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Getting to Know You

How a community makes chit-chat reveals a lot about the local culture.

There's a joke in Georgia about what folks in different cities ask strangers as a conversation starter. In Atlanta, people are likely to ask, "What do you do?" In Macon, they say, "What did your daddy do?" And in Savannah, the first question is, "What are you drinking?"

As with most saws, there's some truth to it. Certainly, no state or local government has an "official icebreaker" to go along with the state bird or the city seal. But they might as well have one. Because almost anywhere you go in the country, you'll find that the locals share a common opening question when meeting people at bars or dinner parties.

It's more than small talk. Usually, first questions are loaded in quiet and unassuming ways to figure out the other person's standing in the community. In fact, first questions reveal as much about the values and culture of a given place as the answer will reveal about the stranger.

For example, in a business-minded city such as Atlanta, the assumption is that anyone you meet is looking to advance herself professionally. In a tradition-minded Southern city such as Macon, they're more concerned with lineage. They want to know how far back your connections to the place -- and their relatives -- go.

And in Savannah, well -- it's a place to party. "Not that we're a big town of lushes," Erica Backus, public relations director for the Savannah Area Chamber of Commerce, is quick to point out. "But, you know, we're an open-container town. Maybe something a little more politically correct is 'Would you like a to-go cup?' Then we get to where you go to church and who's your daddy."

In some locales, as Backus suggests, opening questions are religious in nature. There are parts of the South, such as Upstate South Carolina, where locals are likely to begin chit-chat by asking what church you belong to. By contrast, when people in the Denver area make your acquaintance, they tend to be more interested in what type of outdoor activity you most love to do.

"Definitely, that physical exercise thing is a great way to connect with people," says Ann Williams, of the Denver Department of Public Works. "I do think that people here care less about what you do for a living."

As in Atlanta, residents of Detroit ask each other about work. But given the state of the local auto industry, the meaning behind the question is different. "It's not to find out what you do, but whether perhaps you're on the verge of being out of a job," says Peter Henning, a Wayne State University law professor.

Cities that attract many transients are often transfixed by addresses. In New York City, for example, the most popular question is "Where do you live?" People in San Francisco want to know the same thing. That's partially because so many people are new to those cities that they're still discovering the lay of the land. But it's also because those who stick around come to view your choice of a neighborhood or suburb as a proxy for your tastes and income level -- or at least how much rent you can afford to pay.

In cities that draw fewer outlanders, residents often want to determine the depth of each other's roots. In Louisville, they use a trick question. "Here, it's 'Where did you go to school?'" says Mayor Jerry Abramson. "The local kid will give his high school. And the individuals from out of town will give their college.

"When they answer with their high school," he continues, "you basically know the socioeconomic group in which they were raised."

They use the same question for the same reasons in St. Louis. "It's all about getting the most information in the smallest amount of time -- sort of a conversational CliffsNotes," St. Louis magazine wrote a few years ago. "Here, 'Where did you go to school?' comes within seconds of 'Nice to meet you' and at least four conversations before 'What's your sign?'"

In fact, a few people in St. Louis used their hometown icebreaker as a form of quiet protest last year. After the iconic local company Anheuser-Busch was sold to Belgian brewer InBev, they made up tee-shirts asking InBev's CEO, "Carlos Brito, where'd you go to school?"

"It was the perfect insult," recalls one resident. "Because he wouldn't even know why it was an insult."

Alan Greenblatt is a Governing staff writer.

E-mail: agreenblatt@governing.com

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