Monday, 27 October 2014

Writers as Human Hoovers - Andrew Crofts

“You’re like a human Hoover,” my wife complained as we drove home from the dinner party. “That poor woman…”

“What poor woman?” I truly didn’t know what she was talking about. I had been basking in the afterglow of what I thought had been a pleasant evening out.

“The one you were cross examining about her love life.”

“I wasn’t cross examining her,” I protested, “I just pressed the button and everything poured out. She was a human Nespresso machine.”

“You do it all the time. You’re like the Spanish Inquisition. Some people like to preserve a little privacy, you know.”

She was right, of course,  I do it all the time, but in my experience most people love talking about themselves, and those who don’t pretty quickly clam up or tell me to mind my own business. It was a secret I learned at the age of seventeen when I was heading for London in search of streets paved with gold with virtually no social skills at all.

How, I wondered as I watched those around me socialising with apparent ease, did people find things to talk about to strangers at parties? How did you find things to say to young women on first dates? (Bearing in mind that my early romantic education had come from the regency novels of my mother’s Georgette Heyer collection, since when I had been incarcerated in single sex boarding schools). The adult world seemed a daunting, if exciting, place and I was desperate to discover the secret of all the grown-ups who seemed so self-confident in every social situation.

In my search for a magic formula I came across “How to Win Friends and Influence People” by Dale Carnegie. The book had been written in 1936, so was already more than thirty years old and more than forty years later I can still remember the key message. Mr Carnegie explained that virtually everyone loves to talk about themselves and about their pet subjects. If you keep asking them questions they will keep answering them and the more they talk the more material you have for follow-up questions. The vast majority of people will come away from the conversation thinking you are the most charming and interesting person in the world, even if they have not asked you a single question about yourself, (and it is my experience that a shocking number of people will fall silent the moment you stop asking the questions, even at private dinner tables where you would assume they wanted to be polite).

For a self-conscious teenager setting out to enter the adult world this one piece of advice was priceless, for someone wanting to make a living as an author and ghostwriter it has proved invaluable.

Over the years it has become such an ingrained habit that there is more than a little truth in my wife’s fear that the technique can be intimidating for those who might be unused to talking about themselves. Of course it should be applied with some sensitivity, but at the same time there are so many questions which are so fascinating they are irresistible, even if they are considered impertinent: How much do you earn? Why did you divorce your husband? Are you having an affair with that man over there? Why do you suppose your children hate you? …. It’s amazing how many people reward straight questions with extremely full and revealing answers. 


madwippitt said...

Oh. So that's how you do it ... small talk has always been such a mystery to me!

Lydia Bennet said...

People will talk about themselves in surprisingly intimate detail to a total stranger - I learned the technique of listening simply by growing up in north east England, where people tell you their stories at bus stops and in queues and on trains. I find the same thing happens in London and pretty much anywhere, I only have to ask one question or even just show an interest (and I am genuinely interested, at least to start with!) and then respond to what they say and it all comes out! When I was a teacher, parents on parent's evenings would tell me hair-raising sex stuff and medical stuff without any inhibitions!

Nick Green said...

I am terrified of asking questions. To quote the John Cleese character in 'A Fish Called Wanda', I don't want to ask, for instance, 'Do you have children?' to be told, 'I did, but they all burned to death on Wednesday.' I have that very British affliction of crippling embarrassment.

I'll answer any question I'm asked - I may lie through my teeth, but sounds will come out - but I never know how to reciprocate with questions. I feel, probably wrongly, that if anyone wants to tell me something they'll just tell me. So I probably come across as rude and uninterested.

I guess that's why people talk about the weather. It's possibly the only non-controversial topic.

Catherine Czerkawska said...

People tell me things as well. I've been on train journeys and had people tell me their whole life stories. You're right - you only have to ask. Once, when I was doing an overnight B & B after a writing workshop, my landlady told me a story of something so appalling that had happened in her family (involving a quite extraordinary marital deception) that I mentally filed it away for future use, but I've never dared to use it. I do, however, get a lot of my material from sitting quietly and listening at village events, parties and so on. Mind you, I have also had the slightly disturbing experience of finding myself thinly disguised in somebody else's novel. And no, I'm not saying who wrote it or when!

JO said...

It's interesting how many of these questions are culturally sensitive. In Nepal and India nobody thinks twice of asking me how much money I earn, how much the trip costs, how I pay for this, that and the other. In England I cant imagine any stranger dropping that one on me!

Lee said...

Most people want to talk -- to be taken seriously when they do. But to think of it as research (though I suppose it is) makes me a bit uncomfortable.

And Jo is so right about cultural sensitivity. One of the earliest things I learned in Zimbabwe was the value of the silent question.