China’s Burned Out Tech Workers are Fighting Back Against Long Hours

Ms Tech | Getty

The draining 996 work schedule—named for the expectation that employees work 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., six days a week—has persisted in Chinese companies for years despite ongoing public outcry. Even Alibaba co-founder Jack Ma once called it a “huge blessing.”

In early October this year, it seemed the tide might have been turning. After hopeful signs of increased government scrutiny in August, four aspiring tech workers initiated a social media project designed to expose the problem with the nation’s working culture. A publicly editable database of company practices, it soon went viral, revealing working conditions at many companies in the tech sector and helping bring 996 to the center of the public’s attention. It managed to garner 1 million views within its first week.

But the project—first dubbed Worker Lives Matter and then Working Time—was gone almost as quickly as it appeared. The database and the GitHub repository page have been deleted, and online discussions about the work have been censored by Chinese social networking platforms.

The short life of Working Time highlights how difficult it is to make progress against overtime practices that, while technically illegal in China, are still thriving. But some suspect it won’t be the last anonymous project to take on 996. “I believe there will be more and more attempts and initiatives like this,” says programmer Suji Yan, who has worked on another anti-996 project. With better approaches to avoiding censorship, he says, they could bring even more attention to the problem.

Tracking hours

Working Time started with a spreadsheet shared on Tencent Docs, China’s version of Google Docs. Shortly after it was posted, it was populated with entries attributed to companies such as Alibaba, the Chinese-language internet search provider Baidu, and e-commerce company JD.com.

“9 a.m., 10:30 p.m.–11:00 p.m., six days a week, managers usually go home after midnight,” read one entry linked with tech giant Huawei.

“10 a.m., 9 p.m. (off-work time 9 p.m., but our group stays until 9:30 p.m. or 10 p.m. because of involution,” noted another entry (“involution” is Chinese internet slang for irrational competition).  Within three days, more than 1,000 entries had been added. A few days later, it became the top trending topic on China’s Quora-like online forum Zhihu.

As the spreadsheet grew and got more public attention, one organizer, with the user name 秃头才能变强 (“Only Being Bald Can Make You Strong”), came out on Zhihu to share the story behind the burgeoning project.

“Four of us are fresh college and master’s degree graduates who were born between 1996 and 2001,” the organizer said. Initially, the spreadsheet was just for information sharing, to help job hunters like themselves, they said. But as it got popular, the organizers decided to push from information gathering to activism. “It is not simply about sharing anymore, as we bear some social responsibility,” 秃头才能变强 wrote.

The spreadsheet filled a gap in China, where there is a lack of company rating sites such as Glassdoor and limited ways for people to learn about benefits, office culture, and salary information. Some job seekers depend on word of mouth, while others reach out to workers randomly on the professional networking app Maimai or piece together information from job listings.“I have heard about 996, but I was not aware it is that common. Now I see the tables made by others, I feel quite shocked,” Lane Sun, a university student from Nanjing, said when the project was still public.

Against 996

According to China’s labor laws, a typical work schedule is eight hours a day, with a maximum of 44 hours a week. Extra hours beyond that require overtime pay, and monthly overtime totals are capped at 36 hours.

But for a long time, China’s tech companies and startups have skirted overtime caps and become notorious for endorsing, glamorizing, and in some cases mandating long hours in the name of hard work and competitive advantage.

In a joint survey by China’s online job site Boss Zhipin and the microblogging platform Weibo in 2019, only 10.6% of workers surveyed said they rarely worked overtime, while 24.7% worked overtime every day.

Long work hours can benefit workers, Jack Ma explained in 2019. “Since you are here, instead of making yourself miserable, you should do 996,” Ma said in a speech at an internal Alibaba meeting that was later shared online. “Your 10-year working experience will be the same as others’ 20 years.”

But the tech community had already started to fight back. Earlier that year, a user created the domain 996.icu. A repository of the same name was launched on GitHub a few days later. The name means that “by following the 996 work schedule, you are risking yourself getting into the ICU (intensive care unit),” explains the GitHub page, which includes regulations on working hours under China’s labor law and a list of more than 200 companies that practice 996.

Within three days, the repository got over 100,000 stars, or bookmarks, becoming the top trending project on GitHub at that time. It was blocked not long after by Chinese browsers including QQ and 360, ultimately disappearing entirely from the Chinese internet (it is still available through VPNs).

The 996.icu project was quickly followed by the Anti-996 License. Devised by Yan and Katt Gu, who has a legal background, the software license allows developers to restrict the use of their code to those entities that comply with labor laws. In total, the Anti-996 License has been adopted by more than 2,000 projects, Yan says.

State involvement

Today, 996 is facing increasing public scrutiny from both Chinese authorities and the general public. After a former employee at the agriculture-focused tech firm Pinduoduo died in December 2020, allegedly because of overwork, China’s state-run press agency Xinhua called out overtime culture and advocated for shorter hours.

