Daniel Menaker

“What Do You Do?”

Friday, November 27, 2009

When you meet someone for the first time and don’t know anything about him or her, it is rude to start with–or even make your second or third questions–“What do you do?” (Especially with unemployment rates so high!)

The emphasis on work is an American preoccupation, and to be a really sociable person, it’s a good idea to delay occupation inquiries until it’s pretty clear that both parties feel comfortable with each other.

I’m told that in some European countries “How much do you make?” is a far more polite question than “What do you do?”   It makes sense when you think about it.

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“Me First!”

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Allure magazine recently interviewed me about A Good Talk, and the sharp young woman whom I talked to, Marina Khidekel,  asked me what I thought the worst conversational sin was.  The answer–or at least my answer–came to me very quickly.

“Me First! ” I said.

This is when you say something and your companion immediately refers it to himself or herself. When, for instance, the remark: “The Good Wife is the best series ever about the law” is met with “Yeah, I applied to law school myself.”  Or the response to “I started my new job last week” is “I’ve been in the same firm for five years.”

Of course, using personal experience in answer to what someone else says is often perfectly natural.  But not when it becomes a constant reflex.  It may be that inattention–the Wandering Ear, I call it–is worse than “Me First!”  But “Me First!” itself is a kind of not-listening.

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Sunday, November 15, 2009

President Obama’s responses to questions seem to me to be getting more and more cautious, even hesitant.

A lot of “Well, you know”s followed by silences, followed by another “you know.” It appears that the complexity of the challenges he faces has slowed his conversations down–hardly surprising, but it’s a shame that some of his spontaneous and winning ease of conversation has been lost.

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