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Conversation Non-Starters

I wouldn’t have thought this was necessary, but given the conversations I’ve been forced to endure over the last week, I’ve decided “That Guy” must once again boldly mix sports metaphors and step up to the plate to tackle an important issue: inane HBS conversation topics. Regardless of what you may think, all conversation topics are not the same. Some are acceptable, and some are not. Before arriving on campus this fall, I assumed that if you were verbally adept enough to pull the wool over the admission team’s eyes, you would at least be able to fake a conversation.

It’s clear to me now that this isn’t always the case, so here’s a helpful list of unacceptable topics of conversation:

1. “How was your winter break?” or “What did you do over the winter break?”

This was fine during the first week when we were all just getting back and you genuinely cared. Now that it is week three (and you would already have asked if you really cared) this is no longer acceptable. On top of that, I am sure that like me most people have told this story about 850 times already. For the 50 of you who don’t already know, I went piranha fishing in Brazil, I spent Christmas in Australia redesigning the Sydney opera house, and got the New Year started properly with an icy swim across the English Channel. Of course, this is all crap! But I’ve told the real thing so many times that I’m reduced to telling tall tales to maintain my sanity.

2. “So, what do you think of this weather?” or “Cold enough for ya’?”
This again is a timeliness issue. Now that we’ve been so traumatized by the cold, so that +23 feels downright balmy, there is no reason to keep this up. Face the facts: the weather sucks, nobody likes temperatures below 80, let alone 10 (except the Canadians, but they’ve got a foot of snow on the ground in August, so cut ’em some slack), and all the talking in the world won’t change that. Despite your best efforts of warming the HBS community with your hot air, the temperature won’t rise, and this topic will not be appreciated.

3. “Any concerns about academic probation, or are you safe for another term?”

Assuming that I am a representative sample (and I’m sure that a sample size of one is sufficient in this case) there is no good answer to this question. If I got all “I”s (which of course I didn’t), I sound like an arrogant jerk when I respond. If, on the other hand, I got all “III”s (closer to the truth than I would like to admit) I want to do my best to forget about them. So, if you ask me this, you’re not only being an annoying conversationalist, but you also load me with the added burden of deciding whether or not to stab you with my pen. All in all, do everyone a favor and think of something more creative.

4. “Can you believe how hard term 2 is? I thought they said it would be easier!”

This topic is unacceptable on so many levels it’s hard to choose where to start. Firstly, the ECs told you it would get easier because they wanted to mess with your mind and have some fun at your expense. Secondly, the administration is never going to tell you it only gets worse; that’s hardly the way to motivate people. Finally, everyone is in the same boat – while you are wasting time making meaningless conversation with this question, the rest of us would rather be actually making progress on our work, or drinking our sorrows away.

5. “What are you doing for spring break?”

This can be acceptable if you want to invite me to join you on your family’s private 200 foot yacht, or to stay at your villa in Tuscany, but it is unacceptable as idle chit chat. This just leads to the same problems as those outlined in the section about winter break, so forget about it.

6. “Wow, looks like you packed on the pounds over Christmas; working up to your winter weight?”

You might think that it’s possible to say this in a tone of voice that might make it acceptable. Trust me when I tell you it can’t be done. Some people will just look at you like you’re an idiot, others will resort to physical violence – using their new-found extra pounds to grind you into the ground – and you’ll have no one to blame but yourself.

I know what you’re thinking, “What then can I use as a snappy conversation starter for the rest of the week?” Not to worry, I wouldn’t leave you high and dry like that. Here are a few openers that should ensure some lively (if not coherent) conversations.

1. “See you at TGIF?”

This is pretty much a no-brainer. Given the convenience of the location, the ability to get there underground from Aldrich, and the fact that beer is free, there is very little downside to TGIF. This makes it a nice neutral topic that everyone can really rally behind.

2. “Catch the latest episode of The Apprentice?”

Who doesn’t love a reality TV show about Donald Trump? Until Ivana gets her own gig, this will be the hottest thing on television, so get used to discussing it.

3. “Say, how about that whole “Great Depression” thing?”

While prior to HBS, you couldn’t have imagined ever having a discussion about this (much less with people you consider friends), it’s now a safe bet for conversation starting. Given that all of the term 2 RC cases so far have been about the Great Depression, this will hopefully elicit surprisingly good conversation. As well as being topical, people will appreciate being able to make all those points that they were unable to get in during class.

4. “How about that Iowa primary?”

This is a good one for watching stunned looks of confusion because 95% of the HBS population (mainly, the Republicans and foreign students) will have absolutely no knowledge of, or desire to discuss, this topic. If you do mistakenly get stuck in this conversation against your will, just blurt out that it just isn’t right that Al Gore is out of it already and run.

5. “Any section love to report?”

Everyone loves this topic. Within your section, it’s a competition to see who knows about the most hook ups. Across sections, it’s a competition to see who can come up with the most unappealing intra-section couple.

Regardless of the group, section love never fails to please.

Well, as you can see, That Guy is not the ideal conversationalist. You may recognize me sitting alone in the Spangler dining room or mumbling incoherently to myself on the treadmill at Shad. If I happen to trap someone into talking with me, you will recognize them by the glazed look in their eye and the incessant sobbing.

January 26, 2004
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