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What Do You Say After You Say Hello?

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It is a truth universally acknowledged, that if you ask a New York friend “How much is your rent?” you are not being rude. Lamenting the extortionate cost of housing is how New Yorkers form bonds of sympathy.

But how do you like “Where do you go to church?” or  “What high school did you go to?” or, as in China, “What is your weight?” as a conversation-starter? Or “Who’s your mama?” Or even “What are you?”

Getting-to-know-you questions that are gauche in one part of the country are just fine in another, linguist Deborah Fallows reports in several posts in The Atlantic. Most fledgling questions are designed to let the stranger get a handle on where you live; that gives him or her a mental map of the culture and lifestyle of your suburb or neighborhood. But, after the Great Recession of 2008, “What do you do?” is not so popular anymore, and in small towns it never was.

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There are, of course, so many other opening questions that can help people become acquainted. Suddenly the weather is no longer a dull topic! Actually, we all want to know how another is faring in the midst of this several-year climate change. Those of us faced with prolonged droughts, lack of water, punishing heat waves for months, and, for WVFC, the ever-interesting Polar Vortex will be happy to be asked at a gathering how we’re dealing with it all. The responses will often lead to real conversation and information about environmental concerns, occupation, real estate, family connections in other parts of the country, and, even, the political affiliation held by your new acquaintance: “Just goes to show that we’re not having any global warmin’ . . . those lefties got it wrong again.”

And why not get around to asking something that can spark a real conversation—the last two books read, the last two films seen, last concert, the last seminar, gallery opening, or play attended? 

Great conversations do just happen, if at least one of the two is genuinely interested in people.  We don’t have to be Bill Moyers or Bill Clinton to help people tell us something new.

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