How to Talk to People, According to Terry Gross

The NPR host offers 8 spicy tips for having better conversations.

By Jolie Kerr            Nov. 17, 2018                           The New York Times

It’s fair to say Terry Gross knows some things about talking to people. The host and co-executive producer of NPR’s “Fresh Air” has interviewed thousands of personalities over the course of her four-decade career.

It all started in the early 1970s, when, floundering a bit in her post-college life, she landed a gig at WBFO, a radio station in Buffalo. There she would call subjects and interview them for the program she hosted, “This Is Radio.” She moved to Philadelphia in 1975 to host “Fresh Air,” the brainchild of a colleague from WBFO.

Ms. Gross brings a combination of empathy and rigorous preparation to the job. “I read, watch or listen to as much of the person’s work as possible, so I have an understanding of what makes them, or their story, important,” she said. “I try to clarify in my own mind why this person matters, and why it’s worthy of our listeners’ time.”

One thing she does not allow of her interview subjects, however, is input on the edit. “When the interview is over, you don’t have a chance to call back and say, ‘Well I like my answer to this, I don’t like my answer to that, can you edit that out,” she said. (As someone who has been interviewed by Ms. Gross, I would like to say that I wish I hadn’t insisted that her cats hate her. That said, I never asked for my comment to be removed from that particular episode of “Fresh Air.”)

In a subsequent chat, our roles reversed, Ms. Gross offered her thoughts on how to have a good conversation.

 “Tell me about yourself,” 
a.k.a the only icebreaker 
you’ll ever need

Those are the only four words you need to navigate a potentially awkward conversation, whether on a blind date or at a cocktail party. Ms. Gross avoids asking more pointed questions (for example, “What do you do for work?”) that presume information to be true.

The beauty in opening with “tell me about yourself” is that it allows you to start a conversation without the fear that you’re going to inadvertently make someone uncomfortable or self-conscious. Posing a broad question lets people lead you to who they are. As an interviewer, Ms. Gross’s goal is to find out how her subject became who they are; as a conversationalist, make that goal your own.

 The secret to being a good 

Interviewing a person and having a conversation with them are two different things, but a common thread that can help you to excel at both, according to Ms. Gross, is “being genuinely curious, and wanting to hear what the other person is telling you. I can respond to what somebody saying by expressing if I’m feeling sympathy or empathy, and explaining why.”

Be funny (if you can).

“A good conversationalist is somebody who is fun to talk to,” she said. Ms. Gross, it’s worth noting, is very funny. If you can’t be funny, being mentally organized, reasonably concise and energetic will go a long way in impressing people.

 Preparation is key.

Most of us will never find ourselves in the position of being interviewed by someone like Ms. Gross, but most of us will certainly find ourselves in the position of being interviewed by someone. Preparation, she says, is key. “It helps to organize your thoughts beforehand by thinking about the things you expect you’ll be asked and then reflecting on how you might answer,” she said.

A place where this can be especially helpful, particularly when meeting someone for the first time in a social setting, like a date, is considering how comfortable you are with opening up on certain topics. “It’s helpful to think through where your boundaries are, so that you’re not paralyzed agonizing over whether you’re willing to confide something or not.”

In a job interview, organizing your thoughts by thinking about the things you expect you’ll be asked and reflecting on how you might answer can help you navigate if things start to go badly.

 Take control 
by pivoting to something you want 
to talk about.

Ms. Gross offered help for how to handle a job interview that’s going badly. “If somebody is asking you questions and you don’t feel that you have a strong response for it, say, ‘let me share an experience.’” From there, you can share an experience that points to your talents and areas where you excel.

An interview is a two-way street, which can be hard to remember when you’re the applicant who desperately wants to land the gig, but Ms. Gross gently reminds us that as an interviewee, you’re there to do some sussing out of your own. What is the job really like? What would be expected of you? Being prepared, too, can help you avoid getting caught off guard, or help you to more easily pivot the conversation to a subject that you’ve prepared yourself to talk about in a way that plays to your strengths.

 Ms. Gross doesn’t want you 
to dodge questions. 
But if you’re going to, here’s how.

“Well, I don’t think it is in my self-interest to tutor people on how to dodge a question,” Ms. Gross said. But, when pressed — perhaps regretting the previous advice she gave to this interviewer about how to get people to answer questions they don’t want to answer (“keep asking”) — she suggests using honesty. Say, “I don’t want to answer that,” or, if that’s too blunt, hedge with a statement like, “I’m having a difficult time thinking of a specific answer to that.” Going the martyr route with something like, “I’m afraid by answering that I’m going to hurt somebody’s feelings and I don’t want to do that,” is another option.

 Terry pays attention to body language. 
Be like Terry.

Ms. Gross wishes that everyone would pay attention to other people’s body language. “Try to pick up on when you’ve kind of lost somebody’s attention,” she said. That way, you can avoid boring your fellow interlocutor to death or holding someone up from getting to wherever they may actually need to be. If the person engaging you in ceaseless chatter won’t take the hint, Ms. Gross again recommends honesty. “Well, there’s the truth, which is I’d love to talk some more, but I’m really late,” even, she says, if it feels rude to cut things off. “If a person is being insensitive to you, you don’t have a commitment to be beholden to their insensitivity.”

