Asides,  Books,  Film

7 conversation starters

In a post about how twitter had changed my ALT-C experience I commented that we needed to find new social behaviours for when we meet people face to face who we know well on twitter. And Jim Groom is always saying how it's the personal element that makes blogs meaningful. So, in the spirit of those '7 things you didn't know about me' memes, although hopefully less annoying, I thought I'd give 7 conversation starters for occasions when I might meet people I know virtually, and we don't want to talk about blogging or twitter. I think everyone should have a social crib sheet, particularly with the advent of mobile devices now – if you're on your way to a meeting with someone, call up their conversation starters page and you instantly have grounds for a social connection.

  1. As a child I was a bit koumpounophobic – I had a fear of buttons. Couldn't stand them being separate, or to touch them. If someone said 'I've lost a button' then that room became a no-go zone. I was also not very keen on jewellery. Of course it doesn't bother me now, I can do up a shirt with the best of them. Interestingly, although I've never mentioned or displayed it, my daughter doesn't like buttons either and won't wear clothing that has them if she can help it. This is, to me, an example of the strange subtlety of genetics.
    So I'm happy to talk about childhood phobias, genetics, nature versus nurture, etc.
  2. I like most non-offal based foods and am constantly amazed at how fussy a lot of grown-ups are. But I have never been able to stomach baked beans and hate the insidious way they infect a whole plate of food. And celery of course, but then no-one really likes celery do they?
    We can chat about the nightmares of organising a dinner party with a range of fussy eaters, food dislikes, disgusting things you have eaten, etc.
  3. My favourite authors are Graham Greene, Martin Amis, Saul Bellow, Dickens, William Boyd, Nabokov, Conrad. The sharp ones amongst you will have spotted that this is an entirely male list. This is not the result of a deliberate policy – it's not as if I boycott women writers. I read and like a lot (Margaret Atwood, Iris Murdoch, George Eliot, Zadie Smith are all good, although Austen and the Brontes don't do much for me) but my favourites are all men. This can't just be coincidence can it? There must be something in their writing that appeals to me. So if we discount blatant sexism as the reason for my tastes (of course, you may not), it might be interesting to consider why this is so? You could maybe convince me away from my male preference in literary tastes.
  4. I grew up in the age of the home video-player, and this was probably the most significant technology in my formative years (far more than early computers). As a teenager there was a group of us who used to occasionally bunk off school and go to someone's house to watch a range of video nasties: Driller Killer, I Spit on your Grave, Rollerball (game scenes only), The Thing, Quadrophenia (we were mods), Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, My Bloody Valentine. These were the staple diet, and yet I didn't grow up a disturbed individual and later went onto be a fan of 'nicer' cinema (I cry at It's A Wonderful Life every year), so we can talk about the impact of violence in films, influential technologies, etc.
  5. I like to drink tea, beer and wine, not necessarily at the same time, and probably in that order of preference. I have a vague mistrust of people who drink 'flavoured tea'. I have the potential to become a beer bore. I once had an exchange with Alastair Campbell on the merits of tea over coffee (we were in agreement). I don't like spirits, except gin and tonic naturally. I thought when I reached 40 I would suddenly develop a taste for whisky. Recently someone poured me a very fine whisky but I had to concede defeat – every minuscule sip made me want to gag. I fully accept this proves I am a wimp.
  6. The first gig I went to was The Beat at the Rainbow Club in London. I
    was thirteen and it was full of burly skinheads. When The Beat came on
    it erupted and the whole floor was bouncing. I had grown up in the
    suburbs and found it both exhilarating and frightening. I spent about 4 years going to lots of gigs after that, but now I don't get much from them. Martin Amis
    once commented that at some age all men stop going to football games. I
    disagree with that, but I do feel that about gigs – I don't want to
    stand at the back and clap politely and I certainly don't want to be
    down the front anymore, so I'm not sure I see the point in them. Good
    bands I saw in that period: The Jam, New Order, Happy Mondays, Echo and
    theBunnymen, Teardrop Explodes, Billy Bragg, The Cure. Embarrassing acts: Ultravox, Toyah, King.
  7. I once won a film review competition judged by Mark Kermode. I wrote a critical piece on Rodriguez' Sin City.
    My argument was that people loved it because it was 'stylish', but for
    me it wore its style too obviously. Martin Scorsese once complained
    that the Oscar for Best wardrobe or similar always went to a costume
    drama, but as much detail went in to a film set in the 1950s. I think
    the same is true of Sin City, other films have better style, it's just
    not as blatant. I also argued that Hollywood continues to make the
    mistake that graphic novels make good films because they have similar
    elements – strong visual style, linear narrative, often based around
    good vs evil, etc. But the results are nearly always poor, maybe
    because as with traditional novels, the differences between the mediums
    are underestimated, or because graphic novels are a bit rubbish to
    start with (ducks).
    Happy to discuss Sin City, novel adaptations or to have you defend graphic novels.

