First Questions

If someone new shows up in your life and they’re planning to stick around – whether it’s at work, school, a friend’s home or a gathering of any kind – what do you ask or say to get to know them?

Whenever there’s a new employee at work, I usually ask them an “icebreaker” question: How do you get to work? Mostly people love talking about their commute, whether they drive or take the bus, how long it takes, and how their morning routine has changed. They’ll usually go on to tell me what neighbourhood they live in, how long they’ve lived there, and what they think of it.

The question all their new coworkers want to know is: Do you have any pets? And can we see pictures? 🙂

It hasn’t always been this way.

For so long it was normal for men to ask each other outside the workplace, “What do you do?” Meaning – what is your job? Charitably, they could have a genuine interest. Realistically, they often wanted to one-up each other: “You work for Irving Oil? What do you do, pump gas? Haha! I have a little dental practice – just signed the lease on a bigger space!”

Fortunately, this is changing. I observe more men asking each other safe questions like, “How do you know Amanda?” (the dinner party host) or they’ll be mildly provocative and show their team colours: “How about the Leafs, eh?” But increasingly I hear “water cooler” chat centred around Netflix shows, restaurant meals, home renovations, cold symptoms, or dogs.

I lived away from my home province for 15 years. When I returned, I lived on savings for over a year. During that time, not one person asked me, “What do you do?” Because the economy here is small and a lot of people are unemployed or under-employed, that is not considered a polite question during a first meeting. I was very grateful.

Where Rom grew up in the UK, he says it was always frowned upon to ask about someone’s job. You never asked. You just waited for it to come up in conversation. And if it never did, so be it. In southeast England, I don’t know whether that was meant to protect low-wage earners from being shamed, or trust-fund babies from having to admit they didn’t need to work!

When I got my first career job in the late 80s, women often asked each other, “Do you work?” or more tactfully, “Do you work outside the home?” Full-time mothering was still more common than not; paid work was seen as optional except for pitied single parents. It must be very different now. I can imagine new moms asking each other, “When does your mat leave end?” and “What daycare did you find?” without considering a new acquaintance might stay home with their kids.

Back then, women routinely asked each other as soon as they met, “Are you married?” or “Do you have a boyfriend?” Now I notice women will talk about their own husbands or boyfriends and wait for the newcomer to join in and talk about theirs. The onus is put on the new person to introduce their partner or girlfriend into the conversation and see how everyone else responds. More and more often, it goes well, no matter what gender your partner is.

I know enough people now who are poly or in open relationships that I don’t even ask about spouses or partners or “special someones” any more. If they get to know me and trust me, their relationship(s) will eventually come into the conversation, or they will choose to stay closeted.

To avoid such delicacies, more women just ask each other, “Do you have kids?” without stopping to think what will happen when the answer is no. I have seen such discussions. The questioner will often follow it up with, “Did you want kids?” If the newcomer says, “Yes, but I can’t have any,” the questioner may go down a long path about fertility or adoption, without considering that the newcomer is tired of this exchange. If the newcomer says they never wanted children, the reply might be something like, “Oh, I can’t imagine not being a mother! I love my two so much!” and then the newcomer feels obliged to ask all about the kids – while feeling “lesser-than” for not choosing children.

I am in an interesting position with that question. I am always being asked, “Do you have kids?” and I say, “Yes, one.” The next question is always, “Boy or girl?” I will say, “My one is genderqueer.” I know I’ve met a kindred spirit when my new friend is pronoun-sensitive and immediately follows up with, “How old are they?” or (given my age), “Do they still live at home?” or even, “That must be interesting for you!” I am also perfectly fine with it when they reply, “What is that, anyway?” and they listen without judgment.

On the other hand, if I say my child is trans, a new person will often respond with horror and say, “Oh, that must be so hard for you!” – not because my child might be unhappy, but because I must be devastated that my child is “mutilating” themselves (see this post.)

On the general subject of casual questions, I asked Link once what they’d like to tell my readers. They said it’s hard being asked, as a young person, if they are working or in school, when the answer was neither (they were not well enough to work or study).

