David Maister - Professional Business, Professional Life
David’s ResourcesAbout David
NEW! Browse my materials by topic of interest:StrategyManagingClient RelationsCareersGeneral

Passion, People and Principles

What Am I Supposed to Know about?

post # 318 — February 28, 2007 — a Careers, General post

Penelope Trunk, in her wonderful blog Brazen Careerist , launched a discussion about going out of your way to show interest in (or learn about) things that don’t necessarily interest you (such as popular culture or sports) “just” as a means of being able to relate and interact with those around you.

It’s a great discussion, and it got me thinking a lot about “fitting in” and how hard one should try.

Should you, as many of Penelope’s commenters suggest, learn a little about sports (even if, like me, you have zero interest) just to be able to relate to clients? Is that just being sensible (or sociable) or is it “pandering” and “phony” to pretend to interests you don’t really have?

Penelope uses the example of college teachers telling us we “should” read Homer’s Iliad because “well educated” people will have read it, and we wouldn’t want to be left out, would we?

Oh, how I remember that challenge when I first went to college! I remember being completely overwhelmed at the extent of my ignorance. Not only had I never read Homer, but I knew nothing about poetry, politics, philosophy, art, classical music, public affairs, literature, history, let alone the ‘popular’ culture topics — as I said, I knew nothing about sports.

How intimidating it all was! Where do you start? Or do you?

I recall with memories that still sting that, (especially in class-sensitive Britain), making choices among these things was a serious topic. By choosing to “get up to speed” in certain areas, you would be placing yourself in one social group or another. Was I going to make myself into an “intellectual?” Was I going to be a ‘trendy’ who knew all about Jazz and the Beat poets? Was I going to be “one of the lads / guys” who knew all about football and the latest pop releases? Was I going to like — or pretend to like — classical music?

These choices scared the heck out of me because they involved — it seemed to me then and seems to me now — an act of conscious self-creation. It was about choosing one or more social circles, and learning enough to “fit in” to that social circle.

Since I had no idea who I “really” was, nor who I wanted to be, I took the “Cliff Notes “ approach — I learned a little about a lot of things. I used to read the introductions to novels, rather than the novels themselves, so that I could understand what they were about without having to invest the time (or learn to enjoy) them. I read biographies and histories, so I could recognize the names of all the major philosophers and give you a one-liner or two about most of them. I learned to name a couple of Mozart’s operas, and so on and so on. I learned enough to pretend to fit in with a wide variety of social circles.

In one sense, I suppose that’s good. You meet a lot of different kinds of people as you go through life. But on the other hand, it felt superficial and, on many occasions, a lot like “faking it.” Who was I really? Where did I fit in really?

I have found that this challenge exists throughout life. As Penelope said, you probably kind of have to know a little about a lot of things to relate to people.

For example, here’s a quiz. If you went to a dinner party, could you keep your side of a conversation going on:

  1. Local politics?
  2. National Politics?
  3. International affairs not directly involving your own country?
  4. The latest tech gadgets
  5. The latest fiction best-sellers?
  6. The latest non-fiction best-sellers?
  7. What’s hot on television?
  8. The latest art exhibition to open in your town
  9. The popular music charts?
  10. Yo-yo Ma’s latest album?
  11. What’s good on Broadway this season?
  12. The latest movies?
  13. Local sports teams?
  14. Sports events not involving local teams?
  15. Latest theories of child-rearing?

Should you know about all of these things? Where, if anywhere, is your “obligation” to keep up?

And, to relate it back to the business and management specifics of this blog, could you, at the lunch or dinner breaks in a business meeting:

  • Talk about what’s on the cover of the latest business magazines, from Forbes to Wired?
  • Talk about the other stories there?
  • Discuss what’s been in the Wall Street Journal recently?
  • Compare and contrast the views of three or four of the recent best-selling business authors?
  • Say something sensible on the business consequences of, say, globalization, the continued war for talent, web 2.0, who the emerging business heroes are and who doesn’t deserve his or her reputation?

I don’t know about you, but I still can’t do ALL of this, and find myself doing what I did in college: furiously skimming headlines and summaries so I can pretend to participate in conversations. My intentions, I hope are good, and I don’t mean to misrepresent myself, but, just like in college days, it feels like I’m only skating the surface and “faking it” a lot of the time.

It’s an uncomfortable feeling, and I don’t know the solution, except maybe to have the courage more frequently to say “Sorry, I don’t know about that.”


Mark Gould said:

I think there is a bit of Englishness (I wouldn’t say Britishness — I am not sure that the Scots or Welsh have the same issues) in your dilemma. I feel the same sometimes too.