If none of those work for you, pick one from: Spurs, running, Wales/Cardiff, daughters.


  • Helen Beetham

    Hi Martin, my daughter hates buttons, also bows. i love running, and can bore for england on the subject of a current knee injury. Disconcertingly for a feminist (sometime) teacher of literature, creative writing (and feminism) my favourite novelists are all men too. I have a theory about this… but i’m afraid it is a feminist one. Glad I found your blog via twitter. Good openers. Except the beans one, that’s just weird.

  • Martin Weller

    @Helen – I’d love to hear your theory. One reason is that I guess there are just more male authors to choose from over history, so it’s not a fair contest.
    @Juliette – AJ hates celery as well. I particularly hate it when they sneak it into soup and then the whole thing tastes of celery. Evil.

  • Keren

    I think have a set of conversation starters ready is a great idea. And fussy eaters is a good one!
    Celery is pretty pointless isn’t it? But I think the taste of Baked Beans contaminates the rest of the plate far worse than celery does.

  • Beccy Dresden

    At the risk of turning this into a completely celery-themed discussion, the OU’s caterers seem to be on a mission to introduce it into as many dishes as possible, including to date: Indian curries, Thai curries, spag bol, moussaka… I fully expect to find “celery croquettes” on the menu as the veggie option one day. Bleurgh.

  • Nigel Gibson

    Celery is lovely when used properly. Great with cheese, the leaves are good to use in a chicken for roasting, Celery Milanaise is charming.
    I’m afraid my list of favourite authors isn’t as high quality as yours but it’s as masculine. Burgess, Deighton, Le Carre, et al. Austin and Bronte would both be far better if the introduced the use of automatic weapons.

  • Martin Weller

    @Carl – kudos to your 1980s synth pop trainspotter knowledge
    @Keren – agree about baked beans. They only need to look at the plate and everything is contaminated. Particular problem with a daughter who eats them – means I can’t snaffle all the leftovers off her plate.
    @Beccy – who could have predicted that of all the items I listed, celery would the hot topic! All this time I’ve been blogging about that edtech nonsense and I could have been far more successful leading an anti-celery campaign.
    @Nigel – you can take your celery loving views elsewhere, this is a no-celery zone!
    I don’t dislike Austen, the subtlety in her dialogue is a masterclass in itself. But she does strike me as a very female author, and I think while men admire her, we don’t often love her as much as many women do. Could be wrong, just my feeling.

  • Jim Groom

    What a golden post, and my son, Miles, also has a fear of buttons. I actually abuse him with it, but that is another story 🙂
    And like you I the VHS was probably the most important technology of my childhood alongside the Atari 2600. And like you, though we already know this to some degree, I drank up all the 80s b-movies on VHS. Some favorites were Dawn of the Dead (naturally), Planet of the Apes, The Stepfather, Silent Night, Deadly Night, Slumber Party Massacre 1-4, but in many ways it all started with Fast Times at Ridgemont High was kind of a pivotal film in framing my high school experience through film—and John Hughes films open up a whole ‘nother part of my films addiction that constantly acted as a way to put my schooling, relationships, and general social life in a weird plastic perspective. It was a parallel education throughout my formative school years, and it was the basis of most of my friendships throughout high school.
    And, similar to you, grew up in Baldwin, Long Island, and trekked into NYC for shows at CBGBs, the Pyramid Club, The Roxy, etc. Some of the acts I saw were Minor Threat, the Cro-Mags, The Crumbsuckers, Youth of Today, Reagan Youth, Agnostic Front, The Ramones, etc. It was the early to mid-80s, and that scene defined my high school years for me alongside film.
    In short, I’m amazed at just how much we have to talk about when we finally meet. And I look forward to that day with great anticipation. But for now, the blog fills a lot of gaps, so thanks.

