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Improve Your Conversations By Focusing on Curiosity, Not Performance

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I’m a stand-up comic; between open mics and shows, I cannot go a single night without making enough small talk to feed a thousand dinner parties. Oddly enough, how I perform in one-on-one conversation can feel far more important than whatever I say into a microphone. But “perform” is the key word that just might be sabotaging most people when they try to make small talk.

Regardless of your field, we’ve all been there: walking into a room full of strangers or acquaintances and feeling that nervous pit in your stomach. You want to make a good impression and hold an intelligent, witty conversation but the anxiety starts creeping in. Suddenly you’re more focused on “performing” well socially than actually connecting with people.

Today’s anxiety-reducing social etiquette hack comes from from this TikTok by creator Danielle Bayard Jackson (@thefriendshipexpert). In the video, she explains that your priority in a conversation should not be performance, but curiosity. I’m going to expand on that with some of my own tips for having better conversations, pulled not just from all the hours I’ve put in, but from all the hours I’ve spent annoyed out of my mind from people performing conversation at me. Let’s dig in.

How to have better conversations: Curiosity over performance

When you shift your focus from performance to curiosity, you’ll not only reduce your social anxiety, but you’ll actually have more meaningful conversations. Here are some tips.

Ask open-ended questions

Resist the urge to “perform” by talking about yourself. Instead, ask open-ended questions that allow others to share. You can afford to be a little blunt here, if need be. Simple starters like “What do you like about your work?” or “Where did you grow up?” open up dialogue. Listen intently to their responses and ask thoughtful follow-up questions to show genuine interest. For instance, if they respond that one of their favorite things about work is their coworkers, ask what those people are like. If they say they actually hate their work, ask them what sucks about it in particular. Remember: The objective here is curiosity. The conversation will flow more naturally this way.

Get comfortable with silences

Don’t get unnerved by natural lulls and pauses in conversations. This can be excruciating, but silences allow you and the other person to reflect on what’s been said. Refrain from filling gaps in conversation with nervous rambling. Breathe and enjoy the moment. If someone has a moment to reflect, they may actually think of something else they’d like to add to the conversation.

Compliment sincerely

If you notice something you genuinely admire about someone, politely mention it. The key here is simplicity, but sincerity. “That’s a nice watch” or “You have a good eye for art” does the trick. Don’t just compliment for the sake of flattery. Tasteful, sincere compliments open people up, and can be a great opening for another open-ended question.

Don’t overshare

Believe me, I know how easy it is to monopolize a conversation by oversharing about yourself due to nerves. Keep the focus on the other person by only sharing personal details or stories when absolutely relevant. Again, don’t talk solely to fill space.

Stay present

Anxiety can distract you from conversations as your mind races ahead. Catch yourself if this happens, take a breath, and calmly re-focus on the moment. Don’t stress about where the conversation “should” go next or fret over an earlier awkward moment. Stay engaged in the present.

Having better, less anxious conversations requires tuning into the other person without expectations. Curiosity and sincere interest opens up honest dialogue where performance and posturing closes it off. Try shifting your mindset—the connections you make will become more real, raw and rewarding.





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Today's NYT Connections Hints (and Answer) for Thursday, November 30, 2023

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So many BIRDS today, and yet none of them are what they seem. If you’re looking for the Connections answer for Thursday, November 30, 2023, read on—I’ll share some clues, tips, and strategies, and finally the solutions to all four categories. Along the way, I’ll explain the meanings of the trickier words and we’ll learn how everything fits together. Beware, there are spoilers below for November 30, NYT Connections #172! Read on if you want some hints (and then the answer) to today’s Connections game. 

If you want an easy way to come back to our Connections hints every day, bookmark this page. You can also find our past hints there as well, in case you want to know what you missed in a previous puzzle.

Below, I’ll give you some oblique hints at today’s Connections answers. And farther down the page, I’ll reveal the themes and the answers. Scroll slowly and take just the hints you need!