 When to push back, 
and when not to

Ms. Gross prefers to interview artists and creators over politicians, and she approaches those baskets of interviewees differently. Politicians, she believes, “owe us an answer,” and so she, in her own very Terry Gross way will “keep asking and re-asking and asking, and maybe I’ll ask it in separate ways, and maybe I’ll point out that they haven’t yet answered the question.” She prefers, however, to interview people who work in arts and culture, and offers those subjects more leeway to set parameters for the conversation. “I tell people that if I ask them anything too personal they should let me know and I’ll move on,” she said. “I want the liberty to ask anything with the understanding that if I’m pushing too far, my guest has the liberty — and they know they have the liberty — to tell me that I’m going too far. And once you told somebody that, you’ve committed to it, and you better fulfill the commitment.”

A version of this article appears in print on Nov. 18, 2018, on Page ST4 of the New York edition with the headline: A Master Class in the Fine Art of Conversation.

‘Seriously Ill’ Aretha Franklin Visited by Luminaries, While Others Pay Tribute

‘Seriously Ill’ Aretha Franklin Visited by Luminaries, While Others Pay Tribute

By Ben Sisario

Aug. 14, 2018                              The New York Times

Aretha Franklin died on Thursday at her home in Detroit. She was 76. Read our obituary here and an essential playlist of her songs.

An ailing Aretha Franklin was visited on Tuesday at her home in Detroit by Stevie Wonder and her ex-husband Glynn Turman, as tributes to the Queen of Soul poured in from around the world.

A spokeswoman for the Franklin family confirmed the visits and said in a statement that Ms. Franklin, 76, is “seriously ill and surrounded by family members who appreciate the outpouring of love and support they have received.” Don Terry, a representative for the Rev. Jesse Jackson, said Mr. Jackson will be visiting Ms. Franklin on Wednesday.

No additional details of Ms. Franklin’s illness were given, and the spokeswoman, Gwendolyn Quinn, declined to answer further questions.

According to two people who were in touch with the family but were not authorized to discuss Ms. Franklin’s condition, the singer of “Respect” and “Natural Woman,” who is universally hailed as one of America’s greatest voices, has been receiving hospice care at home.

Since the news of Ms. Franklin’s illness emerged on Sunday, on the celebrity news site Showbiz411, fans, celebrities and world leaders have offered signs of support. By Monday her name was a trending topic on Twitter.

Beyoncé, performing with Jay-Z at Ford Field in Detroit on Monday, dedicated their concert to Ms. Franklin. “We love you and thank you,” she said.

Also on Monday, former president Bill Clinton posted on Twitter that “Hillary and I are thinking about Aretha Franklin tonight & listening to her music that has been such an important part of our lives the last 50 years.” Ms. Franklin sang at Mr. Clinton’s first inauguration, in 1993.


Ms. Franklin also sang at Barack Obama’s first inauguration, in 2009. She was a Kennedy Center Honoree and received the National Medal of Arts and the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and she was the first woman inducted to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, in 1987.

Mariah Carey, Patti LaBelle, Chance the Rapper, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rod Stewart, Missy Elliott and Tyler Perry were among the many celebrities who paid tribute on social media.

Ms. Franklin, who has won 18 Grammy Awards, has had a long history of canceling concerts for health reasons, but she has not specified an illness. Her last public concert was at the Mann Center for the Performing Arts in Philadelphia a year ago, and last November she sang at an event for the Elton John AIDS Foundation at the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan.

In 2010, Rolling Stone ranked her the greatest singer of all time, just ahead of Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke and John Lennon.

The lack of detail about Ms. Franklin’s condition led to some premature comments on social media that she had died. On Tuesday, Tim Franklin, a nephew, was quoted in a report by People magazine saying that Ms. Franklin was “alert, laughing, teasing, able to recognize people.”

That comment was rebutted by the rest of the Franklin family, whose representative, Ms. Quinn, said in her statement that Ms. Franklin had met with her nephew in a “very brief visit two weeks ago.”

But by then the People report had been picked up by numerous other media outlets.

Correction: August 14, 2018

An earlier version of this article, using information provided by Aretha Franklin’s representative, misstated the timing of the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s visit to Ms. Franklin at her home. He plans to see her on Wednesday; he did not visit on Tuesday.

Cages Are Cruel. The Desert Is, Too.

Cages Are Cruel. The Desert Is, Too.

By Francisco Cant
Mr. Cant was a Border Patrol agent from 2008 to 2012.

June 30, 2018               The New York Times

A marker over an immigrant’s grave in Holtville, Calif. Hundreds of immigrants, many of whom died while crossing the desert from Mexico into the United States, are buried in a cemetery there.CreditJohn Moore/Getty Images

TUCSON — During the three and a half years I worked for the United States Border Patrol, from 2008 to 2012, America’s immigration enforcement never made less sense to me than when I tried to explain it to those most affected by it.

