The Surprising Geography of Everyday Talk

A familiar voice in a new location
People moving in and out of Austin, source here.

On her own new section of this site -- they grow up so fast! -- Deb Fallows has a very interesting post with reader reaction on the topic she raised last week: the conversational cues and questions people use to find out about others they have just met. These range from "What's your parish?" in Chicago (as it happens, her native city) to "What are you?" in Philly (as it happens, mine), the latter inviting an answer of "Polish," "Italian," etc.  

I'm mentioning it here both on its merits and for housekeeping reasons. All of our posts, plus John Tierney's, from our ongoing-though-temporarily-snowbound American Futures series will appear together on the AF project page. But now Deb and John will have their own items in their own author-channels, rather than having them show up here in potentially confusing hybrid-byline mode. Please go to Deb's and check this out! 


Update Deb's post is about a range of first-meeting conversational ploys. One of the readers she quotes mentions the approach I've used over the years. "So, what's your story?" Everybody has one.

A more cynical media-centric option is one that Erik Tarloff, my friend and birthday-mate, employed in his novel Face Time. That is to begin any talk with anyone in the DC or NY media by saying, "Love you work!" Or "that was a great piece" or "You've been on a roll." Sigh. Probably works in LA too, or anywhere.

Back to the high road: When you know someone's general field of work, but haven't followed what he or she has been up to recently, there is the always-dependable "So, what are you working on?" or "What's your current project?" Again, this is not cynical: it's a way to get people talk about what they're interested in -- which is when most of us are most interesting.

Previous post                                                                          Next post

Presented by

James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.

Pittsburgh: 'It's Better Than You Thought'

How Steel City became a bikeable, walkable paradise

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in National

From This Author

Just In