BBQ skills

I spent a chunk of my weekend transcribing some interviews I’d conducted with people about church-based ESL ministries. Let me just say that producing transcripts is not a career I ever want to pursue! Even so, it’s really been worthwhile for picking up details that hadn’t stuck in my mind.

One thing that impressed me was an observation one veteran ESL teacher made: most Australians aren’t good at sustaining a conversation (beyond the meet-and-greet stage), especially with people whose English isn’t great.

This rings true for me. I really need to work on my ‘BBQ skills’ — you know, those conversational strategies you use at a BBQ, where you’re interacting with people you barely know.

BBQ Salmon

BBQ Salmon by NicnBill, on Flickr

Not just asking questions all the time (being bombarded by questions with little chance to reciprocate can feel like an interrogation). But exchanging stories. Taking a genuine interest in the other person. And showing it.

I recently read these 5 non-question based strategies for sustaining a conversation:

  1. Make observations about physical facts — saying ‘You’re smiling a lot’ or ‘I can see tears in your eyes’ is less interrogative than ‘What’s got you so happy?’ or ‘Why are you crying?’
  2. Comment on how things seem to be to you — saying ‘You seem kind of agitated’ can be less direct and demanding than asking ‘What’s bothering you?’
  3. Use “I” statements — explicitly and verbally taking responsibility for your reaction to something or your need for clarification, can (bizarrely) often take the heat or awkwardness off one of those potential conversation killer moments.
  4. Say “Tell me (more) about…” something that’s popped up in conversation — it might seem pretty direct and demanding with no relational context, but the interest it communicates (e.g., showing you’re listening well enough to pick up a specific detail) can really move things forward.
  5. Employ sounds and grunts as well as body language — used judiciously these kind of prompts can really draw someone out.

Basically, it’s about showing interest and concern while letting your conversation partner set the ‘agenda’ (in terms of how mucht o share and at what pace).

What BBQ skills have you picked up?


  1. Barbecue skills — interesting. I’d previously thought of them as ‘pub talk’. Why is it that seemingly inarticulate and uninteresting people are able to sit comfortably at a bar for hours, while I immediately feel awkward and out of place? I think we need to learn the value of phatic language.

    I heard an interesting story a little while back which illustrated this. A friend of mine said he’d been talking to his neighbour, and after a couple of minutes the neighbour said, “You’re one of those university people, aren’t you?” (Notice how I’ve translated the Sheffield patois into fairly standard English.)

    My friend, somewhat taken aback, asked him how he managed to sniff him out.

    “Because you’re asking a lot of questions. Only people who’ve been to university ask questions.”

    And it’s true in this country. Generally when I meet working-class people (which, interestingly enough, doesn’t happen all that often), they tend to tell stories about themselves, their lives, their neighbours, and so on. They rarely ask questions, and (apparently) feel interrogated if you ask them questions — which seems to us the polite thing to do. If someone tells a story, however, it seems like the correct response is to tell a story of one’s own — an intimidating thing for someone like me who am a woeful raconteur. That’s one of the main reasons I keep asking questions — so I don’t have to say anything!

    So there you go. I imagine there’d be some more thorough research than my friend’s neighbour’s observations, but it rings true for me so far.

    1. Thanks for sharing that story Stuart — ahh … the beauty of form mirroring content! I love it.

      It seems to swing towards either of two extremes. There are those people — usually the centre of attention at a party — who can just tell story after story, leaving little chance for anyone to get a word in edge-wise. That’s not a conversation as far as I’m concerned. But there are also people, at the other extreme, who are obviously well-intentioned but just don’t realise that the constant peppering with questions can be experienced as prying (if not downright interrogatory).

      I’m warming more and more to my mother-in-law’s favoured conversation starting tactic — saying, “I was reading in the newspaper the other day…” and then relating a story or her own story about reading and reacting to a topical opinion. This can leave the conversation open for reciprocation that changes the topic (“Well, I was reading this…”) or for the conversation to pursue the topic that’s been opened up. I’m not sure what the UK equivalent is, though … “I was listening to Radio 4 the other day…” perhaps?

      PS – I think I pinched ‘barbecue skills’ from the Bible study leaders’ (ahem) Bible, Leading Better Bible Studies.

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