Once, patrolling the border fence, I was flagged down by a woman on the other side. She asked for information about her son. She didn’t know where or how long ago he had crossed, or whether he had been detained or become lost somewhere along the way. She didn’t even know whether he was still alive.

I struggle to remember what I told her. It’s possible I explained that crossing often entailed walking for days or weeks through the desert. It’s possible I suggested filing a missing persons report. It’s possible I gave her the number of a hotline that could match her son’s name and birth date to a person deep within the immigration detention system — a person regarded as a criminal by the United States government, another body filling a bed in a private detention center, a person who, to the woman trembling at the fence, represented the entire world.

After a month of outrage at the cruelty of President Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy, last week we saw a stream of confounding and divergent statements on immigration: The president suggested depriving undocumented migrants of due process; Attorney General Jeff Sessions insisted that every adult who crossed illegally would be prosecuted; and the commissioner of Customs and Border Protection announced that families would once again be released together to await trial. Meanwhile, thousands of separated children and their parents remain trapped in a web of shelters and detention facilities run by nonprofit groups and private prison, security and defense companies.

It is important to understand that the crisis of separation manufactured by the Trump administration is only the most visibly abhorrent manifestation of a decades-long project to create a “state of exception” along our southern border.

This concept was used by the Italian philosopher Giorgio Agamben in the aftermath of Sept. 11 to describe the states of emergency declared by governments to suspend or diminish rights and protections. In April, when the president deployed National Guard troops to the border (an action also taken by his two predecessors), he declared that “the situation at the border has now reached a point of crisis.” In fact, despite recent upticks, border crossings remained at historic lows and the border was more secure than ever — though we might ask, secure for whom?

For most Americans, what happens on the border remains out of sight and out of mind. But in the immigration enforcement community, the militarization of the border has given rise to a culture imbued with the language and tactics of war.

Border agents refer to migrants as “criminals,” “aliens,” “illegals,” “bodies” or “toncs” (possibly an acronym for “temporarily out of native country” or “territory of origin not known” — or a reference to the sound of a Maglite hitting a migrant’s skull). They are equipped with drones, helicopters, infrared cameras, radar, ground sensors and explosion-resistant vehicles. But their most deadly tool is geographic — the desert itself.

“Prevention Through Deterrence” came to define border enforcement in the 1990s, when the Border Patrol cracked down on migrant crossings in cities like El Paso. Walls were built, budgets ballooned and scores of new agents were hired to patrol border towns. Everywhere else, it was assumed, the hostile desert would do the dirty work of deterring crossers, away from the public eye.

Doris Meissner, the commissioner of the Immigration and Naturalization Service from 1993 to 2000, told The Arizona Republic that the agency believed “that geography would be an ally to us” and that border crossings “would go down to a trickle once people realized what it’s like.”

But even as it became obvious that large numbers were risking the desert crossing and a hundred or more were dying each year from exposure, the government did not change course. “The idea of abandoning any kind of strengthened border enforcement because of that consequence was not a point of serious discussion,” Ms. Meissner admitted. In other words, migrant deaths continued by design.

The Border Patrol often cites its search-and-rescue operations as evidence that its practices are somehow humane. But this is like firefighters asking to be thanked for putting out a blaze started by their own chief. Receiving training as an E.M.T. allowed me to cling to the idea that I was helping migrants by administering aid while ignoring the fact that I was participating in pushing them toward death.

Such defenses also gloss over the patrol’s casual brutality: I have witnessed agents scattering migrant groups in remote areas and destroying their water supplies, acts that have also been extensively documented by humanitarian groups.

The principle of deterrence is behind the current administration’s zero-tolerance policy. In an interview with Laura Ingraham on Fox News, Mr. Sessions, pressed on whether children were being separated from parents to deter crossers, conceded, “Yes, hopefully people will get the message.”

Administration officials have claimed that even this policy is “humanitarian,” in part because it may dissuade future migrants from bringing their children on the dangerous journey.

This ignores decades of proof that no matter what version of hell migrants are made to pass through at the border, they will endure it to escape far more tangible threats of violence in their home countries, to reunite with family or to secure some semblance of economic stability.

Policymakers also ignore that new enforcement measures almost always strengthen cartel-aligned human trafficking networks, giving them cause to increase their smuggling fees and push vulnerable migrants to make riskier crossings to avoid detection.

Jason De León, the director of the Undocumented Migration Project, argues that the government sees undocumented migrants as people “whose lives have no political or social value” and “whose deaths are of little consequence.”

This devaluation of migrant life is not just rhetorical: CNN recently revealed that the Border Patrol has been undercounting migrant deaths, failing to include more than 500 in its official tally of more than 6,000 deaths over 16 years — a literal erasure of lives.

The logic of deterrence is not unlike that of war: It has transformed the border into a state of exception where some of the most vulnerable people on earth face death and disappearance and where children are torn from their parents to send the message You are not safe here. In this sense, the situation at the border has reached a point of crisis — not one of criminality but of disregard for human life.

We cannot return to indifference. In the aftermath of our nation’s outcry against family separation, it is vital that we direct our outrage toward the violent policies that enabled it.

Francisco Cantú, a former Border Patrol agent, is the author of “The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches From the Border.”