We all know people in our lives who can talk comfortably to anyone about anything. They are that rare type of human who has not a shy bone in their body, and is genuinely fascinated by what others have to say and share. They are generally very fun, kind and gregarious folks.
Then there are the rest of us. Some of us welcome meeting new people, some would rather not. Some like being in crowds and social occasions, others would rather be alone or speak only to one other person they know and trust. No matter where we each land on the spectrum of sociability, there are inevitably occasions where finding a common topic can be a challenge. There’s that awkward silence as one tries to find something to say, to break the ice, to make some sort of connection. Inevitably we turn to the blatantly obvious safe topics like the weather. “Hot today. They say we may get storms later.” Yeeaahhhh, riveting stuff. What’s worse is when that topic has been covered in 6 seconds, only to be followed by more awkwardness.
Over the past few years, I have discovered one topic that invariable gets people to open up, warm up, and make an immediate connection: pets. Let’s face it, we’ve all gotten crazily passionate about the animals in our lives. And the odds of this being a common topic are in our favor. 67% of U.S. households own pets. 50% of U.S. households have at least one dog, while 34% have at least one cat. That equates to approximately 106 million households combined that have a dog and/or cat. And we aren’t even talking about horses, rabbits, fish, lizards, you name it. For those who don’t own a pet, it is highly likely they have friends or family members with pets, or help care for/babysit pets. Yes, ok, I know, there is a sliver of you folks out there who – gasp – hate animals of all kinds and would never welcome one into your household. You will have to stick to those other conversation starters like the weather, children, the economy, or worse, politics. May the force be with you.
Years ago, I worked with a gentleman on our Sales Team who went to call on one of our more challenging customers. Our contact there was a woman who was notoriously serious, even cranky, who did not welcome interruptions to her day. During the course of his sales call, he happened to find out she owned a certain breed of dog, and was able to share a photo of a similar breed he had in his life. Instantly her tone changed, she opened up and they had a great conversation and started a whole new positive business relationship. After that meeting, he and I half-joked that the best tool a Sales person could have would be photos of every type and breed of pet on his or her phone. “oh, you have a Bassett hound?? So do I! Let me show you his picture!” Ta da. Instant connection.
Now I’m not really condoning carrying photos of fake pets with you. But sharing a simple story about a pet can open a whole connection with someone new. Humans generally care for their fur-kids even more than other humans in their lives. I know, that sounds harsh, but true. I’ve had taxi and Uber drivers talk to me throughout a full ride about their dogs. I have customers who call with a problem and end up talking to me like we are BFFs because we’ve made a pet connection.
Granted, that “club” talk happens even more easily if you happen to have your pet with you. It’s kind of like guys talking about sports cars, or young mothers talking about their toddlers. There is an easier connection if the topic of conversation is right in front of you. The other day I was out walking our ICS (Instant Conversation Starter), our new puppy, and an older, presumable retired couple were walking up the street on the other side. They asked if they could come across to meet the ICS. Our ICS turns herself inside out with joy at the prospect of meeting new humans, so certainly, come on over. Within minutes we had covered all the basics – her age, the fact she is a rescue, her age and questionable breed mix, and I learned they had over their time together had 5 dogs, losing the last one a year prior. At this point in pet conversations, invariable someone’s phone comes out to show photos. And true to form, even though these folks do not currently have their own dog, they proudly presented pictures of a friend’s Boxer whom they pet sit.
With pets, unlike those motor head tall tales or proud mom chats, the conversation rarely turns competitive. I have yet to hear anything close to a “my dog is smarter/faster/newer/better than your dog” conversation. No one compares horsepower, or at what age their pet started walking. If anything, the talk tends to turn the opposite direction, like “my dog is so goofy…”
Everyone is on the same level when the topic is pets. It is the Great Equalizer. I may be wrong, but I tend to believe that if each high-level stressful corporate negotiation or contentious government partisanship meeting started with discussions about someone’s ranch horses, or beloved St. Bernard, or backyard goats, or perfect Persian, or chatty parrot, tough discussions would be kinder, gentler, and much more productive.
It truly is remarkable how little effort it takes to get a pet conversation going. I suggest the next time any of us are in a new and potentially uncomfortable or awkward situation, try a new opening line, like “I was almost late today because my dog didn’t want me to leave.” Then see what happens. Worst case scenario, the other person responds with “ugh, I HATE animals.”
To which you will be forced to resort to a response like “That’s too bad. Do you think it will snow tonight?”