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“The Machine Stops”: A 1909 novel by E. M. Forster that predicted our addiction with social media (like “Wall-E”, but written 100 years previously)

In my last post, I discussed how the emphasis on texting and striving to receive as many “likes!” as possible on social media can actually make people less social.

A novel was written about this inverse relationship…it takes place in a bleak future.

In this dystopian universe, most of the population lives underground. Each person inhabits his or her little cell and gets sustenance from the ubiquitous “Machine”. This is not a lonely world—oh, no, for people are glued to each other through the Machine, through which they communicate with all their “friends” and discuss ideas (most of which are not that good). This superficial world is a safe one, and most people like it that way. (They also get all their sustenance through The Machine, and eventually start to worship it as a deity.)

Does this world seem just a little bit familiar?

Travel is considered an onerous task and no one wants to do it: face-to-face communication is considered exhausting at best and rude and uncivilised at worst. In a scene from the book, the main character, Vashti, is on a plane. She stumbles, and the flight attendant touches her arm in order to steady her:

When Vashti swerved away from the sunbeams with a cry, she (the flight attendant) behaved barbarically—she put out her hand to steady her.

“How dare you!” exclaimed the passenger (Vashti). “You forget yourself!”

The woman was confused, and apologized for not having let her fall. People never touched one another. The custom had become obsolete, owing to the Machine.

What is this book—futuristic sci fi, written by a technophobe with a bad attitude who was simply sick and tired of too much texting?

No. This novella was written in 1909 by E. M. Forster (of A Room with a View and A Passage to India fame). Its title is The Machine Stops, and I’d recommend it to anyone; it’s a fabulous, easy read—and you can download it, legally, for free.

1909! This was the Edwardian era: pre-World War I, with men in stiff collars, women sporting stiff hair styles, and everyone with stiff upper lips. Queen Victoria had just died eight years previously. I’m astonished that Forster was able to predict the type of behaviour that is becoming all too prevalent today: an addiction to communicating on machines, and a resulting aversion to face-to-face communication

Now, who knows what all this online communication means for the future. Pundits have made dire predictions that have been totally erroneous; could be we’re shaking our heads over nothing. We’re facing a brave new world that, hopefully, will not become the kind of horrible, dehumanizing universe as envisioned by either Aldous Huxley of the real Brave New World fame—or that of E. M. Forster.

PS There have been a few video adaptations of this novella, but I would think a major production is in order. Here is one version:

 

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Learning to Use Free Association to Speak with Anyone (including future employers and mentors)

In two recent blogs, I discussed how using empathy can help you in most social interactions.

In the first blog (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/how-to-use-free-association-to-build-a-bridge-in-socialising-and-creating-bonds/), I wrote about the importance of finding the other person’s “why” —his or her passion—in order to forge powerful bridges with that individual.

The second blog (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/06/537/) took this “why” approach and applied it to a specific job interview.

There is one theme that binds together these two blogs: The most important step you can do in having meaningful conversations is by not focusing on yourself and immediately listing all the wonderful things you can offer. Rather, work on understanding the other individual and determining what is important to him or her, and then convince that person that you share similar passions. (If this is true; if it is not true, do you want to be working with that person?)

You do this through having real curiosity about others; through associating one idea with another; by using you own general knowledge to elicit more information.

Here are some examples.

Setting: You’re speaking with an important client over coffee, and the client mentions that he is from Holland. What can you say here? What do you know about Holland? (Hopefully, you know it’s in Europe.) Quickly pull up categories that could be used to find out more about that person.

The graphic, below, would show the type categories of knowledge I have about Holland:

Holland free assoc

 

 

 

With these associations, I would ask these type questions (look at the associations starting at “noon” and going clockwise around the circle):

  • I’ve always admired the art of Rembrandt, Vermeer (etc.) and am dying to visit the Rijksmuseum. Have you been?

  • I just read an article about global warming and I understand that Holland is below sea level. Is global warming a threat to your country? How is it handling that threat?

