People are talking but not conversing.
By this, I mean that the talk between many people barely qualifies as conversation.
Have you noticed this?
It’s true that people are making comments, and acknowledging each others’ comments. This much is true. Even those who typically monopolize conversations know that conversation involves taking turns talking.
So, with this basic knowledge, people are able to scrape together some dialogue. It’s quite typical to hear something like this:
Kimberly: I am not looking forward to the speeding ticket I probably just got, getting over here.
Karen: Oh, no way.
Kimberly: Yeah, I was in such a rush it was crazy.
Kimberly: So I guess my parents are going to be in town over the weekend.
Karen: Oh, really? Where are they from?
Such bare bones interactions are common. The exchange involves nothing more than one person making a statement and the other person acknowledging it. There is silence until another statement is made. The conversation is so stilted, so halting.
Why is this?
There are a lot of things going on.
One explanation has to do with female power. In a female clique, there is a Leader, and she controls the flow of conversation. Here, Kimberly has twice initiated discussion.
Karen, by contrast, has not added anything much at all. In a clique, those who are in subordinate positions speak less. They contribute far fewer statements, if any at all. Their input is often limited to empathetic responses to the Leader’s statements. Often they pay compliments to the Leader. Sometimes they ask follow-up questions to topics previously raised by the Leader:
Karen: Hey, I love your bag. It’s so cute!
Kimberly: Oh thanks!
Karen: Did you get that mix-up straightened out, about the jacket?
Kimberly: Oh, that! Yeah, I got a store credit.
Karen: Oh, that’s good!
To be in a clique is to wait during slightly awkward yet frequent pauses. After all, the Leader may not have any ideas about what to say. It might be a moment or two before she’s able to initiate another exchange:
Kimberly: I feel so gross right now. I haven’t eaten all day.
Karen: Oh, no! I have a chocolate bar in my bag, if you want that.
Kimberly: Thanks, but I think I’ll wait until I get home and have a proper meal.
Karen: Yeah, that’s probably a good idea.
The Leader may decide to mention a show or a movie, a common topic.
Kimberly: I was binge-watching Million-Dollar Mouse last night. I LOVE that show so bad, it’s not even funny.
Kimberly: And I started watching Women Who Overspend. It’s got Shannon Shoebuster in it. SO awesome.
Karen: Cool! I’ll have to check that out.
It’s almost hard to believe, because it’s so lame, but the dynamic here occurs in other situations as well. Social media typically involves a Leader posting something and followers responding with likes and emojis and supportive comments. All interactions revolve around the Leader. It’s about reacting to the Leader, not about interacting with the Leader. On the plus side, you can generally choose whom you follow on social media. It’s not like work, where you can’t choose your boss. In the work world, social interactions are focused around the boss. For example, he (or she) is the chief story teller. Even if he has told his story about That Time He Almost Got Imprisoned in Mexico more than once, everyone dutifully listens as if they’re hearing it for the first time. They all laugh at the right moments, even if it’s not funny. He wins the game of golf, even if he’s not as talented as others. These Smile-at-the-Boss situations are difficult.
Mr Salter’s side of the conversation was limited to expressions of assent.When Lord Copper was right, he said, “Definitely, Lord Copper’; when he was wrong, “Up to a point.”
— Evelyn Waugh, Scoop, 1938
In hierarchical social situations, you may not get a good conversation going if the person at the top uses the social circumstance to establish and reinforce the hierarchy. There cannot be a real conversation while the Leader is around, because the Leader wants only his or her voice heard. And there is often silence from the bottom as well, stemming from fear. That will also stifle genuine conversation. People are afraid to anger the boss, for fear of jeopardizing their position. They want to blend in, keep their head down.
The funny thing about cliques and many hierarchical social groups is that they are primarily about appearances. The members want to belong, yes, but it is very important that they are seen as belonging. So the members put in a great effort at APPEARING to be enjoying a great conversation, full of amazing secrets and juicy gossip. Effort is expended on exaggerated laughing and loud but meaningless exclamations such as “Oh, no way!” “Seriously!?!” “Oh, get out!” Body language is critical, with tight huddles being an essential element to indicate that everyone else is excluded from the Amazing Conversation Currently Underway.