I know a good number of people who had to stop work in their 40s or 50s for health reasons, and 100% of them say they’re retired. That doesn’t mean they’re living off pensions and investments; only that they are no longer in the workforce. Sometimes they will say their spouse is still working, and not say their spouse has to be the one to work. I know it’s not something to talk about with a brand-new acquaintance, but it would be so refreshing, after a while, for someone to say, “I had to leave work early because of my anxiety (or fibromyalgia, or Crohn’s disease, or whatever), so now I can focus on taking better care of myself.”

Sometimes it’s easy to kick off conversations with new people – you’re all at a play group with your children, you’re all at a conference for your profession, or everyone in your hiking group is retired. But when you have less in common, what do you ask?

You may have guessed I ask very few intrusive questions. 80% of people are very happy to chatter about themselves, their partners, their kids, their jobs and homes and cars and pets, without my having to say a word! And then they reach out by expecting everyone else to show how their experiences are the same. “You have a boy and a girl, too! Then you know how different it is to raise boys and girls!” I make friends with the other person in the room who rolls their eyes 😊

I don’t think everyone should have to talk about the weather or the Oscars or the new sports stadium being built across town. On the contrary, I find myself being more “out” with my opinions: “The sports centre? I can’t believe we’re spending money on that when the school still has black mould!” Because I am not that desperate to be liked, and I get along much better with people who have slower, more respectful conversations, and people who will just say, “Oh, tell me about that!”

I will note it’s fine to disdain Trump in any conversation here because he is universally loathed.

What do you ask to get to know new people? What questions have you learned to avoid? Any advice?

40 comments

  1. Lisa

    Sadly, here in the US, and especially in Texas where I live, politics is not a very safe topic right now. Many people here loathe Trump, as you said, but a good amount still defend him (inexplicably, in my opinion).

    I usually try to stick to less controversial topics, depending on where I’m at, and my mood. As you said, the older I get (I’m 55 now), the less I care about being liked, though I still try to stay polite.

    Thank you for the information about transgender people. I didn’t know a lot about that topic, and was not aware of the preferred pronouns. That is really helpful. I appreciate your openness.

    Also, my husband and I don’t have children, by choice, and we are asked all the time whether we have children. A natural icebreaker for most, I guess. I’m sure most people think we’re pretty weird, but they usually don’t ask after the initial question.

    • Hi Lisa, Thanks for taking an interest in the transgender info. It’s usually not on the radar for most people. I am all about being polite! But maybe more of my conversations are short ones, if I disagree enough, and there’s no room for an exchange of views.

  2. Trans-national/trans-racial adoption provided a fertile ground for intrusive questions for a long time: How much did you pay for your children? Are they REAL sisters? What happened to their REAL parents? and on and on. Our response was to politely ask in return, “Why do you want to know?” Sometimes the asker was genuinely interested in adoption, and we were happy to talk more about it, but usually people were just being nosy. When our daughters were older, if someone asked in front of them we would turn to the girls and ask if they wanted to answer the question – their answer was always no.

    It’s our daughters who get the questions now – some of their peers seemed to think they must have some sad, sad story to tell, or that they “used” their adoption experience for sympathy, but the girls say they just brushed it off for the most part. When they were younger their friends were all fellow adoptees – they “got” each other. As they’re gotten older though they’ve been found friends outside of the adoption community. People are still curious though. You can see them forming questions at times, but most don’t ask now.

    • Hi Laura, Thanks for telling me about that. Any visual aspect of people gets automatic comments, I guess. I find open curiosity about people very strange – if I wondered about someone’s appearance, I would either think it was none of my business – or I would not want to appear ignorant by having to ask!

      • Or at least start with a positive comment versus a question. Most people will respond and open up in a conversation rather than having to satisfy a stranger’s curiosity.

  3. My spouse struggles with the “What do you do?” question. He is disabled, but not in a way that is readily apparent. He lost his job due to the progression of his disease/disability, but did not WANT to quit working and is not technically “retired.”

    We both find the ‘kids’ question distasteful. It’s easier for people to accept a “no” from him though. Perhaps that’s male privilege at work.

    I have an intense dislike for the question, “Do you have kids?” It’s a rude question to ask (Do you know my history, personal or medical?), and when my simple “no” leads to follow-up questions of “Why not?” (Excuse me… What makes you think you have any right to an opinion about what I should or should not be doing with my own reproductive system?) or to statements about my age (What does it matter that I’m ‘still young enough’?), it’s irritating. To say the least.