And on August 26, China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security and the Supreme People’s Court jointly published guidelines and examples of court cases on overtime, sending reminders to companies and individuals to be aware of labor laws. But even though authorities and state media seem to be taking a tougher stand, it is unclear when or if the rules that make 996 illegal will be fully enforced.

Some companies are making changes. Anthony Cai, a current employee of Baidu, says working six days a week is quite rare in big companies nowadays. This year, several tech companies including and ByteDance, the developer of TikTok, canceled “big/small weeks,” an emerging term in China that refers to working a six-day schedule every other week. “Working on Saturday is not that popular anymore,” Cai says. “However, staying late at the office is still very common, which is not usually counted as overtime hours.”

In the future, companies may have to scale further back on overtime to attract young applicants. Faper Fu, a university student in Nanjing, says he has little interest in accepting 996 when he enters the job market. “If I am getting paid a lot, I may consider it,” he says. “But it is not my long-term plan 100%. Having work and life balance is very important to me.”

Cary Cooper, a professor of organizational psychology and health at Alliance Manchester Business School in the UK, thinks Chinese companies will pull away from overtime culture when they see evidence of the impact that long hours have on the health and productivity of workers. “There is no evidence that if people consistently work long hours, their productivity level will increase—it’s the opposite,” he says.

In the meantime, Cooper says, younger generations “won’t stop fighting for a good quality of working life.”

“996 will only make human machines,” wrote  秃头才能变强. “And the only result of a dry human battery is being thrown into the trash can after the battery goes dry.”

Source: China’s burned-out tech workers are fighting back against long hours | MIT Technology Review

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How Microsoft Makes Money: Computing and Cloud Services

Microsoft Corp. (MSFT), one of the world’s biggest tech companies, sells personal computing devices, cloud systems and services, software, and other products.1 With products geared toward both consumers and businesses, Microsoft competes in a broad range of industries against companies including Apple Inc. (AAPL), Amazon.com Inc. (MZN), International Business Machines Corp. (IBM), and Oracle Corp. (ORCL).

Key Takeaways

  • Microsoft sells computing devices, cloud systems and services, software, and other products to consumers and businesses.
  • The company’s intelligent cloud segment is the largest source of profit, as well as the fastest-growing.
  • The COVID-19 pandemic has had positive impacts on certain aspects of Microsoft’s business, including its cloud business and productivity tools.
  • Microsoft announced in mid-January plans to acquire popular video game company Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion.

Microsoft’s Financials

Microsoft announced in late January financial results for Q2 of its 2022 fiscal year (FY), the three-month period ended Dec. 31, 2021. Net income rose 21.4% to $18.8 billion. Quarterly revenue expanded 20.1% year-over-year (YOY) to $51.7 billion. Microsoft uses operating income as its profit metric for gauging the performance of its individual business segments. Operating income for the quarter grew 24.3% YOY to $22.2 billion.

Revenue for the fiscal second quarter benefitted from strong growth in Microsoft Cloud and other cloud services.3 Microsoft also noted in its quarterly filings that the COVID-19 pandemic continues to have an impact on its business operations and financial results, but that some of the effects have lessened. The company said that its commercial and consumer businesses have benefitted from demand for its cloud and productivity tools.

Microsoft’s Business Segments

Microsoft divides its business into three reportable segments, breaking out results by both revenue and operating income: productivity and business processes, intelligent cloud, and more personal computing. These segments are categorized according to both product type and customer demographic. Productivity and business processes, for instance, includes products across multiple platforms and devices relating to productivity and communication. And more personal computing focuses on products designed with end-users, developers, and IT professionals in mind.5

Productivity and business processes

Microsoft’s productivity and business processes segment includes a portfolio of products designed to enhance corporate productivity, communication, and information services. One of its major products is Microsoft’s Office software suite, including both the commercial and consumer divisions. The segment also includes business solutions products such as dynamics, as well as the professional networking site, LinkedIn.5

In Q2 FY 2022, productivity and business processes generated $15.9 billion in revenue, comprising 31% of Microsoft’s total revenue. This amounted to an increase of 19.3% from the year-ago quarter. Operating income for the segment grew 24.4% YOY to $7.7 billion in Q2 FY 2022, accounting for less than 35% of the total.6

Intelligent cloud

The intelligent cloud segment comprises all of Microsoft’s public, private, and hybrid server products as well as cloud services for business. These include Microsoft Azure, SQL Server, Windows Server, GitHub, Enterprise Services, and more.5

For Q2 FY 2022, Intelligent Cloud generated $18.3 billion in revenue, accounting for over 35% of total revenue. Up 25.5% compared to the year-ago quarter, Intelligent Cloud was the fastest-growing revenue segment in the company’s fiscal second quarter. It was also the fastest-growing segment in terms of operating income, which was up 26.3% YOY to $8.2 billion. Intelligent Cloud operating income accounts for just under 37% of Microsoft’s total operating income, making it the most profitable of the company’s three segments.6

More personal computing

Microsoft describes its more personal computing segment as consisting of products and services aimed at putting “customers at the center of the experience with our technology.” The Windows operating system, surface device, gaming products, and search and news advertising are all included in this segment.