  • I love to garden and have seen amazing pictures of your country in the spring with all those beautiful flowers. Is it as gorgeous as I think it is? Where do you go to see all the bulbs in bloom? When is the best time?

  • Pardon my ignorance, but I know very little about the Dutch language (and you speak English so well). I’ve heard it spoken a few times and it sounds a little like German; is Dutch a Germanic language? Is it hard to learn?

You’d be surprised at how much you really DO know about a topic; you simply need to learn how to quickly retrieve that knowledge to ask questions.

Why bother with this? You really don’t care about the Netherlands; you don’t give a toss about whether the language is related to German or not. Well, here are two things to think about:

  • Everything can be interesting for its own sake; why not learn something new just for the sake of learning something new??
  • This type questioning shows people that you are interested in them and want to understand what is important to them. THIS technique should be your foundation of communication, for people crave being understood, being “listened-to.” Once you have established this foundation of empathy, you can build a relationship by telling them about you and what you can offer.

Let’s look at one more situation.  You’re in a conference and it’s break time; you’re chatting with a CEO of a tech start-up that excites you and you’d like to know more about it. You know several things about this company, and now you have the chance to make an impression. You do this best by asking targeted questions about the company, not by talking about yourself. (In this association exercise, I will demonstrate my own lack of knowledge about tech start-ups, but wanted to use a more technical situation, so bear with me:)

Start up free assoc

 

If I were in this situation, I would ask these type questions (again, start with the “noon” position and go clockwise):

  • I understand you are doing very exciting things with (mention whatever platform, software or hardware it is…) I’ve been exploring that area, too, and would enjoy hearing your experience using it.

  • I just read an article about your company trying to improve (fill in the blank) and to meet this social / technical need (whatever it might be). In my spare time, I’ve been working on similar things. Tell me more about what your company wants to achieve.

  • Do you have much competition in this area? What do you hope to accomplish in five or ten years—or is it too early to be even thinking about that?

  • I understand you have a background in (fill in the blank) and that you got your idea for this start up by (fill in the blank). That’s fascinating—I’d love to hear more about how you started your company, and what were the main obstacles you had to overcome.

If you can start using this technique of using your own varied knowledge to build bridges with others, soon they will be asking about you. And then it will be your turn to shine.

 

 

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: 

www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking,

self-presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

Email me at arashap@eloquentenglish.com

Remember: “It’s your story. Get it right.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Free Associating: Using active listening to nab the job interview

I’ll start this blog with a story that relates to the last blog I posted, in which I stated that:

  • Learning to listen and discover the other person’s “why” for doing what they do is significant because
  • With this information, you can align your “why” with their “why”. Then the real interaction and mutual benefit can take place.

https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/07/04/how-to-use-free-association-to-build-a-bridge-in-socialising-and-creating-bonds/

I did this when I was living in Singapore. I had received a call from the assistant of a very high-ranking government official: I was being considered as a public speaking coach for this gentleman; might we be able to discuss this project soon? He would like to visit me in my home.

Eeek. I also discovered that this official was involved in government security; when I told my friends who this person was, they freaked out. “You do realize you are being observed right now,” they said, “and ALL your records are being gone over with a fine-tooth comb.” They then ran away so they wouldn’t be seen in public with me.

Well. I sighed, cleaned my apartment and waited for the meeting. At exactly the appointed time, a black limo glided into view and there was a knock on my door.

A very mild-looking, trim man came in. He was modest in demeanour and soft-spoken—not a scary individual at all. He quickly glanced around the apartment and made a small nod—of approval, I thought. I invited him to sit and offered him tea, which he politely declined.

So what happened? Did he ask me piercing questions about my past, trying to sniff out any infractions I might have committed? Absolutely not. We spoke about Singapore history, the effectiveness of many of its policies, the social problems the country still faced and possible solutions. We did not discuss any business interaction, and I did not rush in to reassure him that I could be a fabulous coach. At the end of the interview he smiled, shook my hand and said, “We’ll be in touch.”

