Got social skills?
In which I blog the first half of a nice speech I gave at my Toastmasters club. And being as I’m too lazy to waste a speech, I thought I would blog it here as an essay, even if I only have enough time to give you the first half.
Have you heard? In the last days of August I’m taking a big silver bird! To the United Kingdom of Great Britain! Maybe I’ll go the exotic city of Edinburgh, and then, like so many before me, walk “the Royal Mile.”
Some self-satisfied snob said, “When I travel, I get off the beaten path, and talk with “the people.” I think, “Really? The people? If you are going to talk to strangers in Scotland, then first you have to talk to complete strangers you run across here in town—Do you do that?”
After the above introduction, I said to my peers in Toastmasters, “Ladies and gentlemen, tonight I will talk on ‘how to strike up a conversation with a stranger.’”
My peers might not have done theatre improvisation, or watched Drew Carey doing “Whose Line is It, Anyways?” but in Toastmasters they had all done an improvisation called “Table Topics.” That’s where the chairman asks you a question, and then you have to talk for “one to two minutes.” Such an impromptu speech is a totally separate skill from being able to go home and write out your speech ahead of time. To me it’s like how a hunter can be excellent at the skill of snap shooting but hopeless at distant targets, if he never practices long deliberate shots. (Soldiers train for both)
As you can imagine, when you first try Table Topics your brain and body freeze up tight. But don’t worry, in time you learn to relax and freely improvise on your feet. You get good at it. Likewise, you can get better at talking to strangers, as an improvisational skill, not quite like your skills for mingling, say, in the lobby at a toastmaster event or attending a wine and cheese thingy. There people are attending in a “meet people mood;” there you could, in theory, boost your confidence by writing your social questions ahead of time on a small file card to put in your pocket. You know the ones: Do you live around here, have plans for the weekend, see any good movies lately, and so forth. In contrast, encountering a stranger on the sidewalk along the Royal Mile is a little different, but not by much. Not like wandering around a friendly summer bar-b-q, no, but more of an improvisational thing, and happily it’s a skill you can learn. Maybe by role modeling.
As for modeling, one time at college I entered a wine and cheese with Joyce Gee, a petite pretty girl. She was worried, unsure whether she would be able talk to anyone. I said, “I have an idea! You just stay right beside me and as we mingle around, after the first words, I’ll include you in the conversation.” So I’d say hello, get us started, and then? They’d all talk solely to Joyce. Yes, she was pretty.
Another memory: One time I was sitting on a stool at the counter of the old Lido Café. Ken Fung, the manager, asked how I was. I said with some gloom that I had a weight on my shoulders as I had a project due in three days, but then I would be able to feel fine. He said, “I bet you have to do a speech for Toastmasters.” Wow! How did he know? Maybe because he had a son, Vincent, in Toastmasters. I guess the lesson, dear reader, is that strangers are more alike than they are different, they know your concerns, and they are just as eager to talk as you are. Have faith.
Have faith not only in your ability to learn to improvise, but also in your ability to have an awareness of who wants to talk. We all know which dog doesn’t want to be petted, which person doesn’t want to be hugged. Jerry Mundis in his excellent book on debt tells of the time he was walking along with his head down. I forget the actual story, so let’s pretend: His companion drew his attention to “Aren’t those the most beautiful clouds?” he looked up for a micro-second, said, “yes,” then looked down at his feet again to worry about his bills. She confronted him!
Needless to say, at that moment Mundis was not “present” or “grounded” or “centered” or— well, he was just not in the mood to talk to any stranger. I try to be aware not just of others but of myself too: If I’m feeling “dark” at a particular moment, then that’s OK, that’s normal; it’s OK to for me to ignore strangers until another day. In fact, I wrote an essay about a whole day of ignoring people, called Say Hello To Strangers, archived March 2014.
I have a pretty young acquaintance, Clarisse, who can walk the length of Calgary downtown without any young men speaking to her, without herself speaking to anyone. Just as might happen on the Royal Mile. I know her through my friend Miranda, who tells me Clarisse walks without an awareness of the impression she gives off… when she is (seemingly) walking without any awareness of her surroundings. Without any caring for her surroundings… and then, it logically follows, without caring for the people. At least she doesn’t walk too fast, not like a type A personality. But she does walk eyes front, arms slightly swinging in symmetrical time, face blank, in her own little world. A remote world.
Miranda, at least on her good days, moves through the world like a Girl Guide, alert and observant. Her eyes are light and roaming, her face is open. In Star Trek terms, she is present with her scanners scanning, sensors sensing, her radar dish whirling merrily. That’s her proven way to strike up conversations with strangers.
For my Toastmaster speech people laughed when I began twirling my hand like radar. By this halfway point, having already talked about faith, and awareness, I added a little more about awareness, and then I went on to explain willingness. My essay, as I type this, writing at the Cochrane Coffee Traders, is over a thousand words. It’s time I bid you good luck in talking to people, I’m off to meet folks in Calgary. Maybe I’ll see you on the Royal Mile.
~Do you want a Part Two?
~Soldiers not only practice deliberate shooting and snap shooting, they also do “run downs” just like they would when maneuvering in the field, where they have throw themselves down and shoot while breathless.