When I think of Body-Language-For-Show, an example involving Meghan Markle comes to mind. She posed with others for a family photo on the occasion of Prince Charles’ 70th birthday. In it, she is doubled over with laughter. Anyone looking at that photo would think that she was enjoying a great time with her new and famous family. She is in on the joke, and you aren’t. She is an insider, and you aren’t. (Whispering to her nearest neighbour is a common behaviour of hers, and she does this during public events of all kinds, to show her closeness to those nearby, even if these others aren’t interested in chatting.) So, in the case of this birthday photo, what was so humorous? Oh, I see. It turns out that the children’s nanny was using a puppet or some other toy to encourage the children to smile and look up at the photographer.
Nanny didn’t realize her techniques would be so hilarious. Duchess Markle can’t even stand up straight, she’s laughing so hard!
Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! You’re killing me! Ha ha ha ha ha!
Meanwhile, all the other adults are just smiling normally.
But anyway, back to the topic of these cliquey conversations. You, the outsider, are missing nothing. Trust me. The cliquey groups are just killing time. They aren’t engaging in meaningful or even entertaining conversation. They are posing, pretending, posturing. It’s about how things look, not how things are.
There is another type of hierarchy which has a different feel. It’s the male version. You will notice that men will talk more readily between themselves, so that initially it will seem that there is no hierarchy. It seems, at first glance, that men are able to socialize freely without all of the complicated layers of rules that women have. You might think that all of the men are allowed to contribute thoughts and anecdotes.
But then it will happen that one of the men will tease another. Watch carefully, and you will see that the teased one will rarely retaliate, even jokingly. He knows that such an approach could be dangerous and become even physical quite quickly. Instead, he will laugh and seemingly agree with the joke against himself, perhaps even adding to it. Later, he may make a joke at the expense of someone else, but he will not openly challenge the one who is higher than he is on the totem pole.
It’s a hierarchy too. The rules are just different.
When I was about 13, I was the only girl in my junior high school’s industrial education class, and after observing the boys for a while, I could have sketched a pyramid outlining their hierarchy. I saw that Tier A boys can insult Tier B or C boys, but they usually won’t lower themselves to insult Tier D boys. Tier B boys will insult Tier C boys. Tier C boys will insult Tier D boys, and pity the boy who is insulted by even Tier D boys.
(The true bullies are those who insult those who are a few tiers beneath them, the ‘easy targets.’)
So conversation among boys is not stifled and weak, as it is in female cliques. On the contrary, it is relaxed and often very funny. Many times, the experience is entirely about hanging out, but it is not as free of status issues as it appears. There’s a pecking order here too, and you’ll see it in the words.
Sadly, there are very few social settings that are free of hierarchy.
I once overheard a group of college-age students talking. They didn’t know each other almost at all. One of the very first questions raised was about age. This was no accident; it happens frequently.
You see, throughout their years of schooling, from age 5 or younger until age 17 or older, students rank themselves higher if their age is higher. It’s what they’re used to, and using age as a way to separate and feel superior continues into post-secondary settings. As a matter of fact, not knowing each others’ ages causes a mild type of panic for some, and so they are willing to ask it, point blank.
Later these students will graduate, and by then, they will probably not ask about ages anymore. They will catch on that women are less comfortable revealing their age as they reach 25. And besides, by then, the hierarchy will shift, and the question will more typically be about jobs.
People really, really want to know what type of work you do. I remember my cousin telling me that when he met women at bars, he would deliberately refrain from revealing his work. He said the women couldn’t handle that. I believe him. Meanwhile, I remember two guys; they went out one time, and the first one would boast to the women they met, “I go to Harvard Law School” and the other one would say, “I’m a neurosurgeon.” Women would look at them and wouldn’t believe them. The amusing thing was that they were telling the truth.
Some jobs garner more respect than others. At the top are the celebrities and royals, famous entertainers and athletes as well as People with Connections. They have a disproportionate amount of power, wealth and fame. Such people socialize together on yachts and at resorts. They attend events together and hire the same architects, designers, photographers, publicists, therapists, divorce lawyers and criminal lawyers.