Within a few hours, I had this man as a client.

What happened?

#1 (of course), my apartment was pristinely clean—reflecting the respect due an honoured guest

#2, I demonstrated to him that, though I was an outsider living in Singapore, I was an interested outsider. I knew key things about its history, I spoke with sincere admiration about many of the island’s accomplishments and yet also demonstrated I was not blind to some of the social problems its citizens faced.

#3, I listened carefully to what he said, asked him to clarify some of the things he mentioned, and made it clear that I was honoured to learn from him.

Basically, I let this individual know that I appreciated living in Singapore and was committed to living there and understanding as much about it as I could. I cared about the country and communicated my concern and interest.

 

flowerflower

This government official and I shared this interest. That was enough for him; I got the job.

In the next blog, I’ll discuss how I used active listening to draw the person out. I’ll examine the bits of that conversation and what made me get the gig.

I’m owner of the Melbourne-based company Eloquent English, and I can help you find YOUR story: in a CV, a job interview, a website, annual report or a presentation.

www.eloquentenglish.com

“It’s your story. Get it right.”

How a Demon Can Use Open-Ended Questions to Destroy (and Create) Empathy as Well

My last blog was on learning how to become a great conversationalist through careful observation and listening, and asking targeted questions. As mentioned, when you do this, you can create a bond with the other person, and through such bonding, many wonderful things may happen. (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/i-know-the-difference-between-open-ended-and-close-ended-questions-and-i-still-cant-talk-to-strangers-whats-going-on/).

I just finished a book by Michael Faber* called Under the Skin. What a strange book: part science fiction, part horror, part black comedy. After reading it, I realized that it perfectly illustrates how to use open-ended questions to create an empathic bond with others — but in this case, the reason for developing this empathy is so, so wrong.

Potential Spoiler Alert

The main character’s name is Isserley, and when you meet her, she is driving around Scotland, trying to pick up men: she only wants well-muscled, fit specimens. As you continue to read, you realise that there is something not quite right about her: her appearance, the way she talks . . . and that she happily anaesthetises each man after she’s chatted with him. Eventually you realise that she is taking them to her company’s headquarters so her colleagues can kill them for meat. Isserley and her co-workers come from another planet, and they do not recognise us Earthlings as being truly human; they do love munching on our tender flesh, however.

I know—yukkk

Isserley understands that she must select people who do not have family or friends in the area, because their absence would be immediately noted; hence, she drives extremely carefully to avoid police detection and asks all her potential victims targeted, open-ended questions to get them to open up to her so she can ascertain whether they can safely disappear. Forever. Bums, drunkards, students, professionals; she knows how to chat them all up.

Below are two examples of her conversations with potential victims. I have sometimes changed the words to standard English versus the thick Scottish dialect Faber has his characters speak. (I stands for Isserley and V for Victim.)

#1

I: “So what brings you out on the road today?”

V: “Staying at home was driving me crazy.”

I: “In between jobs, then?”

V: “Jobs don’t exist up here. No such fuckin’ thing.”

I: “The government still expects you to look for them though, doesn’t it?”

Go, Isserley. She infers that the guy is out of work because he is staying at home all day. Aha! If this guy isn’t working, maybe he doesn’t have a lot of contacts, so he could be a possible specimen.

#2

I: “What is there for you in Thurso?

V: “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing.”

I: “And if there is nothing?”

V: “I’m going there because I have never been there.”

I: “You’re travelling through the entire country?”

V: “Yes.”

I: “Travelling alone?”

V: “Yes.”

I: “For the first time?”

V: “When I was young I have travelled a lot in Europe with my parents.”

OK, she does ask close-ended questions as well, but Isserley is weaving a web of questions around her victims, just as a spider does to a fly. Very soon, these men find themselves giving away far too much information under her seemingly harmless queries.

