Over the holidays I was lucky enough to attend a few parties and meet several new people. What's more, I'm lucky enough to have a job at Inc. that often allows me to chat with new people on the phone.

But in many recent conversations, something was getting on my nerves: My interlocutors were asking about my name: "Ilan--what kind of name is that?" and, as a follow-up: "So--where are you from?" meaning not my hometown but the various nations of my and/or my ancestors' origins.  

Of course, we writer types can be sensitive. And it was the holidays. But I was starting to snap. I'd reply: "It's a four-letter word" or "I'm from Westeros." So I reached out to networking expert Robbie Samuels, to see if I was being crabby or if--in some way--asking about names is a networking no-no.

Here was his reply: "Similar to anyone who has a physical feature (height, hair texture, skin color) that often gets commented on when meeting someone new, anyone who has an unusual (by American standards) name is going to have come up with a coping strategy to deflect the unwarranted attention."

For a coping strategy, he recommends giving a very short answer that does not invite further questions. Something like: "It's Hebrew." Or: "It's a family name." Or: "It's quite popular in France, much more common than John."

Then you should take a deep breath and change the subject. "Being asked countless times about your name is frustrating," he adds. "It's a good reminder that we all have a tendency to call attention to difference when we meet someone for the first time."

In the past, I'd spoken to Samuels for a story about how to behave at networking events. One of his pointers was knowing what not to ask. We all have them: Subjects everyone asks about with kind intentions that nevertheless become monotonous because we discuss them everywhere we go. For example, a pregnant women might be tired of talking about it, especially with strangers--and especially at networking events.

Another example from Samuels of what not to ask--at least not immediately--is: "What do you do?" The question is almost always a downer, since (from a stranger) it seems to come from a place of cold ambition, rather than warm curiosity. It's also a question most of us have come to dislike, since we've been asked it so often--especially in socially unfamiliar situations.

"In our attempts to engage others, we can really put them off, because we're not thinking about what it feels like to be asked the same question all the time," Samuels said. Not long ago he blogged about a similar subject: The kinds of innocently curious questions people blurt out upon meeting someone new. He wrote: 

Before uttering the first thought that comes into your head when meeting someone, check first to be sure you're not asking merely out of curiosity. That usually means you've noticed something different about the person in front of you and you're about to home in on that difference by asking about it. Since that likely happens to this person all day, every day, they'll give you a pat answer that likely won't lead to further discussion. You won't make a great or long-lasting impression and you'll miss the opportunity to really engage with them.


You might wonder, then: What's a safe thing to talk about with someone you've just met? Samuels suggests paying a compliment about what someone is wearing: Sunglasses, scarves, jackets, or jewelry. Note that all of those items are what you might call peripheral gear: You're respectfully not discussing the garments that are closest to someone's body. Instead, you're acknowledging a choice someone made. You are coming nowhere near the mentioning or acknowledging of a physical trait.

And if that approach fails, you can always resort to this safe question: "How did you hear about this event?" Samuels calls it a "can't-miss opener." I'm inclined to agree.