NYT Connections board for November 30, 2023: COTTAGE, ESCAPE, REBECCA, ROBIN, DUCK, CREAM, GOOSE, SKIRT, STRING, BIRDS, SAY, ROPE, HOBBES, DODGE, NOTORIOUS, WATSON.


Credit: Connections/NYT


Does today’s Connections game require any special knowledge?

Today is a good puzzle for movie buffs. One category relates to movies, and another to famous fictional characters.

Hints for the themes in today’s Connections puzzle

Here are some spoiler-free hints for the groupings in today’s Connections:

  • Yellow category – Get out of the way!

  • Green category – Other possible entries in this group could be PSYCHO and LIFEBOAT. 

  • Blue category – Always the bridesmaid…

  • Purple category – Think dairy.

Does today’s Connections game involve any wordplay?

There’s a fill-in-the-blank with three nouns and a verb; they’re trying to be cute.

Ready to hear the answers? Keep scrolling if you want a little more help.


BEWARE: Spoilers follow for today’s Connections puzzle!

We’re about to give away some of the answers. Scroll slowly if you don’t want the whole thing spoiled. (The full solution is a bit further down.)

What are the ambiguous words in today’s Connections?

  • DUCK and GOOSE are both BIRDS, but you’ll find those three words in different categories today. 

  • HOBBES is the philosopher who famously said that life without government would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” HOBBES is also the stuffed tiger in the comic strip Calvin and HOBBES. 

  • A COTTAGE is a little house in a bucolic setting. It is also a much-maligned member of the cheese family. 

What are the categories in today’s Connections?

  • Yellow: AVOID

  • Green: HITCHCOCK MOVIES

  • Blue: SIDEKICKS

  • Purple: ____ CHEESE

DOUBLE BEWARE: THE SOLUTION IS BELOW

Ready to learn the answers to today’s Connections puzzle? I give them all away below.

What are the yellow words in today’s Connections?

The yellow grouping is considered to be the most straightforward. The theme for today’s yellow group is AVOID and the words are: DODGE, DUCK, ESCAPE, SKIRT.

What are the green words in today’s Connections?

The green grouping is supposed to be the second-easiest. The theme for today’s green category is HITCHCOCK MOVIES and the words are: BIRDS, NOTORIOUS, REBECCA, ROPE.

What are the blue words in today’s Connections?

The blue grouping is the second-hardest. The theme for today’s blue category is SIDEKICKS and the words are: GOOSE, HOBBES, ROBIN, WATSON.

What are the purple words in today’s Connections?

The purple grouping is considered to be the hardest. The theme for today’s purple category is ____ CHEESE and the words are: COTTAGE, CREAM, SAY, STRING.

How I solved today’s Connections

The first thing I pick out is that ROBIN, HOBBES, and WATSON are all sidekicks (to Batman, Calvin, and Holmes, of course). But I’m not sure about a fourth, so it’s time to move on. 

I see the cheeses next: COTTAGE, CREAM, STRING, and SAY. (“Say cheese!”) 🟪 Then we have SKIRT, ESCAPE, DODGE, and DUCK. 🟨 

I’m tempted to use REBECCA as the fourth sidekick, just because she’s a name, but then I remember the DUCK and GOOSE series of books. That’s it! 🟦 I have absolutely no clue what unites BIRDS, NOTORIOUS, ROPE, and REBECCA, but they’re Hitchcock movies. 🟩

Connections 
Puzzle #172
🟪🟪🟪🟪
🟨🟨🟨🟨
🟦🟦🟦🟦
🟩🟩🟩🟩

How to play Connections

I have a full guide to playing Connections, but here’s a refresher on the rules:

First, find the Connections game either on the New York Times website or in their Crossword app. You’ll see a game board with 16 tiles, each with one word or phrase. Your job is to select a group of four tiles that have something in common. Often they are all the same type of thing (for example: RAIN, SLEET, HAIL, and SNOW are all types of wet weather) but sometimes there is wordplay involved (for example, BUCKET, GUEST, TOP TEN, and WISH are all types of lists: bucket list, guest list, and so on).