In Q2 FY 2022, more personal computing generated $17.5 billion in revenue, comprising about 34% of total revenue. While revenue grew 15.5% YOY for the segment, operating income rose 21.8% YOY to $6.4 billion. More personal computing accounts for about 29% of the company’s total operating income.6

Microsoft’s Recent Developments

On Jan. 18, 2022, Microsoft announced a plan to acquire video game developer Activision Blizzard for $68.7 billion. The deal is expected to close in fiscal year 2023. According to Microsoft, the acquisition will make it the third-largest gaming company by revenue, behind only Tencent and Sony.7

How Microsoft Reports Diversity and Inclusiveness

As part of our effort to improve the awareness of the importance of diversity in companies, we offer investors a glimpse into the transparency of Microsoft and its commitment to diversity, inclusiveness, and social responsibility. We examined the data Microsoft releases to show you how it reports the diversity of its board and workforce to help readers make educated purchasing and investing decisions.

By: Nathan Reiff

Source: How Microsoft Makes Money: Computing and Cloud Services

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Better Broadband: CableLabs Showcases 10G, The Cable Connection of The Future

There’s something in the air in Louisville, Colorado or more specifically, in the wires. Humming along miles of networking cabling, zipping through signal repeaters: It’s the future of the Internet.

On Thursday morning at the home of CableLabs — which bills itself as “the leading innovation and R&D lab for the cable industry” — network engineers and representatives from some of the country’s top internet providers came together to showcase some of the fastest speeds they’ve ever transmitted: 8Gbps downloads and 5Gpbs uploads, using the world’s only DOCSIS 4.0 modem and a series of networking technologies that CableLabs calls 10G.

“Besides the people in the labs, nobody has seen this,” said Curtis Knittle, CableLabs vice president of wired technology.

In a closed showroom before a handful of people, engineers and tech experts showed off a demo seemingly worthy of a high-school AV club: gobs of networking cable linking a unique, handmade modem via a series of amplifiers and repeaters. It was a showcase for 10G, the next great leap for broadband internet access, and the blazing, 10-fold increase in speeds promised to homes across America.

Crucially, 10G promises dramatically faster speeds across existing hardware. While you probably subscribe to a 300Mbps or 600Mbps service through your cable provider, your modem can do better – but only so far. Existing connections max out at a theoretical 1.5Gbps. 10G tech will amp it up, and engineers won’t need to dig up the street near you to boost your broadband.

In theory, anyway, although the cable companies themselves will need to install an updated amplifier or two along the way to your house and you may need a new modem.

“We’re super excited about what’s coming,” said Stephanie Michko-Beale, EVP and Chief Technology Officer for Charter Communications. “This suite of technologies is transformational.”

“We’re certainly very enthusiastic about what we’ve seen,” said Len Barlik, EVP and Chief Technology Officer for Cox Communications. “From a customer experience perspective, we know there’s a lot of demand for this moving forward.”

In a press release announcing the tests, Elad Nafshi, EVP & Chief Network Officer at Comcast Cable, echoed their comments and touted the advancements. “These 10G technologies represent the fastest, most efficient path to deliver multigigabit symmetrical speeds at scale everywhere, not just in select neighborhoods or towns.”

“The pace of 10G innovation is only accelerating, and Internet users around the world will reap the benefits.”

When asked, none of the company representatives were willing to state a timeline for release of new DOCSIS 4.0 modems or the 10G service, but that’s to be expected: The tech was being shown off for the first time. It’s likely years down the road. So what is it exactly?

Knittle from CableLabs called 10G a “holistic umbrella” — more than just a new modem or better coax cable. There’s DOCSIS 4.0, a new standard for the cable modem. DOCSIS 3 and its 3.1 evolution have been growing and changing for over a decade; TechRadar wrote about its promise back in 2010. DOCSIS 4.0 or full-duplex DOCSIS was officially released in 2017, but good luck finding a modem or a carrier to support it yet.

The 4.0 spec brings those blazing speeds, most notably the upload. You’ve probably noticed that your upload speeds are dramatically slower than your download speeds, and it’s not just your computer. 4.0 doesn’t quite bring parity, but it will significantly increase the theoretical maximums to 6Gbps, by sending uploads and downloads along the same spectrum within the fiber optic cables.

10G technology also brings new technologies to boost reliability and security, CableLabs says, and decreases the latency in connections, which should facilitate gaming, interactive AR (that metaverse thing everyone’s talking about), and other internet activities that rely on precision.

