Why are we so bad at introducing ourselves?

An essay about the gaps in our introductions and how to do better.

09 Nov 2020

Person holding sticker that says Hello
Photo by Vladislav Klapin on Unsplash

Welcome to the second issue of Great Stuff! Big news: the newsletter is now weekly—I’m way too impatient to wait two weeks between issues! For this week, I’m sharing an essay I wrote about introductions.

Introductions are just about the most common thing people do. We introduce ourselves in class, to friends of friends, to strangers on flights, and even in our Instagram and Twitter bios. We use introductions to differentiate ourselves, but also to find what we have in common. We hope that some part of them resonates with others or kick-starts a conversation. Despite this important role, we absolutely suck at introducing ourselves. In this essay, I talk about the problems in our intros and concrete ways in which we can improve.

1. Don’t ask people to stereotype you

If you’re in college, you’ve probably heard introductions that go, “Hi, my name is Tom, I’m from Indiana, and I’m majoring in philosophy!” We don’t really question intros like this, but I want you to push back and think for a moment. What does Tom’s introduction tell you? Unless you know something about Indiana or have some unique insight about the inner lives of philosophy majors, I’d say you’ve learned very little. In fact, both you and he are worse off: Tom because he’s asked you to stereotype him based on hometown and major, and you because you have an inaccurate idea of what Tom must be like. I call these low-info intros “stereotype me introductions”, because that’s exactly what you’re asking the other person to do.

Admittedly, I’ve done my fair share of these. But once I started looking at them as polite requests to be stereotyped, I realized it was rather odd that I’d continued to introduce myself as a CS major from New Delhi. Firstly, stereotypes of CS bros include being competitive and awkward. Second, New Delhi has a population of millions, so any perception of me based on my hometown was likely to be false. Moreover, this style of intro is just plain boring, especially after you hear it for the millionth time.

Take a moment to reflect on how you introduce yourself. Are you forcing the other person to stereotype you? What might those stereotypes be? Finding these unintentional gaps is essential to an effective introduction.

2. Ditch things that aren’t really yours

Let’s break down introductions. The goal is to describe what you’re about in a few sentences. This is obviously really hard—I’m not even convinced that my 500 word college essays really captured me. So saying things like your major and your hometown is a waste of words. Introducing yourself is supposed to be about you, not the things that you’re weakly associated with. Some, like Taimur Abdaal of Not Overthinking, even believe that using stuff to describe yourself is problematic for your self-worth. He says it’s dehumanizing to introduce ourselves by the work we do, and I agree.

Here’s one way to think about this: Can the things you use to introduce yourself exist without you? If they can, ditch them! You’ll be left with thoughts, feelings, interests, obsessions—things that can’t exist without you. And isn’t introducing yourself all about telling others the things that are uniquely you?

I came across a good example of this on an episode of Think Smart, Talk Fast called “Question Your Questions.” In response to boring intros like Tom’s, Tina Seelig, a professor at Stanford, recalls a student with a unique way of introducing herself. She would go, “Imagine a world where we travelled to space as frequently as we get on a flight. My name is so-and-so and this is what I’m excited about.” Now, I’m not convinced that this would actually work outside business schools. If I started my intros with “Imagine a world where…”, I’m almost certain people would say “Whoa, what an ass! Who does he think he is?” But the underlying idea of putting yourself front and center is very solid, so this is great inspiration.

3. Don’t hide who you are

This part is fairly straightforward: Be authentic. It sounds pretty trite, but it’s true and broadly applicable. For instance, while reflecting on my introductions, I realized I have a tendency to omit certain things. I’m a massive STEM nerd, but you wouldn’t know it if you’d just met me. I think these omissions come from a place of not wanting to be stereotyped based on my interests. This is ironic given that the things I talked about earlier—like college majors—are much stronger sources of stereotyping. I don’t think anyone’s ever formed an opinion of me based on the fact that I spend my spare time watching science YouTubers.

With some reflection, you’ll almost certainly find something important to you that you’re omitting. You may even find that this is one of the things that sets you apart.

4. Use the “extremes to convergence” strategy

In an interview conducted by his brother Ali, Taimur Abdaal complains about how easy it is for people who play a sport or an instrument to introduce themselves. They can just go, “Here’s my musical hobby, here’s my sports hobby,” and so on. But some do things that are harder to package up. In Ali’s words, these might be things like “browsing forums, vaguely reading about web design, and vaguely trying to code.” As Ali points out, you can’t exactly say your hobby is the Internet, can you?

There are ways to deal with this. My favorite is one that I call “extremes to convergence.” You find two things that you like that almost never go together, such as art and math. Then, you find some way to tie them together, and you have yourself an introduction. If Tom from earlier were to use this, he might say “Hi, I’m Tom, and I enjoy using philosophy to explore the history of memes!” This prevents Tom from being pigeon-holed as a philosopher and also demonstrates his range.

To recap, here’s what you should do:

  1. Avoid asking people to stereotype you

  2. Ditch things that aren’t really yours

  3. Don’t hide who you are

  4. Use the “extremes to convergence” strategy

After adopting these, Tom introduces himself like, “Hi! I’m Tom, and I enjoy gardening, fried chicken, and using philosophy to explore the history of memes!” I think Tom sounds way more interesting now!

I hope you found this issue insightful. If you’re intrigued by the ideas I discuss here, here’s what you might enjoy:

  1. Ali & Taimur Abdaal: Arrogance, Expectations and Inspiration

  2. Think Fast, Talk Smart: Question Your Questions

How do you introduce yourself? Is there something here you disagree with, or a strategy you use that others might find helpful? Be sure to let me know by replying to this email!

This is cross-posted from my newsletter, Great Stuff. If you liked it, be sure to subscribe!

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