Big ideas in small talk

A provocative bit of video considers the geographic variations in the questions people ask to take the measure of a stranger.

Mike Blake/Reuters
Jaysea DeVoe (r.) chats with her friend Miely (l.) at a coffee shop in Encinitas, California.

When you open a conversation with a stranger, what first question will elicit the information you need to take the measure of the other?

That's the question posed by an intriguing video clip titled "The Geography of Small Talk," from The Atlantic, by Katherine Wells and Deborah Fallows.

It's a compilation of audio interviews from around the United States, against a video montage of archival home movies.

The idea was to get at regional variations in these conversation openers. I'm tempted to call them "opening gambits," but some usage experts get huffy when gambit is repurposed from its original sense – "a chess opening in which a player risks one or more pawns or a minor piece to gain an advantage in position," as Merriam-Webster has it. But a non-chess definition is useful here: "something done or said in order to gain an advantage or to produce a desired result."

To generalize broadly from the video, Southerners seem to ask more about family connections than Northerners, but everyone seems to want a way to "place" a stranger in some kind of context – ethnic, religious or cultural, or socioeconomic.

Asking "Where did you go to high school?" seems to be one way to do this. It's apparently quite a widespread question – from Baltimore to Oahu. This may be, Ms. Fallows notes, another way of saying that people never get over high school.

And it works only once the geography in question has been narrowed down to a specific city or town. But I've heard diaspora Detroiters, for instance, comparing the nuances of Cass Tech and Pershing High. And Fallows reports on Charlotteans (the accent is on the penultimate syllable) who parse old money, new money, and no money on the basis of high school.

In my early teens, I moved with my family from California to South Carolina, and we were surprised how often we encountered, "And where do you go to church?" as a general conversation opener. That's an experience the Atlantic video validates with a couple of clips, one from Greenville, S.C., and one from Waco, Texas.

But "locator" questions can sound retro to the point of politically incorrectness: Inquiries about "which parish" someone hails from seek to place someone on one side or another of a presumed Catholic/Protestant divide and then assign an ethnicity – Italian, Irish, Polish. One man interviewed acknowledges there's something "tribal" about it all.

Another common opener for job-obsessed Americans, of course, is "What do you do?"

In the Atlantic clip, someone from Washington, D.C., notes that asking, "What do you do?" in the nation's capital is a way at getting at political power: "Are you someone who can do something for me?"

But at the end of the video, there comes an exchange between two men talking about how not everyone wants to be identified in terms of family, or "where they're from." People may have left those places for good reason, is the subtext.

A better opening, one of the men suggests, is simply "What's your story?"

He's right. That opening gives the other person an opportunity to talk about whatever is important, and lets him frame himself rather than be framed.

In my own interactions with others lately, I've been giving thought to the question, "What does the conversation between us need to be?"

So what's your story?

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