ironically asking people about themselves without disclosing anything about yourself makes you look like a selfish jerk who's only interested in what information THEY can get out of the conversation, rather than a fair give-and-take.

Manipulative.... you come across as trying to manipulate the other person so that you have power over them in any future dialogues because they know something about you, but you know nothing about them.

Mary M Mitchell may have written several books, but clearly doesn't know a damned thing about human relationships.

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If you notice, Frungy, Mitchell starts with this tip:

Here are some ways to get a conversation going:

Then she leads to the next:

Once you've gotten a signal that the other person wants to talk, say something like, "What do you like to do when you're not working?"

Never did she state that you keep grilling the person to whom you are speaking. Unless they are completely inept, they will likely respond appropriately so long as you are giving them a chance to contribute by inviting them into dialogue. As long as you are speaking you are in monologue.

Telling someone something about yourself and exposing yourself (figuratively speaking) do not necessarily set up a good example to follow. It may, in fact, have caused them to close down. Perhaps they are wondering why you are telling them all this stuff. Perhaps what you are telling them is boring and not responding is a way to end the monologue. Or they may have decided you are not like-minded and don't want to continue the conversation. It could be all kinds of things.

I keep meeting people who refuse to disclose anything about themselves and instead try to find out about me.

Strange that this is a pattern in your life. Is language skill an issue? (That can sometimes be part of it.) What happens when you ask others something as simple as, "How about you? What's your take on that?"

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If you want to be truly interesting to your conversational partners, be interested in them.

This is the key. When trying to start a conversation, you are neither giving a speech nor conducting an interview - just show interest in the person, and as long as they are socially adept, a normal conversation should follow.

Strange that this is a pattern in your life. Is language skill an issue?

I'm not Frungy, and I speak fluent Japanese, but this happens to me occasionally too. Although I dislike people who constantly talk about themselves, I prefer them to strangers who bombard me with questions about my personal life (my country of origin, age, job, marital status, how long I've been in Japan, favourite food, whether or not I can use chopsticks etc.) while refusing to divulge even the smallest personal detail about themselves.

Conversation is a two-way street, and despite your best efforts, sometimes others are only intent on going one-way.

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philly1Nov. 01, 2013 - 11:47PM JST Never did she state that you keep grilling the person to whom you are speaking. Unless they are completely inept, they will likely respond appropriately so long as you are giving them a chance to contribute by inviting them into dialogue. As long as you are speaking you are in monologue.

.. people who have to take a course on how to have a conversation generally are completely inept at conducting a conversation. If they weren't they wouldn't need the course.

Telling someone something about yourself and exposing yourself (figuratively speaking) do not necessarily set up a good example to follow. It may, in fact, have caused them to close down. Perhaps they are wondering why you are telling them all this stuff. Perhaps what you are telling them is boring and not responding is a way to end the monologue. Or they may have decided you are not like-minded and don't want to continue the conversation. It could be all kinds of things.

Psychology disagrees with you. Good manners disagrees with you. Exchanging information is a tradition as old as conversation itself. Try this simple trick, tell someone your name, then pause. They'll respond with their name, or they'll come off as incredibly rude. Information EXCHANGE is the key conversational skill.

Strange that this is a pattern in your life. Is language skill an issue? (That can sometimes be part of it.) What happens when you ask others something as simple as, "How about you? What's your take on that?"

I speak Japanese fluently enough to converse on all but the most exotic topics. However I find this problem happens most frequently with people from the U.S., who seem reluctant to disclose all but the most basic information about themselves. I often walk away from conversations feeling like, despite repeated asking about their families, place of birth, etc, they've resisted all attempts to engage in a fair exchange of information that would allow me to get to know them better.

It isn't all people from the U.S., but I've noticed this happens most frequently with people from the U.S.

Also philly1, your inability to understand that conversation is an exchange, plus your automatic default to attacking me personally by suggesting it is somehow my fault, plus your username all suggest that you're from the U.S.... and that I would probably encounter exactly the same problem with you.

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Modern etiquette? Now there's a quaint pairing of words.

Has Mary Mitchell just discovered Dale Carnegie?

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Also philly1, your inability to understand that conversation is an exchange, plus your automatic default to attacking me personally by suggesting it is somehow my fault, plus your username all suggest that you're from the U.S

All those things suggest to you that the person is from the US? Got a bee in your bonnet? The majority of people I've met from there have been good conversationalists. No need to stereotype.

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slumdogNov. 02, 2013 - 07:28PM JST All those things suggest to you that the person is from the US? Got a bee in your bonnet? The majority of people I've met from there have been good conversationalists. No need to stereotype.

It might just be a cultural thing.

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Possibly. Then again, it might just happen to be the people you have met. I know that in Japan it can be very easy to be ostracized for having a different opinion than the majority. So, many choose not to put their two cents in for fear of being rejected for something as simple as a difference in tastes in music. Also, in many cases incorrectly, many Japanese see non-Japanese as a temporary phenomenom and so only see them as a source of information rather than someone with whom they can have an exchange.

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slumdogNov. 02, 2013 - 08:16PM JST Possibly. Then again, it might just happen to be the people you have met.

Quite possibly. I've met about 300 or so people from the U.S. while I've been in Japan and only about 4 of them could I tell you anything about (i.e. birthplace, interests, family, etc.). On the other hand I've met about the same number of people from other countries (Jamaica, Trinidad, Canada, Ireland, England, France, South Africa, etc.) and I with about half of those people I could give you at least a couple of interesting facts about each one, whether its their favorite food, music, the family, etc.

I don't think I'm being unfair in thinking that this is a cultural thing, and it isn't just me, I've also heard others say that people from the U.S. are very sparing with information about themselves.

I know that in Japan it can be very easy to be ostracized for having a different opinion than the majority. So, many choose not to put their two cents in for fear of being rejected for something as simple as a difference in tastes in music. Also, in many cases incorrectly, many Japanese see non-Japanese as a temporary phenomenom and so only see them as a source of information rather than someone with whom they can have an exchange.

Again, if this was a Japanese person to foreigner exchange I might agree, but it isn't, this is non-Japanese to non-Japanese.

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These are some of my tips. When 1st time you meet, tell My name is .... :and How are you in English, Don;t try to know a person;s private life such as where you are from. We think "what a nosy person". I am not a quiet Japanese so I tell what I feel but other polite Japanese keep their mouth shut. It is OK to ask Do you speak English? (Not Can ,,,, ) Japanese, Koreans, Chinese look alike. So, make sure the person you want to talk is a Japanese before you say Hello - best - hajimemashite, konnichiwa, etc. Even if you are an expert in Japanese history or politics, don;t talk your knowledge to them. They think you are too conceited to talk with, especially if they are not familiar with the topics you want to discuss. Stay away from discussions at first meeting,so that the Japanese can;t figure you yet. Say Shitsurei shimashita, Sayounara (Not Sayonara), smile (that Japanese will love) and finish meeting. One nore thing which is very important. After you finish conversation to depart, never kiss on cheek or hug that are not Japanese custom. You don;t want to be mistaken as a pervert.

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Sheesh, if you have problems striking up a conversation, you might want to rethink your concepts of how things work. "There's something funny stuck on your butt" works as well as the advice listed above - it serves both to express empathy and to allow a completely free flow of further discourse.

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