Jeremy Kaplan

By: Jeremy Kaplan

After 25 years covering the technology industry, Jeremy Kaplan is a familiar face in the media world. As Content Director for TechRadar, he oversees product development and quality. He was formerly Editor in Chief of Digital Trends, where he transformed a niche publisher into one of the fastest growing properties in digital media. Before that, he spent half a decade at one of the largest news agencies in the world, and cut his teeth in magazine business, long before the birth of the iPhone. In 2019, he was named to the FOLIO: 100, which honors publishing professionals making an industry-wide impact.

Source: Better broadband: CableLabs showcases 10G, the cable connection of the future | TechRadar

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Six Tips To Retain Key Employees And Prevent High Turnover Rates

High turnover is a nightmare for HR personnel and the owner of a company. The loss of a valuable employee can be detrimental to growth. Not only can the loss lead to lower productivity, but it can also cost the company financially.

According to the US Bureau of Labour Statistics, in July 2021, about 4 million people quit their jobs and about 10.9 million positions were declared open. This year, the UK reported an employee deficiency that has had a crippling effect on its economy. In the tech industry, managers have said that the increase in turnover is at an all-time high.

As a business owner, when employee turnover is high, it is time to re-evaluate the business. You first have to determine why your employees are leaving before you know how to stop it. Some of those reasons could be a lack of one or more of the following: flexibility, support, growth, appreciation, vision and engagement.

There are many reasons why your employees could decide to leave your company. Now while one or two employees leaving may seem negligible, a large number of employees, especially important ones, is cause for alarm. Here are a few strategies you can implement to help prevent high turnover rates.

1. Have flexible work options.

One thing many individuals have realized since the pandemic hit is that they can have flexible work hours and still be productive. According to a report by Beqom (download required), over 70% of American workers would take a job with flexible working hours over a higher-paying one. Flexibility does not have to be in the number of hours alone. It may also be start time, vacation days or day-to-day regulations in the organization, among other things.

Most employees do not want to work in a harsh environment where rules are set in stone with no possibility of flexibility whatsoever. Rules in the workplace are important to ensure that everything runs properly; however, when the rules are too rigid, employees can start to feel smothered.

2. Offer your employees support.

Many employees value empathy in their employer and will likely seek out and stick with an employer that cares about their well-being as a person instead of just the value they add to the company. Ask your employees what area of their job they find unnecessarily taxing and how you can make it easier on them; an immediate solution may not be possible but making an effort is the first step. This could also help solve or prevent burnout. And according to a Microsoft report, 54% of employees say they are overworked.

Support employees in learning a new skill for their current role — it would ultimately serve both you and the employee. While it’s almost impossible to solve all the problems of your employees, offering support goes a long way.

3. Help employees reach their career goals.

This is one of the main reasons employees leave. If they feel as though they are not growing in their careers, they could be tempted to look elsewhere. An organization that promotes career-driven goals can help employees achieve those goals to the benefit of everyone involved.

If an employee is steadily growing at an organization and they see a good prospect for them there, they are less likely to move on. Help your employees attain this by creating avenues for growth; this includes networking programs, seminars, mentoring opportunities and so on.

4. Acknowledge and appreciate your employees.

A good way to motivate your employees is to always acknowledge when someone does a great job. Everyone wants to be recognized for their hard work, and if an employee isn’t feeling appreciated, it could cause them to consider leaving your company. Believe it or not, many employees value this more than salary. Appreciate employees when they do a good job in the way that most suits them.

5. Communicate your vision.

No one wants to work at an organization that doesn’t have a clear vision or is left out of the loop. As employees grow, your business must also grow in scope. Have a clear vision for the future of your business, and be committed to communicating it. Feelings of being left in the dark, or low/poor communication in general, can make employees consider leaving. Employees can’t share in your vision if it doesn’t exist or is unclear.

6. Involve your employees.

No matter how good you are at running a business, not seeking your team’s input before making decisions could have devastating effects. When all the decisions are made without the input of employees, the work environment starts to feel like a dictatorship where ideas and input are not welcome. This can lead to employees moving to other companies where they feel like their opinion matters. Involve relevant stakeholders for each decision where it’s appropriate; there’s a balance to strike between stalling all decisions and authoritarian management.

As an HR professional or a business owner, you can help prevent high employee turnover or keep that star employee happy by keeping the above tips in mind. The most important thing is to recognize dissatisfaction in your staff and react in a timely way to offer solutions so they can continue being an active and productive member of your staff.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website.

Marketing Consultant/Franchise Owner of Sylvan Learning Center of Murrieta, CA. Read Chastity Heyward’s full executive profile here.

