Part 4 in the series on How to be Approachable
Two contestants meet for a blind date in a restaurant. A hunk of a Norwegian man walks in and his date, already seated, is beside herself with excitement.
After a few minutes of sexually-charged small talk, the waiter swings by. Ladies first. She’ll have the lamb. “Bloody,” she adds, shooting her hunky date a gourmand’s smile, only to immediately regret the insinuation.
As the waiter jots down her order, the lady asks her date, “You never mentioned who you work for?”
“The Mercy For Animals foundation. I’ll take the tofu.”
Approaching someone blind, with little or no background information about them, poses risks. Part of this is due to the potentially explosive mismatching that can can arise. Indeed, Reality TV programs like First Dates and Married at First Sight subsist on this capacity for awkwardness.
As such, you can assume that anyone considering approaching you feels more safe or less safe, depending on how much they can can infer about you from afar. So, if you want to engineer things to be as approachable as possible, it’s worth figuring out how to transmit information to the potential approacher so that they can “try before they buy”, thereby boosting their confidence in coming over and having a non-awkward interaction.
Conversations often begin on the back of some casual eavesdropping, as our readers at the NSA can confirm.
Sometimes the eavesdropper has already planned to jump into the conversation and is already following along attentively, lying in wait for the next serviceable on-ramp. Then at an opportune moment, they strike: “I couldn’t help overhearing you also attended the healing crystal talks at The Institute For Scientific Homeopathy: Namaste“
Other times, it never occurred to the eavesdropper to approach. But. They can’t help overhearing something that elicits an impulsive, click-whirr reaction, propelling them through an emotion like curiosity (“You drop-ship too? No way!“ – aka eavesdropshippers) or even indignation.
One evening, at a small house party, I was ranting about hyper-hypochondria – the insane levels of hypochondria I witnessed on holidays in Thailand last year. I had met three people who were convinced they contracted Dengue Fever, only to realize at the doctor’s office that it was just a pimple or a sore tooth or whatever.
As I vented to my audience, I noticed an angry-looking fellow with a hairstyle that screamed: “I have no social awareness”. Less an eavesdropper, more a peevesdropper.
Eventually Daddy Long-Legs Face interrupts me. “Actually” – always a good start, I think – “they weren’t hypochondriac: 1 in 4 visitors in Krabi contract Dengue fever every year. Me and my GIRLfriend got a scare too”.
A lesser man than I, after losing face in front of recently won acquaintances, would be seething. But the calm-headed yogi that I am, I kept my mind in the moment, took a deep breath, and locked myself in the downstairs bathroom.
Mere hours of Googling later, I emerged with a report from the Thai government saying that the infection rate was closer to 40 in 100,000, slanted overwhelmingly (~98%) towards locals who don’t have the luxury of covering themselves head-to-toe in jungle-strength DEET.
Triumphant, I am asked by the host, “The FUCK?! Why are you still here? Party’s long over.”
II The spectacle
After a performance — say a talk or a reading — people gather around the recent star, becoming temporary groupies, at least for a moment.
It’s understandable. In a room full of foreign faces, the performer is a safe bet. Having already been in the audience, you know what the performer stands for. Indeed you may already feel like friends, as people so often do around writers and actors, even though the conversation has thus far been completely asymmetric.
“Thank you for your erudite speech Karen; You’ve given me much to reflect upon on the ballistics of pudding. My colleagues and I have actually carried out experiments in this space ourselves…”
I appreciate that it may seem rich for me, the author of a series on “how to introvert”, to advise “Step #1: Go on stage”. But really, all the world’s a stage; a pinch of pageantry in even the most everyday of performances attracts conversation.
Many events, corporate or community, start with a circle of introductions. The primary purpose of such ordeals is to induce soul-crushing anxiety. This much is obvious. But if you turn your head to the side and close one eye, you could be induced into viewing these introductions as supplying useful prompts for further conversation.
“Hi everybody. My name is Micheal Schumacher and I’m a …writer… I’m working on a book about my memoirs as a wastrel shoe salesman. The title – ha you’ll love this – is Loafer. It’s funny because Loafer is a kind of shoe haha I know right.”
