I’ve long since given up explaining to friends the specifics of what I do for a living. 

They all see the succession of ‘free’ cars outside the house and assume that life is one long train full of gravy and I’m in possession of a first class season ticket. 

When countering that perception with tales of ridiculously early starts, long days behind the wheel of sometimes frankly unimpressive cars and equally long stints at the keyboard, suddenly my friends can’t find their really small violins… Still, we all do it because we enjoy the variety, take an unhealthy interest in the subject matter and it beats working in a bank, right?

If that’s the case, it would be more than just polite to engage with the engineer or designer sat next to you at the launch dinner table. No doubt they would, like you, prefer to be at home with the family once in a while. However, the boss says it’s important to talk to the journalists – tell them about the new safety widget or defend the new car’s challenging appearance – so they find themselves sat with a bunch of strangers. 

With that in mind it’s only fair to make the effort by striking up a conversation. You’ve been driving them all day and he makes/draws them for a living, so it doesn’t immediately have to be about cars. However, as the many courses blur into one, it would be criminal to waste the opportunity to tap into their knowledge and experience.

The sight of a German engineer fiddling with his cutlery as a table of hacks ignore him and talk about football is an embarrassing one. If you really don’t give a monkey’s about the product and aren’t motivated to find out more you really should consider a career change. Any perceived language barrier is a pretty lame excuse these days, too.

I’ve had great conversations with some clearly passionate individuals, with subjects as diverse as how to arrest the decline in interest in cars showed by young people and the pros and cons of autonomous vehicles. Designers can be equally good value, with a guy from Mercedes voicing his frustration over increasingly restrictive EU crash regulations and discovering a shared interest in Fastbacks with a crayon-wielding guy from Volkswagen. 

Arguably a good time can be had if you’re prepared to make an effort, while asking the right question at the right (unguarded) moment can gain a rare insight into the workings of a major corporation. The standout one for me was the surprisingly candid admission from a Ford executive that they hadn’t a clue how to replicate the success of the first-gen Ka. It was likened to Land Rover’s onerous task of replacing the Defender – in other words, a big deal.

We all know how Ford’s transformation of Fiat’s 500 turned out, illustrating that success is never guaranteed in this business. Still, breaking the ice over dinner with an engineer or designer is likely to be a less risky adventure and definitely worth the effort.

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