Select four items and hit the Submit button. If you guessed correctly, the category and color will be revealed. (Yellow is easiest, followed by green, then blue, then purple.) If your guess was incorrect, you’ll get a chance to try again.

You win when you’ve correctly identified all four groups. But if you make four mistakes before you finish, the game ends and the answers are revealed.

How to win Connections

The most important thing to know to win Connections is that the groupings are designed to be tricky. Expect to see overlapping groups. For example, one puzzle seemed to include six breakfast foods: BACON, EGG, PANCAKE, OMELET, WAFFLE, and CEREAL. But BACON turned out to be part of a group of painters along with CLOSE, MUNCH, and WHISTLER, and EGG was in a group of things that come by the dozen (along with JUROR, ROSE, and MONTH). So don’t hit “submit” until you’ve confirmed that your group of four contains only those four things.

If you’re stuck, another strategy is to look at the words that seem to have no connection to the others. If all that comes to mind when you see WHISTLER is the painting nicknamed “Whistler’s Mother,” you might be on to something. When I solved that one, I ended up googling whether there was a painter named Close, because Close didn’t fit any of the obvious themes, either.

Another way to win when you’re stuck is, obviously, to read a few helpful hints–which is why we share these pointers every day. Check back tomorrow for the next puzzle!





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How to Make a Vegan Roast You'll Actually Want to Eat

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Credit: A.A. Newton


Buying a vegan holiday roast is very much like playing Seitan Roulette. A classic Tofurky log is inoffensive at best, but the various competitors that pop up in Whole Foods this time of year ping-pong between “legitimately tasty” and “old boots with a whiff of sage.” If you’re sick of the usual faux-meat options, I have great news: you can totally make your own.

Imitation meat gets a not-entirely-undeserved bad rap, but some of it kinda rules. Mock duck, which is essentially seitan seasoned with five spice, MSG, and sugar, is my favorite. Some varieties are canned, but I think the best kind is molded into a weirdly anatomically correct shape—complete with drums and little riblets—and sold in the frozen section. Texturally, it strikes the perfect balance between springy and chewy; flavor-wise, it’s super savory, but all that sugar helps it develop a caramelized crust when fried. All in all, mock duck beats the pants off of your average seitan turkey, and it’s the perfect starting point for a festive vegan roast.

However, if you tie two stuffed vegan duck halves together and toss it in a hot oven for an hour, you might as well go chew on a vegan leather jacket. Steam is the best way to keep wheat-based faux meats moist and tender, but it won’t give you the burnished crust that you really want in a holiday roast. Solving this problem turned out to be pretty easy: rather than force one vegan meat to be simultaneously moist and crisp, why not get a second vegan meat involved—one that’s actually designed to crisp up in hot oil?

The secret to a good vegan holiday roast

Enter mock goose, which is just sheets of tofu skin seasoned with that triple threat of five spice, MSG, and sugar. It’s usually sold in little folded-up parcels, but carefully peel apart the layers and you’ve got a surprisingly skin-like barding material. Wrapping the stuffed duck halves in mock goose, steaming it in the Instant Pot (or on the stove), and then pan-frying the whole deal gives you everything: moist stuffing, perfectly-cooked “meat,” and salty, crackly skin. It’s the vegan roast you deserve.

Mock duck and goose can be found in the freezer section of most Asian supermarkets. (My market sells Everbest brand mock goose, and I think the mock duck I use is from the brand “Vegetarian Food,” but May Wah Market lists the manufacturer simply as “Company F.”) If you’re not near an Asian market, you can order the duck and a vegetarian mock goose from May Wah online. They deliver anywhere in the U.S., although shipping is expensive ($9.95 or more).

I’ve included recipes for stuffing and gravy here, but I encourage you to use your favorites. If you usually add eggs to your stuffing, though, set a few scoops aside for the roast before mixing in the eggs; they add too much moisture for something that gets almost entirely cooked in steam.