    And then there are the “You could always adopt!” unsolicited-advice givers and the “Oh you poor thing!” Nosy Nellie judgments, which are pretty much going to permanently bar that person’s chances of ever getting to know me.

    I feel like “Do you have kids?” is an invasive question, and for a number of years it was the Happy Housewife version of one-upmanship that you mentioned in your post.

    A n y w a y

    To answer your questions:

    With clients… I’m fairly observant, and the nature of my work requires pretty personal interaction with relative strangers, so I utilize those things to my advantage. People are usually happy to talk about where they are from (which is normally some variation on “not around here”), and there are simple clues (T-shirt logo, baseball hat slogan, mode of transportation, etc) that make for easy conversation starters. “I noticed your hat. I haven’t been to a Cubs game in years.” Maybe they’re from Chicago; I don’t assume, and I don’t ask in a pointed way. I just make a simple statement and let them vary it forward if they wish.

    With colleagues… It’s pretty much an expectation in my field that you share your origin story. We rarely have time to interact on a personal level, as our focus is on our shared responsibility of mediating/advocating/communicating, but if there is time, and the person I’m collaborating with is new to me, it’s common (and perfectly acceptable) for one of us to ask, “So, how did you get into this field?” -or- “Tell me your story.”

    • One upmanship over kids – yep, I have experienced that!

      I can’t imagine having a “story” that I could tell about myself on short notice – my life is quite resistant to having a narrative!

      • I felt that way when I first started getting asked that question, but once I chucked out the extraneous details I *thought* people were asking for (nobody really cares why you left your previous career or where you went to school; extensive background is irrelevant, really), it easily became a one-minute explanation. (And rarely do we even have that single minute!)

        The paths to get to where I’m at, career-wise, may be winding, but they are narrow. And motivation{s} are few. So it’s not difficult. “I have a family member who…” is sufficient, without going into too much detail.

      • Ah, that makes sense.

  4. Local lore has it that for many many years, no matter what level of society it was Sydneysiders (New South Wales) would ask ‘what school did you go to?’ – while Melburnians (Victoria) asked ”what footy team do you barrack for?’
    By footy (football) they meant Australian Rules not Rugby or Soccer 😊

    What did used to annoy me was meeting people in the 1970s and they would assume I was a working mum. What do you do they’d ask, what sort of work do you do?

    Well if raising children isn’t enough I’d say, I run a housekeeping service, as well as a catering company. On the side I also have a working relationship with an accounting firm and a landscape gardening company.

    And you’d never believe how many believed me 😊

  5. So, this is so very topical with my new job. I asked a man with an accent ‘where are you from’ and he said Mars, and I assumed the Mars Corporation. He’d from Northern American, but I’ve worked out he’s a little odd conversationally and will give up attempting much!

    With people at church, I often used to find it hard to start or carry a conversation as they’re retirees. I find they are well mannered and ask me questions, and more and more I have people to catch up with about specific things, church related or otherwise.

    Generally speaking, I’m a teller not an asker. And I think that makes me relatable in those awkward situations, I’ll talk about myself as a way of hooking someone into the conversation on whatever I’m babbling about. I often feel my questions can be seen as intrusive or perhaps the person will deflect them and I’ll think ‘why did I bother’!

  6. Thanks for such a thought provoking post! As I’m still fairly new in my community I have been asking things like “Have you always lived in this area?”, “How do you spend your free time right now?”, “What restaurants would you recommend?”. If people bring up Trump positively I run the opposite direction as fast as I can politely. My hubby is more tolerant of that position and plays sports with a person who is in the Trump camp.

  7. EcoCatLady

    Hahahah! “…it’s fine to disdain Trump in any conversation here because he is universally loathed.” That brought a smile to my face!

    You know, I really HATE chit chat. I’m not sure why – I mean, I know it’s all about getting to know someone, and that’s great – I just hate contrived questions. I was recently at a funeral (more a celebration of life) for an old friend, and there were people I hadn’t seen in 10-15 years. Every Single One asked me about how I’m making a living these days – oy! I never know how to answer that question. Should I go into a long dialog about the voluntary simplicity movement? Generally I just say that I’m self employed and describe my websites – even though in reality those hardly qualify.

