CPR for Conversational Dead Zones

I was at a writer’s conference this weekend with a friend who writes poetry. She told me that when people ask her what she does or what she writes, the answer of “poetry” is a conversational killer; she gets something general like, “that’s nice,” or “oh,” and nothing else. I observed it myself, and, indeed, dead in the water once she said “poetry.”

Which made me embarrassed — for myself — because I’d never asked her specific questions about her poetry. We’d talked about being writers, and I thought I was being supportive of her pursuits, but she’d mostly volunteered info. So I asked her what she’d like people to ask and then did so myself.

I’ve experienced the same thing when I tell people I’m a stay-at-home mom. I get, “how nice that you can do that,” or “good for you,” and then nothing. Heck, I don’t always know what to say to other SAHMs and I am one.

Whether one doesn’t ask a follow-up question out of fear that the answer will be somehow disagreeable, or fear that the asking will make the other person uncomfortable, or just plain shyness, letting the answer lie there, dead, sucks. It makes the askee feel like a weirdo or a bore, and the asker (at least when it’s me) feel like a conversational failure.

Several years ago, I stopped making “what do you do?” my first question. I usually go with “are you originally from here,” which goes pretty well, but at a certain point, you’ve kind of got to ask what a person does with their days. I tend to put it, “Do you do any work for pay?” because of my own experience of working hard for no money. (Similarly, I answer, “not for pay,” when people ask me whether I work.) But that second question can be a stumper.

As a service to shy or fearful conversationalists like myself, below are some follow-up questions to common conversation ending responses to, “what do you do?”

I’m a stay-at-home mom.

  • How old are your kids?
  • What are your kids into these days?
  • What’s something you love to do that you don’t have time for anymore?
  • What are you working on with your kids now?

I write poetry.

  • What kind of things do you write about?
  • How long does it typically take you to finish a poem?
  • What are you working on now?

I’m a physics professor.

  • What’s your specific area?
  • What are you working on now?

I include the above as an example of what to say when someone has a job the average person can’t hope to understand. There’s a physicist in my life and I’ve asked him the above two questions once each in the 20 or so years I’ve known him. I felt like I could understand and even explain his answer to someone else for all of five minutes, and then it was gone. But it’s good to ask, even if you know the answer will go over your head.

In fact, “what are you working on now” is a great question for pretty much any endeavor, because we’re always working on something. Mothers may be working on potty training, teaching kids to cook, or even teaching a child with a disability to swallow. Artists and academics and freelancers and master craftspeople of all stripes always have a current or recent project to talk about.

I work in a factory.

I admit that I’ve always been a little stymied by this one. But here’s what I’ve come up with:

  • What shift do you work?
  • Do you like the people you work with?

Those of you who’ve worked or currently work in factories or other manual labor jobs, what follow-up questions do you wish people would ask?

I’m a psychologist.

Another tough one, because there are very few specifics they can give, but here are a couple:

  • Is there a kind of therapy you specialize in?
  • Is there a specific group of people you specialize in / avoid working with?
  • Do people at parties try to get you to diagnose them or their family members for free?
That’s all I’ve got for now. If you have an unusual job or situation that makes people draw a blank, tell us what you wish they’d ask you. You’d be doing a service to shy and awkward persons, like myself.