Know a good way to tell a Northerner from a Southerner?
When a Northerner meets you, he’ll ask “What do you do? A Southerner will ask “Where are you from?”
This signifies the North’s emphasis on business and industry, and the South’s on location and heritage.
When it comes to networking, I take the Southern approach. The “What do you do icebreaker?” is neither creative nor conducive. “Where are you from?” and similar questions are friendlier, easier to answer, and ultimately even more productive.
Here’s why the South gets it right.
It invites an origin story
In his excellent podcast, James Altucher often jokes about finding the “secret origin stories” of his successful guests.
Asking “Where are you from?” gives you a sense of how the person got to where he is today. You can learn a lot just by hearing about the twists and turns of a persons’ life.
That’s why I like John Lee Dumas’s podcast so much. Each episode, he asks his guest to talk about their best and worst experiences in entrepreneurship. You get this advice with the origin story.
“What do you do?” will often miss the origin story, unless you ask something like “How did you get that job?” — which to me sounds accusatory, as if you need some evidence that this acquaintance is as great as he says he is.
It invites familiarity
If you are well-read or travelled, you will likely have some question or anecdote about your acquaintance’s hometown. And if you know nothing, here’s your chance to ask an expert.
I am fascinated with history, culture, and geography. So when I meet someone from an exotic place, I am genuinely interested in learning about it.
And guess what — being interested means being interesting to your acquaintance.
At a frantic networking event, after answering “What do you do?” over and over, it can be downright relaxing just to talk about one’s hometown. This is what people who enjoy each other’s company do. Don’t you want to enjoy your company?
It makes for great segues
If you’ve still got the Northern networking impulse, here’s the rub. Asking “Where are you from?” transitions perfectly to work-related chat. Say your acquaintance is from out of state. “Did you move here for work?” If he’s from in town, ask “Do you work around here?”
Now you’re learning about the person’s occupation — in the context of home and hearth.
“What do you do?” doesn’t just break the ice, it annihilates. “Where are you from?” is instead an ice-melter — a gradual, unintimidating way of to learn about people. If you’re really interested in building a connection with this person, wouldn’t you want to learn a little about their personal life?
Talking about work is great — it’s how we spend most of our time, and the work/life distinction is nonexistent in the new economy. But when it comes to meeting new people, try starting with Southern charm over Northern efficiencies. It will be more interesting and effective for everyone.
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