Hopefully, you do not want to create empathy for destructive purposes! I hope it can be argued that one can learn from terrible people (or aliens) as well as from wonderful ones . . . and fiction, in the hands of a skilful writer, can illuminate communication better than almost anything.

Next time you pick up a book, start noticing the type conversations the characters have with each other. Doubtless you can learn tons from your own books, as well. Feel free to email me with interesting titles!


*Under the Skin by Michael Faber. New York: Harcourt, 2000.

(In 2014, this book was the inspiration for a film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson.)

 

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. 

I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

I know the difference between open-ended and close-ended questions—and I still can’t talk to strangers! What’s going on?

I was leading a workshop on Having a Conversation with Australians several weeks ago when a participant stated, “Look, I understand that you’re to ask people open-ended questions in order to have a good conversation. But once I ask this type question and they give a response, I’m like, ‘Uhh . . . OK,’ and then I don’t know what to do.”

Excellent point. First, let’s backtrack a bit.

#1, what’s the issue with open-ended and close-ended questions and socialising? Open-ended questions are just that: a question that requires more than a “yes-or-no” response. Close-ended questions are answered with a single “yes”, “no” or single-word response.

Close-ended question: Did you have a good time at footy yesterday?

A: Yes

Open-ended question: Tell me a little about the footy game you went to over the weekend; I’ve never been to one and am thinking of going to a game.

A: Well, FIRST . . . (and away they go!)

I’m sure you can see how trying to generate open-ended answers will be much more fruitful—and interesting—than simply getting a lot of “Uhh . . . yes . . . no . . . yellow!” as responses. That’s like pulling teeth! Generating extended narratives and (potentially) exciting stories is what you want for the following reasons: 1) The speaker will think YOU are a fabulous conversationalist (even though YOU’RE doing all the listening) and 2) You can really get to know a person this way and create a bond with that person. Which is what you want, whether you are seeking potential mentors, friends or business connections.

Active listening is what it’s all about.

But that workshop participants had a good point. Plying the active listening trade really is easy, but you should know a few tricks in order to become a master.

Let me give you an example. This young participant and I were doing a role play about chatting with someone in a café. The conversation was to be on coffee. (And using the old “come-here-often”? ploy usually falls F.L.A.T.)

P (participant): “So, err, what kind of coffee do you prefer?

M (me): “Black, usually.”

P: “Uhh . . . OK . . .” and she looked at me helplessly and fell out of her role. “See, now I don’t know what to do!”

So, what DO you say, now that you know this person likes black coffee? Lots! Scour your brain. What do you know about black coffee and human beings? Keep being focused on that person. Look at that individual closely and try and make connections between coffee and that individual. It’s not about YOU, it’s about the PERSON YOU’RE TRYIING TO GET TO KNOW. Here are a few options. They may not be witty, but they’ll get the job done and will require a detailed response from the other individual:

  • Black! Wow. You must be a real coffee connoisseur.

     

  • I tried drinking black, but I need milk and sugar. How do you get used to drinking black coffee?

     

  • Are there certain coffee beans that you like more than others?

  • I also love black coffee. Do you think certain types of people that like their coffee black? (This one may be a bit . . . yukky, perhaps like you’re trying to flirt. And if you are—try it!)

  • You look very fit (if the person does look athletic). Do you deliberately drink black coffee as part of your diet? (This response will give the person a compliment, AND demand a more detailed answer—killing two proverbial birds with one stone! Good on ya!)

You might NOT want to puff up your own knowledge and say things such as: “Coffee originated in Ethiopia, you know. . .” and then spout a litany of facts, or say, “I read a report that stated that drinking black coffee can make your hair fall out.” Remember, it’s not about you.

Let’s say this person answered to your #2 question, on getting used to drinking black coffee:

It took me a few years, but now I can’t stand milk or sugar in my coffee; it’s too sweet and rich for me that way.

Now, THERE’S an opening. You could then say:

  • You must be a disciplined person. Are you disciplined in other areas, as well?