  • nogbad

    It won’t let me sign in using Twitter and Nigel Gibson is a different bloke completely.
    I wonder how many of the commonalities are indicative of a particular gender/generation growing up in the developed world?
    I grew up near what has become one of the largest universities campuses in the UK so we were never short of a live gig. Snafu, Bebop Deluxe, Steve Gibbons Band (still a great favourite), The Equals – we’d walk down to Owens Park and see who was playing. Manchester has always been great for bands too so I saw The Who, Queen, Alex Harvey, Ted Nugent and so on.
    Because I’m older than you I predate the VHS 🙁

  • Alan Levine

    This is fun in your usual tone, Martin, but I have a little bit of pushback on the approach.
    If I commit some of this to memory, and I meet you at a conference, isn’t it a bit cheesy that I just say out of the blue, “So how is the button thing going?” or “Shall I fetch you some flavored tea to wash down that wretched celery?”
    It would seem not like I knew you, but had studied some crib sheet, and has all the personal appeal when someone starts a conversation with the name tag glance. It just does not feel genuine.
    These things about you should be revealed and learned in the social mix online as people get to know your tweets, blog posts, comments, photos, etc- and is more sincere IMHO. I can tell in f2f conversation when someone is really interested or if they are faking it.
    I for one, am not in favor of starting conversations with crib sheets.
    I did learn from someone a few things about starting conversations, not sure I remember them exactly, but there are a few questions I pull out that generally get people started talking. Just open the door is all you need.
    (1) “Where are you from originally?” This gets to talking about being from different countries, towns, maybe family, etc. Its just a starter, the key is the follow-up, with either something you know about the place, or another question, like, “Oh is that a big town or a village?” “What’s the winter like there?” “Is that close to _________?”
    (2) “Do you have any family?” That can go a long way as people love to talk about their spouses, kids, second cousins, grand uncles, dogs, etc. Lots of talk time.
    (3) “Tell me more about _________” where the blank is their organization name tag glance) or job title– people talking about the work they do.
    A super secret bonus question (requires keen observation), “That’s a very interesting/unique _________ you are wearing, where is it from?” where the blank can be ring, earring, necklace, tie, t-shirt… You’d be amazed at how warm people feel when you notice a special item, and there is always a story to be told.
    If I, a card carrying introvert, can learn to do this, anyone can. People love talking about themselves, it can go on for days; the secret is just opening the door, and following up.
    And if you ask me any of these questions, I will wink, and say… “BRILLIANT”

  • mweller

    @Alan – you are correct in many ways, it would get very tedious if people kept asking the same things. And if you really get to know someone online over time then you’ll get a pretty good knowledge of them – I’m sure I could meet you, Scott, Jim, Brian, etc and have plenty to say because we have gotten to know each other. But I also think there are degrees of online familiarity and the sort of interactions you mention are meaningful because we need to make a social connection with people. And what I was playfully getting at with this was that the net will allow some new types of interaction.
    And to be honest it was just an excuse to get that film review win into a post.


    @Jim – thanks. Re. button phobia – my brother used to have a favourite button (I think he even named it), which he kept solely for the purpose of torturing me. Miles has my sympathy.
    John Hughes is a much underrated filmmaker – sure a lot of his stuff was formulaic, but like you I think he gave me an alternative teen universe, which was slightly saccharin, but also hopeful.
    I have never heard of Reagan Youth or Agnostic Front – great band names.

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