    The kids thing is interesting too. At a high school reunion a few years ago I was chatting with an old friend who is also child free by choice. There are precious few of us in that category from my graduating class. Anyhow, someone we were chatting with asked her if she had kids, and when she said that she didn’t, they responded, “Oh, I’m so sorry!” In her typical style, she replied without missing a beat: “Don’t be. I like kids well enough, but I can only eat one or two before they really do a number on my stomach.” I thought the questioner was gonna drop her drink, she was so stunned! We had a good laugh over that one.

    Anyhow, I’m really bad at striking up conversations, and for some reason I’m not hugely comfortable talking about myself, so I tend to just go into “peer counselor mode” and keep the focus on the other person. I don’t tend to ask a lot of questions – I just try to keep the person talking about themselves, and that generally works pretty well. CatMan, on the other hand LOVES to strike up conversations with complete strangers. Last week we ran into a fellow at the rest area along the bike path, and CatMan noticed that he spoke with an accent, so he asked him where he was from. Turned out he was from Italy, and before long he was regaling us with stories of making wine and olive oil – the man was passionate about both. Apparently we Americans don’t know what we’re missing because what passes for wine and olive oil here wouldn’t be worthy of consumption for a real Italian!

    • Hi Cat, Yeah, I do the same as you. I used to hate chit-chat, but now I’m more tolerant. Some people just seem to need it or else they feel awkward. I am good with spaces in conversations, or companionable silences when I know someone. But if someone else needs to mask that by talking about the weather or the price of gas, I play along because it helps them feel more comfortable. It is also surprisingly informative. For example, people I know ask each other if they’ve had any vacations or done any travelling lately, or have any planned, followed by stories of their trip to Italy or a staycation that involves golf or sailing. I know they are just making conversation and sharing their happiness, but it can also come off very elitist!

  8. Margie in Toronto

    Good topic! Before I took early retirement conversations would initially revolve around what I did – where I worked in the city – how long was my commute – that sort of thing. Now I find that it is situational. I am joining more social groups so that can be the focus i.e. I belong to “Sisters in Crime” filled with fans and writers of crime books & mysteries so it’s easy to ask who their favourite author is or if they have published anything themselves – or what they are working on if not as yet published. It’s the same for Book Club groups, language classes, bridge clubs – that sort of thing. I have also gone back to church which has opened up some volunteer opportunities so I can ask people how long they’ve attended – what drew them to volunteering etc. I find that if you ask someone about an interest they are more likely to respond in a positive way rather than asking more personal questions.
    I do try to avoid the whole “health issues” conversation – which is getting more difficult as I get older. I know that people mean well when they see my cane but I don’t feel comfortable going into any great detail and I really don’t want to hear your whole medical history when I simply ask “How are you today?” I have been accused of being cold but I see it as being slightly more reserved than seems to be normal these days. There is just TMI out there – I am often shocked with what complete strangers will share!

    • Hi Margie, I am seriously reserved! I always assume people aren’t interested in things about me unless they ask, but if they are reserved too, they don’t ask! I think shared activities are the perfect icebreaker and can open the door to real conversation. Sometimes I wish I could bare my soul to strangers who I will never see again, because it would be therapeutic for me 🙂

  9. I’m so like you: I ask very few intrusive questions, and let people talk about themselves without having to say very much. Same too here with Trump, although I would not say he is universally, but mostly, loathed. That is perhaps his only redeeming feature: being the thing upon which new people can find common ground.:-)

  10. Fiona

    It’s been a great shift that people often now pause before asking a question that assumes too much (partnership status, employment status etc.) My pet peeve was being asked by default, ‘when are you going back to work’ (being judged if I do? Or don’t?) I can see how frustrating it would be for unemployed people to be asked, ‘what do you do?’

    In Australia, the default opening question is sport. Even people who loathe sport become animated over how expected a sporting allegiance is! I know nothing about sport but in any group situation, I always say, “Oh – did you see the {insert name of any big, recent sporting event} !” Cue immediate conversation over a controversy or an inspirational story. I admit to knowing nothing and people happily fill in all the details! Often it is a good starting point at least without accidentally intruding on personal circumstances. I don’t condone endless ‘nothing but sport’ comments, but it can be a good ice-breaker.