Michael’s expectant presentation of himself was the cue for word-groupies to queue up afterward to talk about their own literary ambitions. Maybe compare (unwritten) notes on writer’s block or parade their affliction with whichever creative genius mental illness is currently #trending on Twitter.
The next girl, from Switzerland, showed an unpretentious, humorous side:
“I’m Mia. You probably think you’ve met me before, but you’re wrong. I have a generic face. If you load up a video game and create an avatar, I’m the starting point.“
That got a laugh, and, compared with Michael I sensed that I would prefer the company of this Swiss lady. Not to mention how dull the next offering was (“Talk to me afterward if you’re also passionate about ball bearings!”)
III Good vibes (FOMO personified)
Outside, near the smoking area of my coworking space where I’m writing this, I hear a Scotsman whose business-like tone and formal vocabulary appeal to my worldly sensibilities:
“One more word out of you… and… I’ll flatten you like a pancake. I swear, I swear it. I will cut you…like a fish”.
The next time I overheard Logan, he was explaining that he “sold his body for a visa… but NO take-outs. Gotta draw a line, ya know.” Logan was funny, friendly and relaxed — an all-round safe bet for slacking off. I wanted to be a part of all that.
I wasn’t alone in reaching this conclusion about Logan from afar. As I mention in the series introduction, Logan was almost always the first person an outgoing new coworking space member would talk to, even though he never took the slightest social initiative. He simply carried on his usual carry on with existing acquaintances. But when his interactions were observed, they had a magnetic effect, drawing those within hearing distance towards him, along with some iron filings and a few chewing gum wrappers.
IV The comfort of familiarity
Have you ever wondered how travelers always seem to light upon their compatriots, no matter how far from home they’ve strayed? This connection is facilitated through an ancient technology known to us today as “accents”.
I was speaking with an acquaintance at a Friday night event during my winter break. Another attendee, a stranger, heard me talking (thanks to my fat voice). She walked over and inquired, “Do I hear an Antarctic accent over there?” She then introduced herself and was curious to know how one of her countrymen ended up here. Again and again, I’ve found that the simple fact of sharing an accent – or the deeper fact of sharing a heritage – causes people who otherwise wouldn’t to approach.
V Fashion choices, peacocking, and triangulation
Walk into a fashion-conscious room wearing blue jeans when black ones are du jour, and be treated as filth. But walk in dressed in a banana suit, and be hailed a hero.
Back when I had no sense of shame, I put this theory to the test by hitting the clubs in the following ensemble:
Yes, I looked like a complete and utter tool. But, despite belonging in a toolbox, I near monopolized the venue’s attention that night. I don’t recall ever receiving so many drunken high-fives, hugs, or random comments.
I wrote in a previous article about triangulation, about how a piano placed on a pier creates a mini spectacle that draws a crowd. Well, wearing a banana suit is the human equivalent.
When I was growing up, the pick-up world had a concept called “peacocking”, defined as the “art of wearing a few garish, compelling items which draw attention. Mystery [the guy who coined the term] has been known to wear top hats, multiple wristwatches, garish earrings, and flamboyant clothing.”
I doubt these Romeos considered the seductive potential of dressing up as fruit, though, let me assure you right here and right now, the ladies loved the banana.
If banana suits don’t fit your personality, there are other, increasingly socially acceptable if less glaringly attention-grabbing, substitutes.
I noticed a man at a cocktail bar wearing a gold shirt. Everywhere he went, people complimented his clothing, clinked glasses and generally extending warmth. You might even say everything he touched turned to…
Fashion choices, obviously, say something about the wearer’s personality. Sometimes even they speak to the wearer’s values and virtues.
On the night of the Trump election, I met a graphic designer who’d made himself a t-shirt that read “Bad Hombres”, referencing one of Trump’s more thoughtful comments on immigration. The magic part was that the quote was printed in the typography and color-scheme of Stranger Things, the first season being fresh on everyone’s mind at that time. Two piping hot pop culture references served in one go — who was this guy?
But what about situations where the scope for expression through fashion is limited? I once visited the salt baths in Budapest. Since bathers spent most of their time submerged, there was essentially no clothing to distinguish them. But you couldn’t not notice the French guy wearing the party glasses. Same for the American woman with her hair dyed blue. If you were going to say hi to anyone, it’d be them.
