You're at a cocktail party. You run into a friend you haven't seen for years. Like you, he is a person of a certain age. Looking for a conversation opener, you start with a harmless enough, "Are you still playing golf"?
For reasons illustrated below, you will never again ask a question like that.
As with my last blog post, this one also involves British royalty. Some years ago, when I was Chairman of Compaq Computer, we frequently entertained major customers in the UK by inviting members of the royal family to join us at corporate lunches and dinners. Compaq would contribute to favorite charities of the Royals; they would agree to attend our events, chat with customers, and even pose for photographs. It was a wonderfully symbiotic relationship; the charities received major donations, and we were assured of having capacity turnouts.
One event in particular stands out in my memory. It was in the late 1980s, and Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, was our guest of honor at a major-account luncheon in London. Just before cocktails, I approached the Prince’s equerry to search for possible topics of conversation with His Royal Highness. Among the suggestions was discussing the Prince’s love of piloting the BAe 146, a British-manufactured four-engine jet. That was really appealing to me – the Prince, then in his late sixties, was still flying jets.
Armed with this nugget, I eagerly looked forward to our lunch conversation – I had a sure topic of interest. The Prince and I were seated at the same table, separated by the wife of our UK general manager.
But from the moment we were seated, the Prince spoke exclusively with the general manager’s wife; neither I nor anyone else at the table could get a word in edgewise. And I was the host! So it went during the appetizer dish and through the main course. Then, just as the waiters were clearing the entrée dishes, an opportunity presented itself. There was a momentary break in the conversation, and I seized the moment. My opening line: "Your Royal Highness, I understand that you still fly airplanes."
Silence from the Prince. Silence from the table. All eyes turned to us. The Prince then spoke, staring at me witheringly: "Yes, you know, I am in that still period of life. That period when I can still lift a fork. [He demonstrated lifting a fork.] That period when I can still lift a glass. [Ditto with a glass.] That period when I can still breathe. [Ditto] [Pause.] Yes, I still fly.”
With that, he turned away from me and returned to his conversation with the country manager’s wife. I, on the other hand, crawled under the table.
Since that embarrassment of twenty years ago, I have never asked anyone if he still does anything.