liz writes stuff down

Leave icebreakers to strangers, or how to spin friends and introduce people

My favorite way to meet new people is through my existing set of friends. There are many benefits, the obvious one being that my friends tend to have great taste in people.

But I'm also at least a little bit awkward. Despite consciously thinking about asking thoughtful versions of default questions when I don't have a good starting point, I still get nervous when I don't know if what I'm saying will interest the person I'm meeting. While I don't think that friendship is transitive, starting off on topics that don't interest both parties can cause people to miss out on what could otherwise become a good conversation or even a lasting connection.

If you're introducing your friends to each other, try to suggest something they'd all enjoy discussing.

Sometimes, there's something specific and convenient to talk about:

  • "Liz studies voice; she loves singing opera and operettas. You mentioned you saw Falstaff a few weeks ago?"
  • "Both of you enjoy cooking. Liz, I know you spend most of your time in the kitchen with a Dutch oven, but have you tried pressure cooking yet? Karen made amazing pressure cooker oxtail last week."
  • "You and Geoffrey are both passionate about open-source software. Geoffrey worked on providing software for MIT's computing systems via Debian packages and repos; I think you've submitted patches to some of the packages he's worked with."

Other times, there might not be something precise, but you can still find common ground:

  • "I think you've both mentioned liking classical music."
  • "You and Karen both studied computer science in college."
  • "Geoffrey's been working out of coffee shops lately. I know you have a favorite coffee shop, but forget what it is."[1]

If you can't think of something they have in common on the spot, mention something you find interesting about each of them.

Though you don't have to say something about everyone in the same breath - you want to leave spaces for the conversation to expand. If it looks like people are clicking, you might even get away with only introducing one person!

  • "Liz and I traveled to Sweden earlier this year, and we stayed in a treehouse."
  • "Karen started powerlifting a couple years ago."
  • "Geoffrey and I are members of a church choir and sing a lot of Bach."

If you are meeting someone without the person who brought you, ask "How do you know people here?"

I love this question because I don't have to think too hard about what I'm going to say; I already know how I met my friends. Questions with obvious answers relieve some of the pressure around introducing yourself.

[1] Pun wasn't intended about coffee shops and common ground, but then I decided I liked it. Sorry not sorry.


Revised icebreakers for nicer New Yorkers

You go to a friend's party, attend a work event, or just find yourself out and about. You meet someone new, and you're inevitably asking and being asked three questions:

  • Where do you work?
  • Where do you live?
  • How much is your rent?

Okay, you don't always encounter that last one, especially outside of NYC, but there's a sinking spidey-sense when it's about to pop because you've run out of places to go with the other two.

Let's ditch that template for these improved icebreakers.

What have you been up to?

Work is a weird topic because not everyone loves their job at any given moment or generally feels like it's their main identity. If it is, they still can discuss it in response, but this question invites a much wider range of topics than asking about work directly. If they have something more relevant to talk about at the time, or just something they think will be more interesting to you, they can talk about that instead.

What's something you love about your neighborhood?

This opens the conversation up to so many more possibilities than "Where do you live?" and even covers that information along the way anyway! If there's not a natural lead towards this question, you can talk about how cool it is that there are so many different neighborhoods where you live and so much to explore.

If you find yourself in their neighborhood later, you can check it out! Maybe, if the conversation goes well and you want to get to know them better, you can suggest what they mentioned as a thing for you to do together.

I deliberately worded this as "What's something you love about your neighborhood?" instead of "What is your favorite thing about your neighborhood?" because trying to pick out your favorite can be overwhelming on the spot and the easiest beloved thing to talk about might not be that anyway.

Don't talk about rent.

Just don't. It's awkward, but more importantly, it's rude.

Talk about all the nifty things you just learned about them instead.


Dresses, “dressing up”, and the software industry

A few days ago, Lea Coligado, a junior at Stanford, wrote about some of the sexism she's experienced in computer science. One of the things she mentioned was how wearing dresses caused her to be treated differently. I, too, prefer dresses because I find them much more comfortable than pants; I (probably) wear pants once or twice a year outside of the gym and cleaning my apartment. I, too, have noticed that people treat women differently for deviating from the "software engineer uniform" of jeans and a t-shirt.

It seems like fashion choice shouldn't be that big of a deal within academic environments and the workplace, as long as it's appropriate.

An acquaintance mentioned that he gets treated differently when he wears nice slacks to his workplace. His experiences match up with the ways I've seen my male friends get teased by others in the industry for dressing up, and they'll hear comments like "Oh, are you going on a date tonight?" and "What kind of occasion could be cool enough to warrant putting in that much effort?" Both my friends and Lea are dressed up because they think it's important to "seem like they tried", and they both get responses for it.

It is unfortunate that our industry questions people who choose to regularly or occasionally dress up for work. But there are a couple of ways that this bias manifests particularly badly for women.

The first is that wearing a dress and "dressing up" aren't the same thing. Similarly to how there are places where jeans and a t-shirt would be highly disrespectful, there are dresses too casual for many settings as well. Many women, Lea and myself included, wear dresses for the same reasons that many men in software wear t-shirts: comfort and personal preference more generally. It's no more of an attempt to flirt than wearing a witty t-shirt; it's just another option.

On top of that, the responses I've gotten when I've worn dresses are usually directed at my character or skill level. The kindest of them call me naive or better suited for non-engineering positions: "Software engineers learn they don't need to dress that way." Men, too, are mistaken for different roles, though for dressing up as opposed to simply wearing a different article of clothing. However, women are told much more frequently than men that they are just not suited for the positions those people already know they hold: "Real coders don't focus on fashion." I've even seen men who don't dress the part get extra credit for commanding respect in spite of their atypical clothing choices!

Clothing choices have nothing to do with technical ability, and conflating the two will only help perpetuate the gender gap in an industry that already has a serious problem retaining women.