I understand that getting to know someone can be exciting, nerve-racking and also a bit daunting. I understand that people are naturally curious and that, aside from de/re-constructing something, asking questions feeds that curiosity. What I don’t understand is why people feel the need to put their new friend, new neighbor or first date on the spotlight.
When you meet someone new, the command “So tell me about yourself” is akin to shoving the microphone down someone’s throat. James Lipton would never ask a question like that so neither should anyone else.When you ask that type of all-encompassing question, what type of answer do you expect? I suppose the first words out of your victim’s mouth will indeed give you clues to what they value. Do they talk about where they grew up or where they work? Do they talk about their birth order or their first pet?

Steven Covey’s book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, addresses the different ways a person defines him or herself. People can be “work centered”, “family centered”, “money centered” etc. For example, being “work centered”, I am what I do. When someone orders me to “tell (me) about yourself”, the first words out of my mouth are usually about my job title. Who I am is based on what I do. A case could be made that “Tell me about yourself” is a straight-shot at determining what that person sees when they look in the mirror. Ambushed by that question, they will usually offer information about what they consider crucial information to who they are. 

However, make no mistake, this is not a comfortable conversation. If you REALLY want to get to know someone, start with simple, specific questions. “Where did you go to school?” “How do you like living here?” “Did you grow up having a dog?” These are easy questions to ask and even easier to answer. I highly recommend these types of questions instead of the overarching command for someone to sum up their entire existence in 30 seconds or less. This is no easy task, and not everyone knows what truly defines them. Perhaps the person they want to be is not the person they feel they are. “Tell me about yourself” assumes the person you’re asking has a grasp on what attributes define them most.

“What do I stand for? Most nights I don’t know…” – Fun.

One more note: When your victim stumbles and tries to turn the interrogation on you, don’t give them a 5 second answer then turn the questions back on them. How about you take the spotlight for awhile and elaborate on something the two of you might have in common. If you can find something you two have in common, there’s hope for this awkward interrogation to turn into a genuine exchange at least, a pleasant conversation at best. Giving an ambiguous answer then continuing the probe with commands like “Keep going – tell me more” just makes matters worse. When your victim escapes your interrogation, you can bet they will try to avoid hanging out with you again.