    • My reader Cathy says that is a Melbourne thing! Major league sports are big here too, if there are Canadian teams doing well in hockey or baseball. Canada has its own version of football and its own basketball league. Everyone knows what’s happening with the World Series, Stanley Cup finals, or the Olympics, but I wouldn’t say we’re a sports-obsessed culture. One thing I noticed when I moved to the US (in the area where I lived) is that boys are always assumed to play sports, and were razzed when they didn’t, whereas in Canada (at least where I live), it’s assumed most boys like computers, books, pets, etc. While almost all kids attempt sports, it’s perfectly OK not to continue!

  11. Great post. I think it is wonderful to try and start a conversation, so I applaud you. There a few times when it has failed, but far more often than not, people appreciate it. I often look for dot connectors or conversation pieces – it could be a sports cap, T-Shirt about a band or saying, or natty attire. It is a little daring, but to say “That color favors you” will usually get a smile or response. I love unusual names as well on tellers, cashiers, etc. I spoke with an Olivia the other day who was cutting my hair – “I bet your mother was an Olivia Newton-John fan?” I asked. And, the conversation began. Keep on talking.

    • You are braver than I am – I’m very cautious about commenting on someone’s appearance, if I don’t know them. But band T-shirts, definitely! When I talk with teens at the library, they like to be complimented on their names, especially if they have unique spellings.

  12. Interesting post. I admit when we meet people around my age I’m often curious what they do. I find the variety of careers interesting. I’ve never considered how that might be awkward for some. Where are you from or have you lived in the area long seems pretty safe. I’m with Cat though, I hate awkward chit chat. If it leads to real conversation, great. I find it especially hard at work things where often the only thing in common is where we work. Then I sometimes revert to things like asking about vacation plans.

    As someone else who is child free by choice, I hate those questions. I’m okay with people asking about kids, but once I say no, don’t ask follow ups! I often respond truthfully automatically, but wish I didn’t. On the other hand, I’d love to talk to others about being child free, but you never know if it’s by choice unless someone volunteers that and I don’t want to be the one prying. 😑

    • EcoCatLady

      These days if somebody asks me about kids, I try to respond with something that leaves no question as to where I am with the topic. Generally I’ll say “Oh no! I’m quite content to let other people do the hard work of populating the planet.” That generally leads to the questioner commenting about how much work it is to raise kids, and then we segue into talking about their kids… which is generally what they wanted anyhow!

    • Hi Candi, I like to hear how people spend their time, whether they are employed or not, but it’s uncomfortable to ask. I just hope they’ll tell me, and most do. Yes, talking about vacation plans at work is usually safe, especially if not everyone travels – you can talk about your plans to paint the house or visit your in-laws or whatever! Like you, I often find myself wishing I could have deeper conversations about shared interests or lifestyles.

  13. I usually ask a person how they know the host. I do ask them what they do to keep body and soul together. That brings laughs. If someone is embarrassed about their occupation or lack of one, I am intrigued. I met a man who was homeless at the home of a professor with lots of other professors present. His invitation to her house signaled to me he was interesting. Before long, he was no longer embarrassed. he was regaling me with the most wonderful stories. Soon others joined in to listen. He was soon about six inches taller. I am a cheerleader. If you are miserable about a situation, i am a comforter. I find conversation easy. If I inadvertantly step on toes, I am quick to try and make amends. To a woman who was offended I asked about children, I assured her she would have more brain cells left than I would. Humor works! Then, i tell the truth–I hated being pregnant because i threw up every day for nine months, multiple times each day, that pregnancy and child rearing are often over-rated. I dearly love my children but i was telling the truth.

  14. Continued…since I posted too soon. I certainly do not tell a childless woman the other truth–the sweet baby smell, the warm body and breath pressed against me, the joy of watching them reach milestone are all things I wish everyone could experience. I despise people who try to make their joy my joy. I do not want animals in my house because of allergies. But, there is always that insensitive and ignorant person who wants to convince me to just take allergy medicine or try to control my reaction to animals. NO, a dog will not be company for me. I start looking for an escape route and usually just walk away. So, I know how it feels to have an aggressive conversationalist try to change my attitudes.