Vegan Holiday Roast Recipe with Walnut-Herb Stuffing and Gravy

Equipment:

  • Heavy-duty aluminum foil

  • Parchment paper

  • Kitchen twine

For the Stuffing:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 1 medium yellow onion, finely diced

  • 2 celery ribs, finely diced

  • 1 small parsnip or half a small celery root, peeled and finely diced

  • 2 cups dried bread cubes

  • 1/4 cup deeply toasted walnuts, roughly chopped

  • 1/2 teaspoon dried sage, or a handful of fresh sage leaves, chopped

  • 1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley, celery leaves, thyme, or a mix

  • 2-3 cups vegetable stock, homemade if you’ve got it

For the Roast:

  • 2 packages vegan smoked half duck, thawed if frozen

  • 2-3 tablespoons neutral cooking oil, plus more if needed

  • 1 package vegan goose (a.k.a. seasoned bean curd skins), thawed if frozen

For the Gravy:

  • 2 tablespoons olive oil

  • 2 tablespoons all-purpose flour

  • 2 cups vegetable stock, at room temperature

1. Make the stuffing. Heat the oil (or butter, for vegetarians) in a skillet over medium heat, then add all the vegetables and cook for 25-30 minutes, stirring frequently. When the vegetables are super soft and lightly browned, add the bread cubes, walnuts, and herbs. Mix thoroughly and season to taste with salt and pepper.

2. Off the heat, stir in the stock a half-cup at a time. Only add as much as the bread cubes will absorb—this roast gets steamed, not baked, so you
don’t want overly wet stuffing. Allow to cool while you assemble the roast.

3. Lay a sheet of heavy-duty aluminum foil on a large cutting board or rimmed sheet pan. Place a slightly smaller sheet of parchment on top of the foil, then cut four or five foot-long pieces of twine. Arrange them parallel to each other on the parchment.

4. Remove the smoked mock duck halves from their packaging and pat dry on paper towels. Heat two tablespoons of neutral oil in a large nonstick (or cast-iron) skillet over medium-low heat. Fry each duck for 3-5 minutes a side until caramelized and golden brown. Set aside.

5. Unwrap the mock goose and remove any toothpicks holding the sheets together. Carefully unfold to a single or double layer and place on top of the twine. The goal is to completely wrap the duck halves in one or two sheets of the goose; this takes some finessing, so work slowly and patiently. Unfold more sheets as needed, and cover any tears with scraps.

6. Place one of the duck halves, concave side up, on the center of the goose sheet. Add roughly one cup of stuffing, compressing it with your hands or the back of a spoon if needed. Place the other half on top, concave side down, to make a little faux-meat package. Wrap the goose skins over the duck halves, then secure as tightly as you can with the twine. Be gentle, but don’t panic if the twine tears the goose a little bit. It’ll glue itself back together as it steams.

7. You should now have a deeply unappetizing little parcel. Wrap it up tightly in the parchment, then wrap it even tighter with the foil and seal completely. Place in the steamer rack of an Instant Pot or other electric pressure cooker, add a cup of water, and seal the lid. Steam under high pressure for 25 minutes, then release the pressure manually and rest in its wrapping for 20 minutes to an hour. (If you don’t have a pressure cooker, 40-45 minutes in a steamer basket on the stovetop should do it.)

8. While the roast steams, make the gravy: Heat two tablespoons of olive oil (or butter) in a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the flour and cook, stirring constantly, for 15 minutes. When your roux is the color of milk chocolate, add the stock little by little and whisk to combine. Bring to a boil, then reduce heat and simmer until thickened, ten minutes or so. Season to taste with salt and pepper, and keep warm until ready to serve.

9. Finally, heat another tablespoon of oil in the same nonstick skillet over medium-low heat. Unwrap the roast, discard the foil and parchment, and carefully transfer to the skillet. Fry for about two minutes per side, until the mock goose skin puffs and crisps and turns dark golden brown. Be sure to brown those sides, too.

Transfer roast to a cutting board and carefully clip the twine with kitchen shears. Slice into half-inch thick slabs and serve with gravy, mashed potatoes, and more stuffing. Happy vegan holidays to you and yours!