For me, there is a range of things I know I will have no interest in and would avoid conversations about: the novels of Dan Brown, for example, or the on-pitch crises of Chelsea, Arsenal or Man Utd. I might even make assumptions about the likeability or social position of people who are obsessed with those topics, but I am more likely simply to avoid them. At the other extreme, there are things that I know I like, but not many other people appear to — the songs of Jacques Brel, for one.

Otherwise, I am open-minded enough to consider that if someone is interested in something enough to make it a regular topic of conversation, it is probably worth investing some time to find out more, especially if that person is of interest to me for other reasons. That investment might lead me to a new interest (or even career), or it may make it clear to me that this topic is not for me. I try not to write things off without trying them. (I think this might not be a very English trait.)

posted on February 28, 2007

Dave Livingston said:

David, et.al. – ah, but what is your authentic swing ? Where’s Bagger Vance when you need him ? In other words why let external expectations define who you are rather than letting who you are, or are becoming, shape your interests, inquiries and efforts ?

As it happens my answer to most of your quiz is yeah, probably could take a pretty good wack at all and a real serious one at many. But that was my choice for two reasons. My own reasons and an interest in other people’s interests. For example I love classical music, don’t know what Yo-Yo’s last album is but thought ‘Silk Road’ was a fantastic x-cultural and musical fusion. On the other hand couldn’t tell you how the NBA is going on but am prepeared to discuss basketball.

It seems to me that it might be better to start by re-framing the problem from asking what personal anxieties and social pressures one responds to how one finds what interests one and then participates best in the community. And at what levels.

posted on February 28, 2007

Sarah said:

The solution to easy your “uncomfortableness” about not knowing much about a particular subject, harkens back to one rule of thumb that marketing masters have been touting forever…ask questions and LISTEN.

posted on February 28, 2007

ctd said:

The problem with saying ‘listen’ is that there are subject where just listening displays ignorance and can make the person you are talking to uncomfortable. Sports, in particular – if someone says ‘hey, what did you think about (that game/try/goal/touchdown)’ and you don’t know about it, clearly its because you have no interest in the sport – sports is all over the TV and newspapers and if you have any interest it you will have at least some inkling. Similarly, if you have no knowledge of classical music, then asking someone to speak about a particular composer or album when you can’t discern a horn from an oboe is going to make them uncomfortable – its like talking to a child. It might be interesting to you (you are learning) but it sure isnt to the person you are talking to

Think about explaining how addition and subtraction works to your 4 yr old – do you want to be talking at that level in a business situation? Well, you are if you know nothing about a subject and you are talking to someone who does and you pretend to know something.

My view is that there are many topics where you need to know something – even if not very much – to hold a proper conversation, because they are ‘common’ areas of discussion and people will rate you as either knowing something or knowing nothing. If the latter, they just don’t talk to you about it.

So – you want to talk about cars, you need to know the difference between a BMW, Merc and a Ford, even if you don’t know the latest model or review. You want to talk sports, you need to at least know the basic rules, the teams and something about what is going on in the competition (saying ‘sorry, what’s the world series?’ is not going to result in much conversation). Talk golf, you need to know your drivers from your irons and your graphite shafts from your hickory.

I should add that, in my experience, sports is much more a male thing – if a female displays ignorance no one cares and the conversation changes, but if a male doesn’t know its often seen as a bit odd – is this guy part of the real world? How can be offer me sensible solutions when he doesn’t know anything about what interests me. How am I going to relax around him when there is nothing to talk about once we get past the weather. Is this person trying to pretend to discuss something with me when s/he clearly knows nothing – is that what will happen if I give him/her my business?

Having said that, there are other subjects where having no knowledge is not a problem – subject that are unusual and where the person is used to explaining it and has no expectation that you know something (maybe caving or horse riding in Mongolia or tracing your family tree).

So I sympathise with David. I don’t think the solution is as simple as ‘listen’, because in doing that you will display your ignorance. That’s fine for some topics, but for others you either seem strange or – perhaps – like you are a person who will pretend to know.

posted on February 28, 2007

peter vajda said:

ctd raises an intersting point about listening and where he suggests one needs to know something to hold a proper converation, e.g., in golf it’s the differehce between drivers from irons; in cars, it’s model/brand differentiation. True, on one level.

On another level, I might not be able to spell “iron” and “driver” but I can ask, “So, what’s it like to be in the flow during a game and what takes you away from being in the moment?” or “What’s your toughest challenge these days in your game and why do you think that it?” As for cars, I might inquire, “So, what’s the secret to their popularity…the need to have, or the nice to have, or…and why do you think that’s so?”

