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Getting to know you in the age of Google

by Alex in | | | |

My latest blog post for HBR is an interview with digital anthropologist Brynn Evans. One of Brynn’s research projects was The Social Shirt:

The social shirtWe have all experienced it: we go to introduce ourselves to someone new, only to learn that the

person remembers us quite distinctly! How embarrassing! Or its milder cousin: we recognize someone but fail to recall their name, occupation, or the context in which we originally met them. Do we go re-introduce ourselves? How do we overcome the awkwardness of this scenario?

Our “Social Shirt” prototype is intended to mitigate the awkwardness during social interactions with people who we don’t remember well or with distant acquaintances. It presents relevant information to the user through an LCD embedded in the fabric of a shirt near the wrist, which we found may referenced with minimal interruption during a normal conversation.

The Social Shirt is a sartorial solution I could definitely get behind. (Though I wonder if I could order mine in the form of Wonder Woman-style wrist cuffs.) Meanwhile, I depend on a less elegant solution: the pre- or mid-meeting Google.

But the Google poses its own dilemma for casual social interaction. The professional getting-to-know-you conversation usually follows a generally (though not universally) recognized path: exchanging names, place and nature of work, descriptions of projects. The personal version — the question you’d ask someone at a party — covers family, place of residence, maybe hobbies and hometown. If one participant in the conversation already has all the answers — thanks to Google — it throws off the whole balance of that conversation.

On the other hand, I’ve also found myself apologizing to someone for not googling before we met — it feels rude not to have done my homework! But I’ve learned that it freaks people out if I use my iPhone to google them while we talk. I hate seeming like a stalker, but equally, I hate wasting my time (or a new acquaintance’s) by asking a million questions that I could answer myself with some help from Google.

What’s the etiquette on googling new acquaintances? I asked Brynn to share her insights.

ME: Do you usually google people (or look them up on LinkedIn, Twitter, etc) before you meet?

BRYNN: I like to get background and context on people to help me know where they’re coming from and what to expect from them. I usually start on Google, but would really like to see a personal website, Twitter account, or (lastly) a LinkedIn page. I like to see the scope of projects they’ve worked on or the things they’re doing. Their Twitter handle also helps for following up after the meeting – and it’s easier than exchanging business cards.

What do you do if you haven’t had a chance to google before you meet?

When I can’t look people up before speaking to them, I often feel handicapped! For example, I had an interview with big company last fall, and the recruiter only gave me her first name — it was like Kathy. But Kathy who? That’s a completely un-Googleable name, and to this day, I have no idea who I spoke to at that company. It was really frustrating.

For lots of people I interact with these days, we start on email or Twitter. In those cases, I definitely investigate them on Google and elsewhere to get a sense of who I’m talking to. Then if and when we meet in person, I’ve already built up some rapport.

Do you think it’s rude not to google someone before meeting?

I wouldn’t expect someone to Google me before a meeting. I actually get embarrassed when people seem to know a lot about me, when I don’t know them. But I do try to keep it in perspective that I put a lot about me on my website and Twitter. But I go into every meeting with no expectation that the person knows who I am or what I’ve done, and for that reason, I wouldn’t say it’s rude not to.

Is it rude to google someone while you are talking to get more context on what they are telling you about?

I would never do that WHILE I was talking to someone. I do sometimes sneak away to the bathroom or arrive early to hop on my phone and look something up. But I do think in just a one-on-one situation, glancing at your phone (like your wrist watch) is a sign of boredom and distraction, and unless someone discloses the reason for hopping on the phone, it is kind of rude.

So I guess I have to stop googling people mid-conversation?

I’m pretty sure I remember googling someone or going to their website while we were having a one-on-one conversation — and I’m pretty sure I said “oh, tarabrown.com…I’m looking you up!” and made a joke out of it. If the page loads before the conversation shifts someplace else, I have been known to glance at what’s there…but I usually don’t study it for too long.

Maybe it can be acceptable to Google someone or something (like a project they’re talking about) while you are face-to-face. I tend to write down project names or things to Google later in my to-do list on my phone. And I do declare these to my conversation partner: “I’m just going to mark that on my to-do list for later!”

* * *

Add one more item to my to-do list: finding someone to build a Social Shirt based on Brynn’s prototype. If I can’t do the mid-conversation google-by-iPhone, I’ll need to wear my googling on my sleeve.

First posted on March 29,2010

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