Last weekend, I went to a local liquor store to pick up a bottle of wine. I took my own sweet time reading the labels, and started giggling to myself. The man behind the counter, Bill, came over and asked if I needed any help. I smiled, and said, "Not yet, thank you." 10 minutes later, I picked out two bottles, and paid for them. After he printed my receipt, I explained what was so funny: "I think it's genius marketing that there's a wine label called '90+.' How many people choose it because they think it got a 90+ rating?!"
He chuckled, and explained to me, "Actually, the 90+ brand is overstock of wines that received a 90 or higher rating--this company bought up the overstock, re-labelled it, and sell it under the '90+' brand at a lower price. You can get a real bargain from a lot of their bottles." At that point, I felt a hint of regret. Bill offered to help earlier, and I turned down his offer. I should have seized that opportunity; too many missed opportunities come from going it alone and not seeking out help. But, when I got in the car, I thought about a good habit I started back in college that has always served me well: each day, I try to ask an honest question to someone I don't know.
When I was in college, I went to see the late great Pulitzer Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks speak, and she read some of her most famous poems. But she also read one I had never read:
I am Jane Addams.
I am saying to the giantless time --
to the young and yammering, to the old and corrected,
well, chiefly to Children Coming Home
with worried faces and questions about world-survival –
“Go ahead and live your life.
You might be surprised. The world might continue.”
It was not easy for me, in the days of the giants,
And now they call me a giant.
Because my capitals were Labour, Reform, Welfare,
Tenement Regulation, Juvenile Court Law (the first),
Factory Inspection, Workmen’s Compensation,
Woman Suffrage, Pacifism, Immigrant Justice.
Black, brown and white and red and yellow
heavied my hand and heart.
I shall tell you a thing about giants
that you do not wish to know.
Giants look in mirrors and see
almost nothing at all.
But they leave their houses nevertheless.
They lurch out of doors
to reach you, the other stretchers and strainers.
Erased under ermine or loud in tatters, oh
moneyed or mashed, you
You matter. And giants
Whatever I was tells you
the world might continue. Go on with your preparations,
moving among the quick and the dead;
nourishing here, there;
pressing a hand
among the ruins,
and among the seeds of restoration.
So speaks a giant. Jane.
After the audience dissipated, I waited, and I asked her more about her poem. She asked me if I liked the poem. I told her I enjoyed it very muchand asked her where I could find it. "Here," she said, "have my copy."
Opening my mouth and speaking my mind has served me well over the years, and it has become habitual. Habits are like muscles; they grow stronger with repeated use. I am more of an ambivert than an extrovert, but I think this habit is important for introverts, too. There is an old Chinese proverb that says, "The best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time to plant a tree is today." There is no time like the present. Introverts may draw their energy from long periods of isolation, but, when in the presence of others, the shyest introvert may discover that a simple honest question can begin wonderful relationships, or a rich educational journey, or both. I remember when I first started striking up conversations with strangers in college, I felt silly or salesy or just plain rude. But I noticed pretty quickly that people rarely gave me nasty looks, and often appeared relieved that they didn't have to start the conversation themselves!
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The day after I bought the wine, my dad--a physician who happens to be an accomplished sculptor--asked me to join him to pick up some heavy things at a foundry that was closing. The proprietor, Mitch, was a gregarious fellow who enjoyed speaking about his work and the history of his foundry. Naturally, getting him to speak about sculpture was easy, and his stories were genuinely interesting. But we dug deeper, and he talked about the work he was doing in the back of his studio, creating replicas of sculptures for owners of seminal pieces like "The Thinker" and "Eve." I asked him more about Rodin, and he told us that he had The Thinker in the back room. Yes, the owner of one of the 28 originals, the one that was in Montreal had commissioned Mitch to create a replica, and Mitch offered to show us the original. What an amazing opportunity! And you know what happened next? Mitch asked for my business card--he said that he might have some artists who could use my services. I could have listened to his stories, nodded, made small talk even, and then went on my way. But when I dug deeper and asked honest questions, I learned more and deepened a newly-formed relationship.
Here's the thing: it can't be calculated. People can smell calculation from miles away. People can sense when you're acting nice or interested just because you want their business or referrals or a climb up the social ladder. You need to genuinely want to know more about people, and not be desperate to form instant friendships, though friendships may begin from these exchanges of information and ideas. And canned conversation starters just don't work.
Just yesterday, I received a letter offering me guidance for hosting a dinner for strangers who went to the same university as I did, and I just shook my head as I read:
"If needed, icebreakers can be a good way to spark conversation. Included are sample questions:
What thought or message would you want to put in a fortune cookie?
If you had to give up a favorite food, which would be the most difficult to give up?
If you won a lottery ticket and had a million dollars, what would you do with it?
If you could transport yourself anywhere instantly, where would you go and why?
If you could be any superhero who would you be and why?
Mount Rushmore honors four U.S. presidents: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. If you could add any person to Mount Rushmore, who would you add and why?
What award would you love to win and for what achievement?
What is one item that you really should throw away, but probably never will?"
In my opinion, this is NOT how to strike up a conversation, learn more, or deepen a relationship. It's fake and it sounds fake and manipulative and just plain awkward. Taking a real interest in what makes people think and feel deeply, and asking honest questions because you just don't know what someone will say and are eager to find out--THAT is the way to add spark.
The weekend ended with a visit from A.J., the cesspool expert who informed me that the reason my basement bathroom was swimming in human waste was that our overflow tank was filled with sand and probably had collapsed. I could have left well enough alone. But I asked him how the overflow tank worked, and he drew me a diagram, and then he brought me over to the main cesspool and had me hold my nose and look down the scope. And I was glad that this profoundly disgusting experience provided me with the opportunity to have a conversation with A.J. I was glad that I asked him to better educate me. Because if there is anyone out there who can teach me a thing or two, it's someone who spends every day helping people get out of deep sh!t.