On different levels of exchange, there are associations, connections, “meta” issues and factors that one can merge into a conversation without having to know the “basics”. One can converse at the 50,000-foot level, the 30,000-foot level, the 5,000-foot level as well as at “ground level” and still be engaged and engaging. I’ve been involved in conversations, where I was not all that knowledgeable of the “ground level” aspects, where I would ask “inquiring”, “provocative” “analytical” “thoughtful” questions and I would bet $1 that I did not come acroes as naive, strange, stupid, or otherwise ignorant. Nor did I feel, in the least, anxious, embarrassed, inadequate, deficient, or lacking. For me, much depends on the level of discourse and on one’s personal level of OK-ness with “not knowing.”

posted on February 28, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Peter, I’m unpersuaded. I can think of a hundred occasions where not recognizing the name of the quarterback of my local team (a) caused people to look at me strangely and begin to “categorize” me as not one of them (b) explicitly made me feel embarrassed and excluded.

I don’t think you get out of this by asking “what’s it like to care about your football team?”

Even if i thought I could pose that question properly, it would require an incredibly high level of self assurance and self-confidence to take that approach.

You come across that way consistently – I get the sense that you DO have an incredibly high level of self confidence and self-assurance about your place in the universe and in society. Many of the rest of us are more paranoid about that. We couldn’t take such a “philosopher’s” , Socratic approach without coming across poorly (and doing it poorly.)

posted on February 28, 2007

Penelope Trunk said:

Here’s another perspective, maybe: We can talk all we want about active listening, and that people like to feel like they’re an expert, and be authentic, blah blah.

But here’s what happens when you get in a room of really interesting, socially competent, good listeners: Everyone is over the excitement of pontificating about themselves, and most the people know a lot about each other because they are all well known.

If you don’t have something in common with someone who already knows they are very interesting, then what are you going to talk about? They don’t need you to reflect back to them that they’re interesting.

This is where the latest cover on People magazine comes in handy.


posted on February 28, 2007

Wally Bock said:

I think it’s important to keep up a bit on things that matter to people who matter to you. I follow sports at a minimal level because several of my children do so. I bone up a little before we visit.

I try to watch or read about any significant pop culture event. The Super Bowl and Academy Awards come to mind. Incidentally, David, I’ve found that tuning in to the last part of almost any televised sporting event, gives you a handy summary you can use the next day.

My work helps me keep up with general management stuff. So I read news sources and blogs that interest me and pick up things there that I wouldn’t look up for myself. I make it a point to read the Economist and New York Times and a special point to read book reviews.

If I do that I’ve found that my brain’s pretty good at making the connections needed for light conversation. When I don’t know, I’ve found that questions keep the conversational ball rolling just fine and keep me learning as well.

posted on February 28, 2007

peter vajda said:

In our culture, people love to talk and talk and talk (not converse or dialogue)…and talk for the sake of talk is not something I enjoy. So, in such circumstances as you offer, I use my favorite coaching tool and ask questions, lots of questions. Out of context it seems this would be annoying, but I can tell you in my experience that many folks never know this is going on. They just talk, respond, respond and respond…really, unconsciously. They love the sound of their own voice. Then there are those who say s/thing, like, “Wow, it seems like I’ve been talking forever (or some such), what about you, what do you think/feel…? Then, I’ll engage for a time and then go back to questions and the “faux” dance goes on. It’s really fascinating.

I consider myself well-read, up on current events, etc…but I just hate small talk and banter and “faking it.” So, in those instances and circumstances where I choose not to be “accommodating”, it’s questions and lots of ‘em…and always a warm and curious smile inside when folks say, “It’s been nice “talking with” you.” Hmmm

The there are those instances when we do really connect and have a conversation, a dialogue…these are the rich experiences where conversation and connection happen on a deeper level. The dance is natural, honest, heart-felt and genuine; both take turns leading and following. Here’s it’s almost never about the “content.”

posted on February 28, 2007

basquette said:

Here’s a radical idea.

  • Read the things that interest you. Learn what excites you.
  • For all else, ask questions of your conversation partner. Let them teach you.

We’re so consumed in this society with appearing to know it all – show no weakness! – that we forget the simple, raw power of simply demonstrating curiousity and interest in other people – of being a beginner.

posted on February 28, 2007

Andreas said:

I have to agree with Peter and Basquette. While it is important to know something of what is going on, it is simply too much to know it all. Hey – too many things happen at once.

So focus, focus, focus is the magic word. Focus on what you know and keep expanding that knowledge. The more you learn the easier it is to add your knowledge into any conversation.

Then, in addition, ask questions, and listen, ask questions and listen, and then, start all over again.

With this recipe, you will be the most admired guest of any function.

posted on February 28, 2007

Mike said:

All great comments, but Basquette beautifully said exactly what I was thinking. If you can speak to what you’re passionate about, people will be interested, and if you take an honest interest in them, they’ll think you’re wonderful in no time!

posted on February 28, 2007

Lance Dunkin said:

This is not a solution, but I find most people like to play the expert. Even if I know little of the subject at hand, if I can ask decent questions and then respond in a manner that shows I learned something, others seem to really enjoy the conversation. (I will confess, however, that I rarely talk to anyone that I feel has absolutely nothing interesting to teach me).

posted on February 28, 2007

David (Maister) said:

I think you’re all offering terrific insight and advice about how to behave, but I’d love to hear additional comments on the “emotional or social angst” issue.