    • Good example about the pets, and I’m sure the person thinks they are helping you and you’d never thought of using meds! I don’t mind if someone says “Here’s what I do” but I don’t like “Here’s what you should do.”

  15. I am a very good chit-chatter about nothing; silver linings and the things around us where we are being my go to topics. Weather, the decor, the reason we are there, that sort of thing. Never sexuality, politics, personal life, even vacations (unless I intend to try and sleep with them). Or silence, I am comfortable to not say anything. I never ask anything first, I just tell and invite comments. I really dislike being asked direct questions by unknowns. I withdraw. And if you must, do try to be a little more original than asking where my accent is from! Or the spelling of my name, in most cases it just shows off a limited cultural experience.

    • I agree about the cultural experience. Rom gets asked about his UK accent all the time; when people ask where he’s from, he now says the name of our city or neighbourhood. That is seen as a provocation, and the next question is always “Where are you really from?” or “Where did you come from originally?”

      • As a fellow immigrant, I cannot enough express how annoying those questions are. Especially if followed up with “oh, I hear it is beautiful there” or “yeah, I once slept with someone from there” (although high points for originality) and then the conversation ends and I have no other identity than my native origins. Very rarely asked in major cities though.

  16. I have spent time attending events in B’ham, AL and often conversations include accents, where a person is from. NO ONE is offended. People come to these events to mingle and learn from each other. No one was trying to hide anything about their life. If someone is evasive about accent, I assume they are not friendly and I walk away.

    At an event in B’ham, I knew the keynote speaker was from AU, a PhD, Women’s Studies, and there on a Fellowship. She asked me with the Southern accent where i was from. Then, she started berating me about how the South had been racist and cruel in our treatment of Blacks. I bristled and told her that i had read and studied how aborigines were treated in AU, and I did not think she had any place to talk. Then, i turned heel and walked away.

    • Hi, I’m glad you’ve had mostly good experiences with these kinds of questions, but your incident shows how very wrong it can go! Talking about accents and origins can lead to stereotypes and negativity. I have often thought that if I ever went to Iceland or Colombia, the local people might hate me because of the impact of Canadian mines on their countries. And we have a despicable track record in our treatment of indigenous peoples in our own country.

  17. Someone recently asked “How do you spend your days?” which I think was great because it allows the responder to answer in the best way for them and isn’t really intrusive. Instead of asking friends “How’s it going?”, I’ve started asking “What are you excited about this week?” They both result in more varied answers and further conversation.

    I don’t like questions that have more follow ups. I honestly often give small lies to strangers asking questions that result in more follow ups that I know I won’t want to answer. There are a lot of transplants where I live and I have been here for a decade now, so I usually just tell people I’m from here. That then eliminates questions like: Why did you move here? Why do you live here still instead of moving to Hometown? How does here compare to there? Sometimes instead of telling people I’m not working at the moment, if they ask what I do, I tell them where I most recently worked. Before my husband and I got married, neither of us corrected anyone who assumed we were married. I’ve started to responding with “never” when someone asks when we will have children. People are very startled by bluntness and it tends to end the subject!

    Anyway, the main reason I felt pulled to leave a comment was your section on how you wish that people would talk about how they are leaving work early to focus on taking better care of themselves. I took some time off work unexpectedly due to some serious health issues that are triggered by stress and I’ve really struggled to relate to people during this time. Everyone wants to know what you’re doing next and that’s simply…not what I want to talk about. I am, however, doing great self-care of regular exercise, reading, journaling, etc. That feels less exciting to talk about. I also hate the gendered view from the outside of it looks like I stopped working around when I got married (grad school) and haven’t gone back to work, but my husband has continued working.

    • It does sound like you’re taking good care of yourself! I really do wish more people would talk about that, and not only women. I had an odd experience once – I had moved to a new town that was a commuting hub for many nearby cities/businesses. I knew one person there, who was well-established in town, and she invited me to her book club. In my presence, the book club members discussed how newcomers to town always tried to make friends, and how tiresome it was for them (the long-time residents) to welcome the new people, who inevitably moved on. Happily, a couple of the members spoke up and said they didn’t agree, while others empathized. But it did give me some insight into how I was seen – as someone who temporarily lived there for convenience, but presumably didn’t care about the future of the town.

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