Source: Six Tips To Retain Key Employees And Prevent High Turnover Rates

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How To Become a Master at Talking To Strangers

A couple of years ago, I started to talk to strangers. That’s not to say I hadn’t talked to strangers before that, because I had. I’m the son and brother of highly social small-­business owners, and I’m a journalist, so talking to strangers has been both a way of life and a livelihood for me. And yet, a few years ago I noticed I wasn’t doing it much anymore — if at all. Between balancing a demanding job and a really demanding small child, I was often tired, distracted, and overscheduled. The prospect of striking up conversations with random strangers in coffee shops, or bars, or on the bus started to feel daunting. Eventually, I just stopped doing it.

This was a coping strategy, of course. I was overwhelmed, so something had to go. And talking to strangers can, as it turns out, be taxing. Psychologists have found that just making with a stranger can be cognitively demanding, tiring, and even stressful. That makes sense. You don’t know the person, you don’t know where the conversation is going, so you must pay closer attention than you would if you were talking to someone you know well. But psychologists have found that talking to a stranger actually boosts your mental performance — for that same reason: It’s a workout. I was saving myself a bit of effort, but I also noticed that my life was becoming less interesting, less surprising, maybe even a little lonely.

Related: 3 Ways to Make Memorable Small Talk That Gets People Interested In Working With You

After my epiphany, I got to wondering: Why don’t we talk to strangers more, what happens when we do, and how can we get better at it? It turns out, many researchers are asking the same questions. I started flying around the world to meet them: psychologists, evolutionary scientists, historians, urban planners, entrepreneurs, sociologists, and — you guessed it — a ton of fascinating strangers I met along the way. They all taught me that talking to strangers can not only be fun but also enhance our sense of well-being, make us smarter, expand our social and professional networks, and even help us overcome some of our most intractable social problems. (I detail this all in my new book, The Power of Strangers: The Benefits of Connecting in a Suspicious World.)

And as I researched the book, I kept coming back to the implications talking to strangers could have for entrepreneurs. Because I come from a family of small-business owners — and for a while served as executive editor at this magazine — I have seen firsthand how beneficial it is for businesspeople to hone those social skills. I have also spoken to a lot of college professors who lament that their students struggle to make the sorts of serendipitous social connections that will serve them so well once they start their careers. And, like all of us, I’m coming out of a year spent in relative quarantine. I’m rusty on these skills and need to get used to the sorts of fun, fruitful, and, yes, sometimes difficult freewheeling social interactions we were deprived of for more than a year.

All of which is to say, I decided that I needed to become an expert at talking to strangers. How? I signed up for a class unlike anything I’d ever taken before and bought a plane ticket to London.


Our journey begins on a bright day in a small classroom at Regent’s University. I’m sitting on a chair, limp with jet lag, clutching my third cup of coffee. There are four other people there, too. They appear to be functioning at a higher level than I am, thankfully. We have come to this classroom to learn how to talk to strangers.

Our teacher is an energetic 20-something named Georgie Nightingall. She’s the founder of Trigger Conversations, an acclaimed London-based “human connection organization” that hosts social events and immersive workshops aimed at helping people have meaningful interactions with strangers. Since she founded it in 2016, Nightingall has done more than 100 events and many training sessions — with strangers, companies, communities, universities, and conferences, both in London and around the world.

Related: How to Start a Conversation With Strangers at a Networking Event

Nightingall has learned that, for a lot of people, the hardest thing about talking to strangers is initiating the conversation: approaching someone, making them feel safe, and quickly conveying the idea that you don’t have an agenda, that you’re just being friendly or curious. She found that older people are much more likely to initiate a conversation, for instance, whereas younger people require a little more assurance. But she also found that in all her own attempts to speak to strangers, the vast majority of those interactions were substantial, and many went great.

She came to believe, too — and this is important — that making a practice of talking to strangers could offer more than a jolt of good feeling for an individual. There was joy in it, profundity, real communion. If practiced widely enough, she believed it could help repair a fracturing society. “We’re not just talking about a few individualized things,” she says. “We’re talking about a different way to live.”

Nightingall stands before our class, bright, engaging, and articulate, and walks us through what to expect over the coming days. She wants to take us “from unconscious incompetence to conscious incompetence, and from conscious competence to unconscious competence,” she says. In other words, we are currently bad at this and we’re unaware of why or how. We will learn what we are lacking. We will improve on it. And we will, hopefully, become so proficient that it will become second nature to us.

Our first lesson is small talk. A lot of people hate small talk, which is understandable, because a lot of small talk is deadly boring. Nightingall concedes the point. Yes, she says, small talk can be dull. But that’s because most people don’t understand what it’s for. It’s not the conversation. It’s the opener for a better conversation. It’s a way to get comfortable with one another and cast around for something you want to talk about. That, she says, is why it’s important to be aware of your response when someone asks something like “What do you do?” You are failing to understand what that question is really asking, which is this: “What should you and I talk about?”