Do you also see a connection between what you choose to show interest in and where that “positions” you in society? Do any of you ever feel the tensions of choice in deciding which social circle (and set of tastes) is “really” you?

Or am I just a neurotic ex-Brit, excessively sensitive to taste and social set distinctions? What does it “feel” like in other countries?

posted on February 28, 2007

Mark Gould said:

I think I understand your concerns better now, David. Do you have evidence that people are judging you for not knowing about the awsome touchdown in last night’s football game? Is it possible that they might actually feel awkward that they have selected a topic of conversation that you can’t join in?

My tactic is, for example, to be upfront about my lack of interest in many sports. (“I don’t really follow football, but I keep an eye on the fortunes of Manchester City” or “I don’t do golf”.) By doing this, I think I avoid some awkwardness, and I hope I don’t come across as a snob. It offers an opportunity for us to find a topic of common interest.

posted on March 1, 2007

Al Arnold said:

In my house, the politics and news is my department.

Entertainment and latest trends, falls under my wife’s expertise.

Works for us.

posted on March 1, 2007

Ric said:

I’m with basquette – you should leave SOME topics for others! I don’t think it hurts to know a little about most things, but trying to have too broad a spread tends to leave you shallow. Knowing plenty about what interests/excites you makes you interesting; letting others speak about what excites them, paradoxically makes you MORE so.

posted on March 1, 2007

Mike Spack said:

The advice Dale Carnegie laid out in How to Win Friends and Influence People has been regurgetated by most self help gurus over the last 80 years. He convinicingly argues that most people do like to talk about themselves and the things they are interested in. This is definietly my personal experience. So I agree with most of the comments in this thread that echo what Dale Carnegie taught, ask questions and be a good listener.

That aside, flipping through every section of your local newspaper for half an hour each day will give you enough of a background to at least know the name of your local quarterback so you can ask questions that show you are from the same planet the other person is.

posted on March 2, 2007

David (Maister) said:

Mike, your last comment makes my point: you assume that knowing the name of your local quarterback shows you are “from the same planet” ie is minimally required knowledge.

OK, but why is that “minimal” (same planet) and knowing the name of three books by Charles Dickens isn’t? Is it “on the same planet” to know the name of the French President? What about the title of Mariah Carey’s last album?

Who decides what’s “on the same planet?”

posted on March 2, 2007

David Kirk said:

I know a fair amount about cricket, but little about rugby and almost nothing about our local soccer / football. For a South African, many would like at me slightly strangely for not knowing about all three of those areas.

On the other hand, I know more about technology, geography, maths & stats, classical music, trombone playing, astronomy, Lebanon, physics, data mining and modelling long-term uncertainty than most. I don’t link at anyone strangely for not knowing about any (ok, most) of that.

David: What topics that you know about would you “label” people with if they were totally ignorant? (It wouldn’t be polite to use yourself or one of your books as an example here…)

Following on from that, what does it say about people who have large areas of their own knowledge and experience that they assume are universally known, liked and accepted?

posted on March 3, 2007

David (Maister) said:

I think I may have started a different discussion than the one I intended. (Oh, how articulate I am!)

What interests me is what i suspect is a very common phenomenon: that each of us mixes, simuktaneously, in very different social circles – one ASPECT of which is the different knowledge base or interests that are assumed.

I’m sure everyone has this experience of changing social gears when you from being with people at work, then with spending time with your parents or people from their generation, then hanging out with some “intellectual types”, then going to a neighborhood barbecue or beer-bash with people from very different backgrounds.

I find it fascinating (and mildly discombobulating) that, in these different contexts, one almost puts on a different “persona”, joining in on discussions of things that people ion one of the other groups would have no interest.

At age 59, it no longer really bothers me because I have the selff-confidence and self-assurance to know who I am, (and what I know and am interested in) yet can be reasonably polite in joining in with a wide range of social circles.

But when I was younger, I found it all confusing. I didn’t understand which social group (or set of interests) was really me, and sorting that through and getting comfortable took a long time.

posted on March 3, 2007

allen said:

i am 42 and i still don’t understand people. i think our problem as people is that we think we have to fit in and so we all try to do the things we feel we must to accomplish that. the truth is we all fit in to this thing called life together. the illusion of it is that we feel we must DO something for this to happen. all we really need is to recognize that we are all human and we all have faults and by doing this we can look over each other forget the small talk and really get to know one another. likes or dislikes are irrelevant in the big picture what really matters is do we care for people. if we do it will show and we can drop the pretenses and find one another.

posted on February 13, 2010