Meet people like an improv comedian

Adam Zieliński Avatar

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I struggled with talking to new people a lot, but then I realized the counter-intuitive power of “how are you?” You see, I used to reply that I’m good and try to find something else to say. It was hard! Here’s an easier way: forget about “I’m good,” open up, and share something honest.

It was the most difficult thing to realize, partly due to my Slavic upbringing. The polish language makes us address strangers in a formal and distanced manner, making a visit to an alcohol store next door sound just like a dinner in a high-end French restaurant: Good day, which wine mister recommends? Asking a stranger “how are you?” is out of the question. Even the word you sounds suspicious, like something a street salesman would say after reading Persuasion 101.

Perhaps that’s why my third-grade English teacher told us to avoid honest answers:

Why would someone who doesn’t know ask how am I? – Little me inquired.

Oh it sounds like a question, but it really isn’t. It’s just a courtesy like our „Good day”. You just don’t answer it; people want to hear „good” and move on. – She replied.

Well, that was the least helpful lesson I got. It stuck with me so much that I’m good was the only answer I gave for the next twenty years. I accepted how are you as a slightly annoying formula that must be recited before the real conversation may start.

However, I have occasionally met people who didn’t just mechanically reply “I’m good”. Instead, they’d say things like I’m a bit stressed today because my presentation didn’t go well or I’m excited about the Canadian Rockies trip this weekend. I loved everything about that! It made me feel trusted, welcome, and built an instant connection. Suddenly I wasn’t worried about what to say next but eager to find out more about them and open up as well.

It took me some years to figure out why that was so powerful. Building a meaningful connection requires taking a leap of faith, and how are you is the first invitation to jump. Only I was too scared. What if they don’t like me? What if they judge? I chose the easy option and threw the hot potato back where it came from: I’m good, you? When someone shared, they essentially jumped first to show me it was safe.

There is something else, too. Saying “I’m good” when you really aren’t is just lying. Sure, it’s a small and socially acceptable lie, but it’s still a lie.

Once it all clicked, I wanted to learn this power, too. The next time a friend asked me how I was, I didn’t immediately reply. I took a second to actually think about it, and… it was the weirdest thing ever, I didn’t actually know! Was I tense or relaxed? Hopeful or sad? I couldn’t name my feelings, perhaps because I never spent much time thinking about them. I said: It’s confusing; I’m not actually sure; is that weird? He reassured me that it wasn’t, and we had a great chat about emotions, mindfulness, and human nature. 

The more leaps of faith I took, the stronger my emotional muscles became. It still takes effort, but it is so worth it. It brought me closer to my friends, helped me to know myself better, and proved to be indispensable in my writing. In fact, there weren’t any downsides at all.

It was so encouraging I even started doing it with complete strangers. I’d share that I didn’t sleep well, and I’m tired, or how excited I am about an upcoming laser tag game, or that I took too many classes and felt overwhelmed. One time I even connected with someone over being nervous about meeting new people.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not encouraging you to recite your life story to the poor fellow at the gas station who just wanted to know cash or credit? All I’m saying is that when it comes to meeting new people at parties, zoom, and about anywhere else, there’s an easy way, there’s a hard way, and we are the ones to choose. It’s like building an improv comedy scene: starting with a good prompt makes it easy and fun for everyone involved, but nothing is worse than offering no prompt at all.

Special thanks to Nick Booth, Karena de Souza, Alicia Berberich, my wife Anna for their suggestions and feedback on this post.

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