  • Let me guess. You don’t consume many sweets, do you?

     

  • Do you eat cheese, then? Cheese has milk in it. I couldn’t live without cheese! (OK, this response DOES have “you” in it, but you are humorously contrasting yourself with that person who you are praising as being very disciplined.)

I hope you see the pattern here. FOCUS ON the person, LISTEN to the person’s response, make connections, actively show your interest in what that person has to say and see where it takes you.

I am a communications coach in the Melbourne and Geelong area, and my company is called Eloquent English: www.eloquentenglish.com. I offer workshops in public speaking, self presentation, active listening and pronunciation, among others.

 

 

 

Humour: Careful how you use it when giving presentations in other countries

I was attending a training session in Singapore. The audience was primarily Singaporean, with some people from the U.K. and the USA. The trainer was a friendly, blustery gentleman from the USA. He genially beamed at his audience and thought he’d start off the session with a bang.

He told a joke.

Let’s just say—his session started with a whimper. The Singaporeans stared at him, stony faced. As an American, I kind of liked the quip and snickered. The Brits smiled politely.

The lesson here: BE CAREFUL WHEN USING HUMOUR. While scholars have noted that almost every culture worldwide does recognise, appreciate and produce humour, the kind of humour that different people like varies greatly from culture to culture.

What IS humour? Charles Darwin suggested that it is a form of communication that binds people (and others) together—indeed, many of the apes engage in laughter. Freud—being Freud—thought of humour as the release of sexual or aggressive tension. Contemporary scholars note that humour happens when we are given surprising information which is resolved in a bizarre manner.1 That is true. Think of a typical sit-com or movie and how people react to a situation. It’s their strange reactions that are so funny (Mr. Bean!).

Many of us will travel to different countries and work with people from different countries. Please note: what you think is funny—others might find un-funny. Here are some quick thoughts about the use of humour cross-culturally.

  1. Share common ground. It’s easy to crack a joke or tell a humorous narrative when you and your audience share the same culture or experiences. You and they will have “insider” knowledge that will allow you to tell jokes everyone will appreciate.
  2. Clear language. Make sure you do not use ambiguous language when being humorous. Keep the language simple. And if you are giving a joke in a language that is not your mother tongue—go over the material with someone who is a native speaker of that language to make sure you do not have some unintentional bits of humour.
  3. Body language. Some cultures (France and Italy) adore physical, slapstick humour. Other cultures (Malaysia) do not.2

Below is a very unscientific list of a few countries and the type humour they exhibit. (As always with this type breakdown: this list gives generalities. Different people in different countries will exhibit a wide range of humour. No generality will work for everyone.)

  1. Australia: Not only was the country “officially founded” by British convicts, it is DANGEROUS: snakes, treacherous waters, insects—if it’s hazardous, Australia has it. Ozzies have learnt to laugh at these conditions, with “no worries!” as their rallying cry. Folks from Down Under love to throw darts at people in authority. (Criticising politicians is a national sport here.) Similar to its British counterpart, Australian humour can also be dry and ironic. Australians love to joke, and don’t separate work and play—which can confuse some Asian co-workers, who often keep both realms separate. Aussies are serious about the work they do, but are also committed to having fun at the same time.3
  2. U.K.: Many people consider the Brits to have the most astonishing sense of humour in the world. Certainly, British comedies, with their blend of slapstick, irony, and verbal wizardry, are adored worldwide. People in the U.K. love to use irony—using the meaning of a word to denote its exact opposite—which can be wrongly perceived as sarcasm (see USA, below).4

  3. USA: The humour is like the Americans themselves: straightforward and un-subtle. (While many Americans love British humour, some will mistake the famous British irony for sarcasm.) Americans will often use humour to put themselves down, which can seem strange to many Asians who come from a culture that emphasises keeping one’s dignity (“saving face”). USA humour is often aggressive, and Americans love to tell sexual jokes. (However, it is not advisable to tell off-colour jokes at a business meeting!)5