Fun, while it certainly can be fun, is just one of many social goods. Personally – and I know this might sound old-fashioned – I prefer my gynecologist without party glasses. So there’s a time and a place.
Appearing as if you belong to the wrong scene is toxic, not least because of how it severs tribal ties. At the digital nomad conference I wrote about earlier, most attendees dressed in tepid, preppy affair. But one guy hit the conference in full rock n’ roll. Despite it being 85 degrees – in Thailand no less – and the year 2019, he wore layers of black, decorated with skulls, along with leather boots laced to the knee. He was also a good 20 years older than the average attendee. Taken together ageism and punk-ism colluded to ensure this guy alienated. He had so strong a repulsive effect that even the people he reached out to would scramble for an escape as soon as possible, lest the foggy rocker taint them. It was sad.
VI Being “good” looking
I noticed a difference in receipt of extraversion depending on whether someone looks “good” or not. I mean “good” in a literal sense, as in “my mom would like you” or “I shop at Whole Foods” as opposed “I’d murder the entire cast of Aladdin for just one night” or “DAAAAMN”.
A gentlewoman of the latter variety sometimes dropped into my coworking space. She typically wore denim shorts, cut so far up north that they disclosed the greater part of her tattooed buttocks. She arrived on a motorbike, because of course she did.
No-one dared to talk to her. Even looking in her direction felt mortifying. Which, to be fair, may well have been the effect she wanted. Some female members bitched about the inappropriateness of her clothing choices, in whispers carried out behind her (admittedly bare) back. And the guys at the space, fellows who general society would regard as geeky, commented on her being hot, but never introduced themselves. Presumably they found her intimidating.
VII Props and talking points
When I was at university there was a girl who would bring rousingly titled books to the canteen. Not quite “Mein Kampf för Kids” (see video below), but rather books that appealed to the intellectual pretentsions of a sophomore student, conversational fire-starters.
Books prompt interaction in all sorts of environments, provided of course that they aren’t digital. (I wish the Kindle optionally displayed the cover of whatever I was reading to onlookers).
Looking back on my diaries, I recorded three occasions where strangers inquired about my public reaching choices. The first time, an older man sharing a bench with me at a quick lunch spot, noticed my book on German grammar and asked for how long I’d been learning.
The second time, I was working through a stats book, and I was asked if I was in med-school, since the guy asking had done similar exercises when training to be an anesthetist. I said I wasn’t, but that he was onto something regarding the book’s narcotic properties.
The third time I was out with a copy of Atlas Shrugged, and a waitress flipped it over then cried, “What in God’s name is wrong with you?” I directed her to this website.
What about other props and talking points? My friends and I once bought a gaudy little plastic organ at a flea market and sat down afterward in a park filled with young people. Some college girls sitting to our left eyed the instrument and asked us to play them a song.
Recently, when outside a temple in Thailand, a couple from New Zealand was taking photos with a high-end aerial drone. Someone in my tour group walked over with a wry smile, “Which button to destroy village?”
Even the tiniest of personal touches facilitate extraversion: A friend was sitting next to an attractive guy on the train. The guy had a Harry Potter sticker on the back of his phone, and my friend, a massive Harry Potter fan herself, couldn’t resist saying something, lured in by the prospect of assuredly comfortable small talk in swapping fan lore.
Analogously, a MacBook may look slicker without the stickers, but in its naked state, it transmits no personality, affords no conversational hooks, and does nothing to lessen the resistance for any latent extraversion.
Last but certainly not least, dogs are the undisputed winners at the talking point game. A friend Manuel – or Man for short – likes to say his dog is “Man’s Best Friend”. (I vehemently insist on not getting the joke.)
When Man goes outside with his terrier, the dog’s frantic automotive capabilities draw the eye towards dog and owner alike. And as if that wasn’t enough, the dog draws on its own reserves of extraversion, running out to greet and play with strangers as and when it feels like it. It’s like having a canine concierge.
Continue reading the next part of this series on the magic of getting caught staring – it’s my favorite finding in this whole field study.