Updated: Feb 14, 2021
When I was young, I felt that I did not fit in. Even though I had a group of friends in junior high and was voted student president when I was 13 years old, I felt strongly that I could not relate to people. I often battled with the feeling that I was weird or something was wrong with me.
Things became more challenging when I moved to Hong Kong in 1995, as I could not speak Cantonese, and I knew hardly anyone in town. The difference in language, culture, and way of life sharpened the feelings of being an outsider. I felt isolated. But one day, I decided I would like to change this.
First, I decided to find a job. I did not speak fluent English, so I had few choices. However, being an Indonesian and realising that Hong Kong had many Indonesian domestic workers, I decided to find work in that area. I applied for a position at a non-government organisation, but they had no openings for an Indonesian speaker. Luckily, they did end up hiring me. This job opened up a world of opportunities. I met so many interesting people and received a much-needed boost of confidence.
However, old beliefs die hard. I still found it hard to connect to other people, as I became tongue-tied during conversations. I realized that I had to fix this situation as well. I then started to pay close attention to topics of conversation when my colleagues conversed with each other.
In my quest to be a good conversationalist, I realised that a good conversation is not unlike playing ball. You catch the ball, but you need to throw the ball back to keep the game going. This meant that to keep a conversation going, I had to ask follow-up questions even when it was my turn to answer a question.
Friend: Hi, Devi. You are Indonesian, aren’t you? Have you been to Komodo Island?
Me: No, I have not. Have you?
Friend: Yes, I did. It was very nice.
(My friend thought she could not go further in the conversation, as she felt that I could not participate.)
But hey…I now knew the “secret” of good conversation.
Therefore, I continued with:
Me: Oh, cool. What was Komodo Island like? Did you go on a tour or independently, and did you manage to see the Komodo?
As I started to observe more, I realised that most conversations revolve around current affairs, travelling, families, restaurants, etc. Therefore, I decided to subscribe to an international magazine and a popular local newspaper, so I would know what was happening in Hong Kong and the world. Travelling certainly helped widen my horizons as well. When I found myself in a conversation involving a topic that I did not know much about, I would use this opportunity to ask a question, just like I did above.
I found this simple strategy to work well for me. I can now connect to other people much better, and very often, I learn a new thing or two. With this approach, I steadily managed to build a great professional network and some strong friendships with an array of people over the years.
So, note to my younger self:
Everyone is different. I do not have to fit in.
Don't be afraid to take the first step.