Nightingall came to this insight via a couple of sources. She had done improve comedy in the past, and in improve, you start a sketch with something familiar to everyone in the audience — something relevant, timely, or present in the room — to bind the room together. Only then can you really take the audience on a ride. That’s small talk. But Nightingall has also followed the work of social anthropologist Kate Fox, who has studied, for instance, the seemingly inexhaustible English desire to discuss weather. While some critics have pointed to this affinity as evidence of a listless and unimaginative people, Fox argued that weather wasn’t the point. Instead, it is a means of social bonding, a greeting ritual. “English weather-speak is a form of code, evolved to help us overcome our natural reserve and actually talk to each other,” Fox writes. The content is not the point — familiarity, connection, and reassurance are. Once those are in place, a real conversation can happen.

When you recognize that small talk is just a door to a better conversation, Nightingall says, then it can be useful, because it’s structured in a way that naturally leads you toward common ground. We have all experienced how these conversations, if given the time, can move in ever-tightening circles until you both zero in on something you have in common and want to talk about. With that in place, you can wander, get a little personal, go deeper. But it’s probably on you to take it there, Nightingall says. “Everyone is interesting, but it’s not up to them to show you — it’s up to you to discover it.”

The best way to discover that interesting stuff, Nightingall says, is by “breaking the script.” That means using the techniques of small talk, but resisting the temptation to go on autopilot. For example, you go into a store and say, “How are you doing?” and the clerk says, “Fine; how are you?” and the conversation contains no information and goes nowhere. That’s a script. We use scripts to make interactions more efficient, particularly in busy, dense, fast-moving places like big cities. But in doing so, we deny ourselves the chance at a better experience and maybe a new contact, and we wall ourselves off from all the benefits that can come from talking to strangers.

Related: 10 Ways to Connect With Absolutely Anyone You Meet

So how do you break those scripts? With specificity and surprise, Nightingall says. For example, when someone says, “How are you?” she doesn’t say, “Fine.” Instead, she says, “I’d say I’m a 7.5 out of 10.” She briefly explains why she’s a 7.5, asks them how they’re doing, and then just waits. This is when mirroring kicks in; it’s a phenomenon where people naturally follow the lead of their conversational partners. If you say something generic, they will say something generic. If you say something specific, they are likely to as well. Thus, because Nightingall gave a number, her partner is likely to give a number themselves. If they say they’re a 6, Nightingall will ask, “What’ll it take to get you to an 8?” This specificity creates a light atmosphere and makes it harder for the other person to maintain the that you’re of a lesser mind, because it instantly demonstrates complexity, feeling, and humor: humanity, in other words. “Straightaway, they’re like, ‘Oh, you’re a human,’ ” Nightingall says. “You have that bond, and then, naturally, things open up.”

Here are other ways Nightingall suggests breaking a script. When a shop clerk asks, “Can I help you?” you can reply, “Can I help you?” Or instead of asking people at a party what they do, ask them what they’d like to do more of, or what they don’t do. Or instead of asking someone how their day went, ask, “Has your day lived up to your expectations?” All these things require a certain measure of confidence to pull off, Nightingall says. But they work. And when they do, they will reveal a little nugget of what it’s like to be that person. That is meaningful, because that nugget is indicative of what is beneath the surface. “How you do anything is how you do everything,” Nightingall says. That nugget tells you where to go next in the conversation.


Once you’ve established a little connection, what do you do? I normally start asking questions. Which makes sense: I’m showing an interest in the other person, and I demonstrate my interest by indulging my curiosity. But one paradox about talking to a stranger, Nightingall explains, is that while curiosity is indispensable, a barrage of questions out of the gate can feel like prying, or an interview. They don’t quite know where you’re coming from yet, and they don’t know if you have some kind of agenda. Even one personal question asked too early can create an uncomfortable dynamic because you’re asking something of someone. You’re making a demand.

Nightingall suggests that statements, not questions, can be a better way to open a conversation. A question compels an answer, whereas a statement leaves it up to the other person to decide whether they want to talk. It’s not a demand; it’s an offer. You notice something about your shared surroundings, offer an observation, and leave it to the other party to respond. If they do, you respond with another statement that builds on what they said.

These observations should ideally not be moronic — “I noticed that the sun came up today!” — but they can be simple. Like weather talk in England, the point is to indicate a shared experience. Nightingall has found that proximity helps, too. If you are at a museum, walking right up to someone looking at a painting and blurting out “What do you think?” is very different from making an observation about a painting after standing next to them for 30 seconds looking at it. That’s because you have been in their proximity. They have adjusted to your being there, and you have demonstrated a measure of self-control. Then you can speak. It feels less like an invasion.

