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Take Interest, Don’t Fake Interest

7 minute read
by Alex Hillman

“So, what do you do?”

I’m pretty certain that this is the most common opening line between working professionals. 


Unfortunately, and what most people don’t realize, is that it’s the adult equivalent of asking a toddler “How old are you?”. 

It feigns interest, when in fact, all it does is elicit a least common denominator response. Even if the person being inquired isn’t currently working, it opens the door for a discussion about the shitty economy, and how hard it can be for finding a job. The bottom line is, it’s a superficial question that elicits a superficial answer. 

  Over this past year, it’s become increasingly difficult for me to answer the question. “I’m a consultant” doesn’t really provide any context. “I’ve started a few companies” has connotations of elitism that I’m not interested in spreading. 

  And realistically, if the question is “what do you do to make money”, the honest answer requires a longer explanation than most people really were interested in the first place. Indy Hall has provided me with a valuable opportunity to experiment with this “first impressions” interaction over the last few years. I’ve landed on a core thesis that there’s a largely unexplored importance in forming relationships BEFORE a transaction takes place. 

 The idea of the personalization and humanization of business (or re-personalization and re-humanization, if you can look further back than the century) isn’t new. Gary Vaynerchuk is exploring this in his next book, “The Thank You Economy“. The Cluetrain Manifesto laid groundwork for this “conversational” form of business over a decade ago. 

 What I think is broken in the misinterpretation is that the transactions of business demand a relationship overlaid on them in order to be successful. In fact, I think that this is fundamentally damaging to both the transaction AND the relationship, since the two come with extremely different expectations from both parties. 

  Instead, I propose that it’s better to carve out an opportunity to build some relationships BEFORE the transaction has an opportunity to take place. The interactions that come as a part of forming early stages of a relationship with another human being are far more valuable if and when the time for transaction occurs. More concretely, I want to get to know you before I even have a chance to think about what doing business with you might be like.

Business is an overlay for social interactions, not the other way around.

  Back to my original point, though, of the small talk interactions of first meeting someone, and how I’ve been able to modify the experience. Indy Hall, as an experience, provides a relatively clean slate for human interactions in a still familiar business context. When I notice a new member (or perhaps just a new face that I haven’t had a chance to meet before), the intuition might be to ask that person,

“So, what do you do?”

  The fact is, by the time they’re on our membership roster, I can look that information up, but that’s not the point. Realizing that was the case, though, provided me with the opportunity to come up with a new question.

“So, how’d you find out about Indy Hall?”

  This seems like a question that only the founder or business owner would care about, but I’ve noticed something. A slightly different question often leads me to the same answer of the question “So, what do you do?”, but through a much more interesting path that provides more context for a potential relationship and human connection than the chance that me and that person have the same or similar professions.

“So, how’d you find out about Indy Hall?”

  This provides me with foundational information on that person, what’s important to them, if we have any common relationships, what their interest in Indy Hall might be, and other more human commonalities than our professions.

Answer: “My friend _______ told me about it….”

  This piece of information tells me who we know in common. I pay a lot of attention to my social networks, and rely on them heavily for behavior patterns. If we have common friends, we now have an opportunity to talk about how we know those people. Perhaps we’ve even been at the same events/parties/experiences in the past, and again, we have more things to talk about besides the superficialness of our work. I can also potentially utilize my social networks to do a little more reconnaissance on that person through other people that I already know and trust.

Answer: “I read about it in __________….”

  Now I have a little bit of information about what kinds of sources you go to for news and information. This is generally interesting, and if it happens to be a source that I also read, I can turn the attention to other interesting topics or articles for us to discuss. This lets us get to know each other in the context of current events, understand what kinds of topics are of interest and importance to each other, and provides an opportunity to learn from each other. I’ve found that learning from another person is an extremely valuable, low cost transaction that has immense long term payoff in business and social settings.

Answer: “I was going crazy working from home/cafes/etc…”

  It doesn’t really answer the question, but I’m pretty sure this is the most common answer to the question. The cool thing about this response is the opportunity to connect on a very basic, “Yeah, I hear you. That’s how this whole things started!”. 

  That connection over a shared experience is powerful, and often leads to humorous conversations about ways we coped before finding coworking. These are just a few of the answers I’ve gotten, but you can see how they provide opportunity for more meaningful conversation than “So, what do you do?”

  The bonus is, most of the time, I still find out what that person’s profession is, but we aren’t left with an awkwardness afterwards if it doesn’t give us a prompt for discussion. These conversations provide an opportunity for us to connect on a more personal level, and if we do, begin forming the most important asset Indy Hall members have with one another: trust

  Warren Buffet’s business partner Charlie Munger gave a 2007 commencement address to USC’s law school. Derek Sivers linked to some notes of this speech this morning, and I immediately found quite a few lines that played into this topic that I’ve been spending time speaking with people about quite a bit recently. Munger’s speech was titled “Deserved Trust“. He covers a lot of ground that is very near and dear to my heart, and I highly recommend reading the entire transcript. He closes with this idea, which I love:
The highest form a civilization can reach is a seamless web of deserved trust. Not much procedure, just totally reliable people correctly trusting one another.
We’re not just talking about business, here. We’re talking about making improvements to society.

  As an aside, the title of this post came from Parker Whitney while we were discussing things he’s learned while working at Indy Hall in the past year.

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Alex Hillman I am always thinking about the intersection of people, relationships, trust and business. I founded Indy Hall in 2006, making us one of oldest fully independent coworking communities in the world. This site is packed with the lessons and examples I’ve learned along the way. You can find me on Twitter, too! 🐦 Say hi.