Exercises for How Much To Say

Written Exercise:
For each question, consider what details you would give if A) you’re catching up with an old friend that you haven’t talked to for a long time, B) you’re being interviewed for a new job, or C) you’re introducing yourself to a new co-worker.

How are you?

old friend

Even if you haven’t seen them in a long time, you can assume an old friend is genuinely interested in you. It would certainly be acceptable to give some specifics here, but you don’t want to go on too long. They probably want to know in general how things are going for you, if you’re generally satisfied. Give just enough specific information to give them ideas how to follow up with questions. (“I’ve got a great apartment and I like my job, but I wish it paid more” or “Work is going really well, but I wish I could meet some more people to hang out with after hours,” e.g.) and be sure to reciprocate by showing interest in how they are, too.

job interview

Providing too much personal information in a job interview (where there is both a difference in power and no previous relationship between you) would likely be seen as unprofessional. You probably want to stick to a very general response such as, “Great, thanks!” Or “I’m doing very well, thank you.” Note that these will likely be at least minor misrepresentations if not big fat lies – generally, people who are looking for work are stressed out because they don’t have a job (or don’t like their current job), and are nervous about the interview. The interviewer understands this and doesn’t expect an honest response; it is simply intended as a greeting, some polite chit-chat before you get down to the real business of the interview. It would be weird and inappropriate for you to give a negative response in this situation. If you really can’t stand the idea of being the slightest bit dishonest, you could say something like, “Well, a job interview makes me feel quite nervous, actually!” (but be sure to smile while saying it, to show you’re not blaming the interviewer for making you feel uncomfortable).

new co-worker

Because you’ve never met this person before, you probably want to keep your answer concise. You have a more equal power relationship than you would if you were talking to your boss, so you can be more honest if you’re not doing so well, but you don’t want to reveal too much personal information or emotion too soon in the relationship. A vague “Okay, thanks” or “I’ve been better” or “I’m a bit lost at the moment, but I’ll get the hang of things….” would be fine.

Are you married?

old friend

Friends always want to know what’s going on in your romantic life. Even so, you want to avoid long monologues. A one-or-two-sentence answer is enough to start with, e.g.“Yeah, his name is Billy Bob. We met when he came to repair my computer!” or “We just had our 3rd anniversary last week” or “I was married to this guy I met in college for a few years, but it didn’t work out. I think we were just too young,” or “It’s complicated. We’re not married, legally, but we’re pretty committed.” This allows your friend to ask follow-up questions and/or to share their own stories. (If they don’t volunteer to share, you know it’s okay to ask: they wouldn’t have asked you if they weren’t comfortable with you asking them.)

job interview

For some job interviews, it is actually illegal for your interviewer to ask you this question! A simple “yes” or “no” is probably enough information, although if you are married and they want to know this, they might also want to know if you have children, so you might anticipate and answer that question: “Yes, and we have twin 5-year-old daughters,” e.g.

new co-worker

Because this person is new to you, you don’t want to give too much personal information. Your answer will depend on how you judge the relevance of the question: are they asking to be polite (just to keep the conversation going), or out of idle curiosity, or to flirt? It will also depend on whether you hope to have a friendly relationship with your co-worker, or whether you want to keep your distance and only engage with them on a purely professional level. However you answer, you will be seen as sending social messages! A simple “yes” or “no” may appear unfriendly, a sign that you don’t wish to engage in personal conversation. A friendlier response would elaborate just a little bit: “Yep. We just had our fifth anniversary,” or “Nope. I was for a while, but it didn’t work out,” or whatever. If you wish to unambiguously signal that you are friendly-but-not-flirting, you can add details about your spouse or lover (if married or involved) or say something like “no, my Mom wishes I’d meet someone, but I really like being single” or “I don’t have time to date” or some other friendly-but-clear statement.

