Theory of Theories

McDonald’s Theory On How Best to Rescue Conversations

95% of the people have experienced trouble starting a conversation. The rest 5% lie.

Yet, our lives are filled with these friend of a friend stories.

“Then there was the friend who prided himself on the following pick up line…He would walk up to a woman and just say “fat penguins.” Of course, the woman would say, “huh?” or “what?” He would then reply, “Fat penguins are a great way to break the ice.”

I watched this line work more than once until he tried it on a more voluptuous lady. She responded by slugging him with her bag. (She thought he was implying that she was a “fat penguin.”) I still think he got her number.”

And just like the friend of a friend stories — theories can have odd starts.

Here are a few theories that resonate with me.

1. McDonald’s Theory

I was once seated in front of my boss during an annual review. He was pensive. Knowing him through the years, I knew he was about to say something deep. All he shared, “I like that you are among the first to venture to a white board.”

When I gave him a quizzical look, he elaborated –“I like that you volunteer as the first one to the whiteboard. It helps set the tone. Not everyone puts themselves out there in a group setting with a rough idea.”

What I understood then — he liked that I took an initiative even when the ideas were half-baked, sometimes quarter baked. I enjoy problem framing — rough drafts on paper, on whiteboards, even on napkins over lunch (with pens borrowed from the waiters.)

What I did not realize until later— a rough draft gives control to the recipients to become collaborators. The art of editing and refining does something to people — they make the idea their own.

In all that humdrum, one thing was clear to me: as humans we are natural editors than we are as writers.

What happens if we use that very human construct to break the ice and start conversations.

Enter McDonald’s.

You are with a group of friends, colleagues and no one has any ideas for lunch, suggest McDonald’s.

Creative sparks fly. Nothing rallies the group better than this initial suggestion.

Works every time (for me).

2. Seinfeld Theory

Stirring the pot works. There is something even better.

I was moved when I read the sincerity and the vulnerability expressed in these words from a reader to an earlier blog:

“I almost always have problems when it comes to striking a conversation with people whom I just met. The whole thing gets me nervous like what should I say? Is he/she interested in the same thing as I am?”

I wanted to reach out to the writer and reassuringly clasp his hand between my palms and share what little I know. The first word I could think of — Seinfeld, “the American TV show about nothing.” I surprised myself with my first choice of word, though not for long.

Context: An immigrant from India and indoctrination with Seinfeld.

Within the first few months of landing in US for graduate studies, I was casually watching TV show with fellow students from India. The show happened to be Seinfeld. A particular scene stood out. Jerry Seinfeld’s friend Kramer was concerned. He was apprehensive that Jerry was going to start driving a casually known acquaintance to the airport. Jerry emphatically retorts “I’m NOT DRIVING HIM TO THE AIRPORT!”

My friend and I looked at each other with raised brows. Not a word was spoken, we learned something new here: different cultures, different emphasis. Even if you return the favor, asking for ride to airport is reserved for very strong relationships! That piqued my interest! I moved back on the sofa entrenching myself, picked up a décor sofa pillow and placed it on my lap. With my wrists and palms resting on the pillows, I leaned forward.

This show had nuggets of cultural wisdom — exaggerated for effect and yet a great canvas to learn the subtlety of daily life’s simple things.

In time, I fell in love with the show. Little did I know then that this show would help me in more ways in later life.

Great Conversations: Who remembers how they start?

All of us can recall some of our best conversations- definitely the gist of it and even how we felt. If you close your eyes and think back, very few of us can pinpoint on how it started or how we felt when these conversations started.

By trial and error, personally, I found the odds of Seinfeld were better than sports or weather as a hurdle breaker. The combination of a personal like for a cult classic and breaking the awkwardness of the start works wonders for me.

I have watched eyes pop up with excitement majority of the time when I mention, “Do you watch Seinfeld?” It has worked with passengers seated next on American flights or other social situations.

In all this, Seinfeld show is a metaphor for common interest somewhere with common knowledge that helps start conversations.

3. Cockroach Theory

Well, the internet attributes this story to Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google. Unsure about the source, the story is still good enough to conjure up a theory.

At a restaurant, a cockroach suddenly flew from somewhere and sat on a lady. She started screaming out of fear. The lady finally managed to push the cockroach away. It landed on another lady in the group. Now, it was the turn of the other lady in the group to continue the drama.

The waitress rushed forward to their rescue. In the relay of throwing, the cockroach next fell upon the waitress. The waitress stood firm, composed herself and observed the behavior of the cockroach on her dress. When she was confident enough, she grabbed it with her fingers and threw it out of the restaurant.

Sipping my coffee and watching the amusement, the antenna of my mind picked up a few thoughts and started wondering, was the cockroach responsible for their histrionic behavior?

If so, then why was the waitress not disturbed? It is not the cockroach, but the inability of those people to handle the disturbance caused by the cockroach, that disturbed the group. I realized that, it is not the shouting of my father or my boss or my wife that disturbs me, it’s my inability to manage my reaction to the words around me.

Everyone reacts, few respond.

Conversations can sometimes go nowhere, sometimes they go to places we are uncomfortable with. The waitress leads the way on how to respond.

Summary: Meta on Theories

Theories germinate in someone’s head. And the line that breaks the ice for me:

“Of course it is happening inside your head, Harry, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” ― J.K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter Series.

The spirit of reassurance in that line brings me a chuckle. For theories do something inside us. They give us frameworks — not formulae. The concoction is ours to figure out — to each his own.

In McDonald’s theory, I discovered ‘stir the pot’ icebreaker that oozes creativity around us. In Seinfeld theory, I stumbled upon common ground icebreaker with people around us. In cockroach theory, I embraced the power of response to the world around us.

All in all, I toyed with this blog title — Seinfeld, McDonald’s and Cockroaches. Theories Abound.

Chickened out on the blog title, but settled on how I remember the theories.

Karthik Rajan

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