Related: How to Become a Master Communicator by Following This One Rule

One day in class, my fellow students and I pair off to practice our technique. I’m partnered with “Paula,” who tells me that one of her favorite things is making a cup of good coffee for herself on the weekends and just sitting alone. I try to remember Nightingall’s advice about opening with statements, not questions, but now we’re in a groove — so I dig in. After four questions, Paula is talking about how resentful she is at having to work for other people. I’m obviously quite pleased with myself as I trot back to Nightingall with this pheasant in my mouth. But she is less impressed. She delicately explains that while “it’s clear you’re a person who asks questions for a living,” everything about my suggested I was looking for something to pounce on. I asked questions too quickly, she said. I was leaning forward. This wasn’t a conversation; it was an interview. Possibly an interrogation.

Nightingall suggested asking simpler and more open-ended questions. Instead of saying, “Do you think this was because you were a control freak?” just echo, or say, “Why do you think that is?” That is the opposite of what I usually do, but it’s what I must learn to do. In a good conversation, you must relinquish control. Your job is to help your partner arrive at their own conclusion and surprise you, not to ferret out whatever it is, slap a bow on it, and go, Next! There’s a powerful lesson there: If you’re interested only in things you know you’re interested in, you will never be surprised. You’ll never learn anything new, or gain a fresh perspective, or make a new friend or contact. The key to talking to strangers, it turns out, is letting go, letting them lead. Then the world opens itself to you.

Why don’t we talk to strangers? The answer I heard, over and over again from experts, is simply that we don’t talk to strangers. In many places, for many reasons, it has become a social norm, and social norms are really powerful. That is why Nightingall uses what she calls a foolproof method to not just violate the norm — but to openly acknowledge that you are violating the norm.

She asks us to imagine riding mass transit — which, as we know, is the last place anyone ever talks to a stranger. There is someone who strikes us as interesting. We can’t turn to that person and say, “Why do I find you so interesting?” because if you said something like that to a stranger on the subway, they’re going to assume this is the initiation of a chain of events that will ultimately conclude with their becoming crude homemade taxidermy. So Nightingall suggests something called a pre-frame. It’s an idea based in the field of neurolinguistic programming, which coaches people to “reframe” the possible negative thoughts of others — ­­in essence redefining their expectations for the interaction to come. Ordinarily, we might be wary if a stranger just starts talking to us. We don’t know who they are, or what they want, or whether they’re right in the head. What a pre-frame does is reassure them that you know all this.

To do it, you acknowledge out of the gate that this is a violation of a social norm. You say something like “Look, I know we’re not supposed to talk to people on the subway, but…” This demonstrates that you’re in full possession of your faculties. You’re not erratic, disturbed, or otherwise off in some way. It helps alleviate wariness and opens the possibility of a connection. Once that is established, Nightingall says, you follow the pre-frame with your statement — “I really like your sunglasses,” for instance. Then you follow that with a justification: “I just lost mine and I’ve been looking for a new pair.” The justification eases the person’s suspicion that you have some kind of agenda and allows you to talk a little more openly.

Related: What to Do When You Don’t Know Anyone in the Room

That’s when questions become more important, Nightingall says. Questions serve a multitude of functions, which is why, as I learned in my exercise with Paula, they can be so complicated. Yes, questions help you obtain information. And yes, on a deeper level, they help your conversational partner clarify the point they are trying to make. But they also help us emotionally bond with other people. In a series of studies in 2017, psychologist Karen Huang and her colleagues discovered that “people who ask more questions, particularly follow-up questions, are better liked by their conversation partners.” Those who ask more questions, the authors found, are perceived as higher in responsiveness — which is defined as “listening, , validation, and care.” In other words, people like us because we are interested in them.

And yet, the researchers noted, people tend not to ask a lot of questions. Why? Several reasons. “First,” Huang writes, “people may not think to ask questions at all…because people are egocentric — ­focused on expressing their own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs with little or no interest in hearing what another person has to say. Or they may be so distracted by other aspects of the conversation that they do not realize that asking a question is an option.” Even if a question does pop into someone’s head, they may not ask it, because they worry it’ll land badly and be “perceived as rude, inappropriate, intrusive, or incompetent.” In these cases, people will probably just talk about themselves, which studies show they do twice as often as they talk about other matters — ­which, ironically, makes people like them less. (Good work, everybody.)

But what’s a good question to ask? Nightingall has us complete an exercise in which we are given banal statements — the sort commonly offered in small talk—and tasked with coming up with good questions. For instance, one student says she ran along the Thames yesterday. There is almost nothing in the world less interesting to me than running, and usually I’d take this as my cue to begin plotting my escape. But, working from the idea that small talk is the means, not the end, the class brainstorms good questions to ask that might lead to something more personal or interesting: “Do you run every day?” “Is that a passion for you?” “What would you do if you couldn’t run every day?” I suggest, “What are you running from?” which is meant as a joke, but the class seems to go for it.