What have you been up to in the last few years?

old friend

Your friend probably wants to know if they’ve missed major events in your life: new jobs or promotions, changes in romantic status, births, deaths, moves, etc. Even just sticking to major events, that can be a lot of information! (Unless nothing much has changed, in which case you can say “Oh, you know, same old same old!”) If you can, give a quick synopsis, such as “After I graduated, I went to work at Company X, and I’ve been there ever since” or “I’m still working at Company X. I asked Peter to marry me, but he wants to just keep living together.” If too much has happened for that, you can say “I don’t know where to start! So much has happened….” This shows that you’re trying to avoid a long list, and will probably result in your friend asking you more specific questions that will be easier for you to answer in a short chunk.

job interview

Here you’d interpret the relevance of the question differently: a potential employer would want to know what you’ve “been up to” professionally. Here’s where you might give a good deal of information, to show off your skills and experience. If you just gave a one-or-two-sentence answer (“I worked at Company X for two years, then I worked at Company Y,” e.g., or “I started at Company X as a (low-level employee), and I was promoted after a year to (higher-level),” e.g., you might sound uninterested. They already know this from reading your resume – so presumably, they want to know more than this now. A whole paragraph here would be fine, giving details of your duties, training sessions you attended or led, skills that you acquired or improved, challenges you rose to meet, etc. Of course, you also want to present your work history in the most positive light, which may limit how much you say on the subject. And you want to be very attentive for signs of interest or the lack thereof on the part of the interviewer, so you can tell if you’re going on too long.

new co-worker

Presumably, a new co-worker would have more interest in your work history than in changes in your personal life. Because you are more equal in power and do not need to impress the co-worker the way you did the job interviewer, you could be more honest about negative opinions (“I was at Company X, and I just got sick of it. No respect, and hardly any money….”). But you’d want to keep it short (because you don’t want your co-worker’s first impression of you to be that you’re a bore), and you’d want to reciprocate by asking something like “What about you? Have you been working here a long time?” (so they don’t think you’re entirely self-absorbed).

Video Exercise:



In this video, a young woman wants to tell the others about a dream that she had. Do you think she’s gone on too long? Why? What signs of interest or disinterest do you detect in the people she’s talking to?


Our Discussion

This is a very polite group! They clearly don’t want to hear all these details about the young woman’s dreams, but neither do they want to hurt her feelings. Here’s how we can tell:

  • About 15 seconds in, the young woman in glasses starts showing signs of boredom: looking away, fidgeting with her hands, not smiling or giving other active listening cues. The main speaker doesn’t seem to realize (or care?) that she’s lost the attention of the woman in glasses until about 53 seconds in, at which point she turns to keep speaking to the woman in the chair, letting the other two splinter off into a private conversation.
  • The young man keeps cutting off the description of the dream to go off on tangents (information about snakes, whether or not there is a ‘dream logic,’ the symbolism of various colors).  The main speaker clearly understands that these interruptions are not supportive, as she resumes each time with markers of disagreement (“Okay, so anyway,” “OK, anyway, so,” “Well, I don’t know about that, but...”), showing that in her view, he has strayed from the topic. She doesn’t seem to understand (or care?) that he keeps straying from the topic because he isn’t interested in it!
  • The young woman in the chair never shows much interest in the conversation. Her active listening cues are as muted as they can possibly be, without being impolite. She has a polite (but not genuinely amused) smile, and lets the speaker catch her eye occasionally, and nods very slightly. She does not give minimal responses, or ask interested questions. The one question she asks seems to challenge what the speaker is saying.  At about 1:20 in, she starts fidgeting with her foot, and we can see a clear increase in her active listening when the young man interrupts again at 1:55. (Her head juts up, her eyes and smile widen.) By 2:30, the girl in the chair has lost her social smile and just looks unhappy. She edges away from the speaker, and crosses her arm over her body in a closed posture. She is clearly feeling trapped in the conversation. Compare her opening and closing positions:
    conv05start conv05end

Video Exercise: Getting a Word in Edgewise
We asked some people what they do when they can’t get a word in edgewise (because the other person(s) in the conversation just keep talking, hogging the floor). Which common strategies do you notice are used by several people?

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