  4. People’s Republic of China: Chinese jokes can be very hard for a Westerner to fathom, in large part because of its intricate written characters: they can be read left to right, right to left, or even from top to bottom. Many jokes will play with this positioning, so this specific humour will elude even the most open-minded Westerner. The Chinese may find jokes about one’s personal life as being—well—too personal. Contemporary Chinese comedians may tell sarcastic jokes about Fu’erdai,or the ‘rich second generation’: spoiled children born of newly wealthy parents.6

If and when you find yourself in a new culture and country—listen. Learn. And soon you’ll be laughing with them, and they will be laughing with—and not at—you.

 

I am available for individual coaching:

www.eloquentenglish.com

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/EloquentEnglish1955/?ref=bookmarks

 

 

 

1https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/culture-conscious/201205/whats-funny
2https://www.toastmasters.org/Magazine/Articles/Being-Funny-Across-Cultures
3http://www.meldmagazine.com.au/2011/09/aussie-humour/ & http://www.australia.gov.au/about-australia/australian-story/austn-humour
4https://www.toastmasters.org/Magazine/Articles/Being-Funny-Across-Cultures
5http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/english/doc/2004-04/06/content_321053.htm
6http://gbtimes.com/life/getting-sense-chinese-humour & http://www.expatfocus.com/c/aid=2152/articles/china/learning-to-laugh-in-china-appreciating-the-chinese-sense-of-humour/

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Be Prepared to be Amazed”: 10 Tips on Having a Great Conversation

Celeste Headlee, radio host in the USA, gave a great talk on Ted.com on how to have a better conversation:

http://www.ted.com/…/celeste_headlee_10_ways_to_have_a_bett…

If you can have an open mind and be prepared to believe that every person has a fascinating story to tell, she states, you can make almost every interaction one full of meaning and significance. She gives 10 rules to have a great conversation; here they are, paraphrased.

Think about using these tips during job interviews; during chats with your colleagues; even when you’re having fun with your friends. You never know what you’ll discover about others—and about yourself.

1) Don’t multitask. Of course you shouldn’t be texting or using your phone while having this conversation. But even more than that—BE PRESENT. BE IN THE MOMENT. Don’t be thinking about anything else.

2) Don’t pontificate—don’t talk “at” that person. If you want to just express your opinion without worrying about reciprocity—write a blog. Enter every conversation with an assumption that you want to LEARN. Really open up your mind to the other person. I come into every conversation believing that “everybody is an expert in something,” she states, “and I’ve never been disappointed.”

3) Use open-ended questions: Who, what, where, when, why, how? Ask people questions that they really have to think about. Keep the questions simple so people will give interesting, extended answers.

4) “Go with the flow.” Let your thoughts come in and then go out of your mind. Keep being present.

5) If you don’t know, SAY that you don’t know. Err on the side of caution.

6) Don’t equate your experience with theirs. For example: If a person talks about some bad situation, don’t give them YOUR bad situation. All experiences are individual. This conversation isn’t necessarily about YOU. Conversations are not meant to be your opportunity for self-promotion.

7) Do not repeat yourself; it’s condescending.

8) Ignore extraneous details—don’t worry about little details such as dates, names of others, etc. People care about YOU—the big picture you’re telling.

9) THE MOST IMPORTANT POINT—ACTIVE LISTENING. It’s the most important skill you can have. She paraphrased Buddha: If your mouth is open, you’re not listening. When you’re talking, you feel like you’re in control . . . so you continue to speak. We talk 250 words per minute, but we can listen up to 500 words per minute, so our minds are filling in those extra 275 words. It takes ENERGY to PAY ATTENTION to someone. Most of us don’t listen to the intent to UNDERSTAND. We listen with the intent to REPLY.

10) Be interested in other people. Keep your mouth shut, your mind open, and always be prepared to be amazed.

 

Feel free to email me with comments or questions: arashap@eloquentenglish.com.

My website is www.eloquentenglish.com