Then we move on to the flip side of question-asking: It is listening. When people do start talking, you must listen, make eye contact, and generally show you’re engaged. We know this, of course. But we are not always good at showing it. Two effective techniques to signal engagement are paraphrasing what people have just said — “It seems like you’re saying…” — and echoing — which is simply occasionally repeating things your partner just said—both of which are commonly used by therapists and hostage negotiators to foster connection and build trust. For instance, if they say, “I guess at that point I was frustrated,” you say, “You were frustrated.” This seems deeply weird and unnatural, and feels awkward to do, and if you overdo it, your partner is going to think something’s wrong with you. But I am here to attest that, done well, it is extremely effective. It’s like a magic trick. Researchers have concluded as much. According to the French psychologists Nicolas Guéguen and Angélique Martin, “Research has shown that mimicry…leads to greater liking of the mimicker” and helps create rapport during a social interaction.

Nightingall breaks down listening into three levels. There is listening for things you know about. That’s the most superficial level. That’s when someone says something about baseball and you jump on it and start talking about baseball. Then there is listening for information — you show curiosity about someone but your questions are about collecting factual data. That’s also more about you and your interests. And then there’s the deepest level of listening: listening for experiences, feelings, motivations, and values. That kind of listening is more than simply hearing, or self-­affirmation. It’s paying attention and endeavoring to understand. It is demonstrated with eye contact, echoing, and paraphrasing, and it can be deepened by asking clarifying questions —­ Why? How? Who? — that help the person get to the heart of the matter.

In other words, at this level of listening, you are not simply listening for something you want to talk about, or offering advice, or trying to think of something smart to say in response. It’s not about your agenda. It is a level of engagement that is about helping your partner get to what they really want to talk about, and you going along for the ride. You still want to talk about yourself a bit, Nightingall says — to give a little, and not leave the person feeling like you’ve just rummaged around in the bureau of their personal life and made off with a watch. But you want most of the focus to be on them. It is, again, a form of . You are hosting someone. You are surrendering a measure of control. You are giving them space. You are taking a risk. That risk opens you to the potential rewards of talking to a stranger.

During lunch and after class, I try out some of these techniques around London. I ask a 20-something bartender at a pub if the day has met her expectations, and she confesses with very little prompting that yes, it has. She’s about to quit her day job. She feels she’s been sold a bill of goods about the merits of a straight corporate career, and she’s going to empty her savings and travel the world. She hasn’t told anyone this yet, she says. But she will soon.

At lunch at a Lebanese takeout restaurant, I ask the owner what items he’s most proud of — because that’s what I want. He starts taking bits of this and that and dropping them into my bag. I tell him I grew up in a white neighborhood, and when I was a kid, a Lebanese family moved in behind us and used to hand us plates over the fence of what was at that time very exotic food. Since then, Lebanese food has always been among my favorites. Curiously, when I eat it, I think about home. This, as Nightingall instructed, was me opening up the conversation with a statement, not a question. The owner tells me that in Lebanon, that kind of hospitality is a big deal; people always make a lot of food for visitors. While he talks, he keeps dropping more food into my bag. When he’s done, the bag weighs about five pounds and he charges me for maybe a third of it.

Related: Here’s How to Strike Up a Conversation With Almost Anyone

At the end of the final day of class, Nightingall tells us that practice will be everything. Some encounters will go poorly, she says, and some will be great, but in time, we will get more comfortable with doing this as we internalize the techniques we have learned. We will be able to get a little bolder or more playful. Our confidence, tone, and body language will alleviate people’s wariness at the flagrant violation of a social norm of long standing.

Indeed, Nightingall is something of a wizard at this. She once started a conversation with a man on the tube just by pointing at his hat, smiling, and saying, simply, “Hat.” She will randomly high-five people in the street, she says. She smiles at people going the opposite direction down an escalator just to see if they’ll smile back. She doesn’t order an Americano; she orders “the best Americano in the world.” And people respond. During a break one day, I walked into the campus Starbucks to get more coffee. Nightingall was already in there, talking animatedly with a barista she’d never met before. When she and I walked out, she told me he gave her the coffee on the house.

Nightingall’s free coffee, my Lebanese meal — these were not coincidences. As I learned repeatedly while testing techniques of talking to strangers, I’d often be rewarded with free food. There are, of course, far more fruitful, meaningful, and valuable reasons to talk to strangers. But the food stuck with me. Then I realized why: When you start a good conversation with a stranger, it’s like you’re giving them an uncommon gift. And more often than not, they want to give you something in return.

Joe Keohane

By: Joe Keohane / Magazine Contributor

Source: How to Become a Master at Talking to Strangers

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References:

“Micro review: ‘Talking to Strangers’ by Malcolm Gladwell – Times of India”. The Times of India. 5 October 2019. Retrieved 2020-04-07.v

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