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Your Meat and Cheese Board Needs a Glow-up

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I would have resisted a new style of meat and cheese board in the past. Even one year ago, I was digging in my heels when my partner suggested I change the way I made my holiday appetizer spread. But after a year of taste tests, I’m finally ready. It’s time to reconsider the ways of the old meat and cheese board. You don’t have to give it all up, but this year swap out that second wheel of brie or the bowl of water crackers for a more daring and delicious option.

The ultimate veggie chips

A purple bag of vegetable chips.


Credit: Photo courtesy of Confetti Snacks.

While many vegetable chips in the grocery stores are fried, these bright and punchy veggies from Confetti Snacks are sliced thick and prepared without frying, but in a low heat cooking process that preserves their color and flavor. Each bag contains a mixture of carrots, whole okra, shiitake mushrooms, radishes, and purple sweet potato. Each veggie is as crunchy as the last, and you can buy them accented in three flavors: teriyaki BBQ, tandoori curry, and summer truffle. Once again, I love all the flavors so I recommend buying one of each. Made from upcycled veggies that are too unsightly to sell in grocery stores, you can feel good about reducing waste and putting these ugly beauties on your cheese board.


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Irresistible mushroom chips

Whole shiitake mushrooms are baked at a low heat so they gently dry out. This results in a snack so completely crunchy, it’s hard to believe it was once a squishy mushroom. You can buy a bagful of plain mushroom chips, but Confetti Snacks also offers versions dusted in seasonings: black truffle and green curry. You can’t make a wrong choice, I love them both. Serve these mushroom chips in a bowl between the sliced salami and Camembert. 


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Wagyu shaved beef

Beef on a charcuterie board.


Credit: Photo courtesy of KC Cattle Company

There are a lot of high-quality sliced meats adorning cheese boards already. I was perfectly happy noshing away on black pepper salami and prosciutto di Parma when wagyu shaved beef rolled in and ruined everything for me. Now no meat spread will be complete without it. KC Cattle Company offers pre-sliced peppered wagyu that is flavorful, juicy, and impossibly tender. A half-pound of this beautiful charcuterie will run you $9.99 on their website, and after one bite, you’ll realize that’s a steal. Do yourself a favor and slice the slices in half or in quarters before you build the board. Hopefully then every guest will nab a piece before it’s gone.


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Hickory smoked cheese sticks

Smoked cheese sticks on a white plate.


Credit: Robert Sils/Shutterstock

Wheels and large wedges of cheese are tempting to put on a cheese board because of their easy preparation. You just drop them on the board and let the guests hack them apart. While that will never lose its allure, consider the smoked cheese stick as an option. It has the same ease for the host—unpackage and place—but with the added benefit of tidiness and ease for the guest. The sticks are already individual, there’s no need for knives or toothpicks, and no smears and gooey bits left behind. I like smoked cheese sticks because they’re an upgrade to the kind most people are used to.


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Flavored edamame crunchies

Freshly steamed edamame is delicious, but dry roasted edamame is stellar. I’m a fan of the crunchy gems from The Only Bean. They’re absolutely irresistible; and luckily, with their low net carb count and sizable protein content, resisting isn’t necessary. The Only Bean offers their roasted edamame in three flavors: buffalo, ranch, and sriracha. It was hard for me to choose a favorite but I think I ate the buffalo just a tad faster than the other two. A four-ounce bag might not seem like a lot, but edamame weighs nearly nothing so each bag lasts a while. Serve a bowl full of these to replace nuts on your board, or nestled amongst the hard, aged cheeses.


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Parmesan crisps 

Parmesan cheese crisps on a slate board.


Credit: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

You might have noticed I’m leaning toward texture this year. Can you blame me? With so many soft components on the average cheese board—cheeses, fruits, meats, breads—I wind up longing for something crunchy to wake up my senses. Crackers deliver crunch, but what if your crackers were also cheese? Parmesan cheese crisps are just the thing. Cheese is simply cooked until it becomes crunchy just like a cracker. This leap-frogs the need for a wheat cracker, and streamlines your meat and cheese snack. You can make your own parmesan crisps, or you can buy them premade and ready to chomp.


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