Next are the people who are quite connected to the first group. They don’t have the same level of name recognition, but they mix with them.
Turning to the occupations held by the rest of us, I believe that doctors have the best reputation, at least in modern North America.
They are viewed as caring, kind, and not in it for the money.
The average physician in Alberta, Canada, makes around $350,000 per year.
Next on the totem pole are those in fields that are viewed as lucrative (dentists, engineers, lawyers, politicians, accountants, CEOs, financial managers). Next are those in ‘good’ occupations such as teachers, nurses, firemen, policemen and other ‘helping’ industries. Next are those in service industries and the trades, with there being a hierarchy within trades as well. Near the bottom are those in retail and janitorial fields. At the very bottom are the nannies, except if they work for the royal family and are hilarious.
Those who do not have a job are, not surprisingly, often even lower. Women who are ‘housewives’ therefore have low status, in general, unless they are married to an obviously wealthy man. Students generally have low status, though it depends on their age and area of study. Children generally have very low status, though it depends on the status of their parents. The status of retired people depends on their wealth and health. People who are looking for work have very low status, but not as bad as those who are in jail, institutionalized, dying or homeless.
This hierarchy, tied to age and occupation, is about social relevance. Those at the top are considered very relevant and influential in society. Those at the bottom are considered socially irrelevant.
And of course, certain contexts serve to emphasize the differences. Some professors who are happy to talk to their students in class may not permit themselves to be seen socializing with them when other professors are present. Sometimes a grade 12 student will socialize with a grade 10 student until his friends arrive.
I once had a job as a janitor in a hospital. It was a great summer job for me (easy and well-paying, with almost no supervision), but I noticed that many people avoided eye-contact with me. I wasn’t hurt by this, but I took note of it. Evidently being part of the housekeeping staff changed who I was for others. People would enter the elevator after me and pretend that they didn’t see me or my giant garbage bin. Check out them wheels!
In the case of the janitorial job, people could see — or so they thought — my life’s occupation. Knowing that, they could dismiss me without even asking.
Appearance doesn’t usually reveal occupation, but it still reveals enough. People are constantly assessing each others’ appearance, and, often won’t interact with those whom they consider ‘beneath’ them.
Back to the female clique, girls and women will assess newcomers. The ones whose appearance is similar to that of the clique members will be granted an ‘interview’ (people who look too different will not be given an interview), by which I mean that the original clique members will engage in friendly banter with the newcomer. If she seems to be at the same ‘level’ as the clique, they will feel almost as if they have no choice but to include her. You see, they cannot ignore or shun her, because the newcomer may form her own clique, one which is superior and more socially relevant than the first one. The original clique can’t take that risk. The original clique members do not want to be in a second-rate clique.
So they will welcome the newcomer, and she may even become the new Leader. The original Leader may no longer hold that role, but in that case, she will strive to be the second in command. The view is that it is better to be second fiddle than to be cast out of a clique completely.
Thus personal appearance is often a type of ‘passport’ or ‘admittance ticket’ into a social group. And the reverse is true: personal appearance is often alienating, and a source of separation. If you appear a certain way, some conversations don’t even begin.
And of course, race is a big part of appearance. Some people won’t speak with you if you are the wrong race. I would know. I remember booking a canoe for a trip in Grande Prairie. The fellow I spoke with was fine with talking to me on the phone when he couldn’t see me. However, when I arrived in person, and walked towards him, he looked right past me to my white boyfriend, even though I was the one who had booked it. It was as if I were invisible.
There are a few places on earth with a tremendous diversity of races. In large Canadian cities, for instance, everyone looks so different. Everyone, or everyone’s parents or grandparents, was from somewhere else, or so it seems.
But go to a small town, or to another country where immigrants are few and far between, and suddenly you will be and feel very conspicuous as you go about your normal activities. It would be an interesting experience for everyone to have, but we can’t offer such a thing, even if we could move everyone anywhere, because your experience will still depend on your skin colour. Being the only white person in a group of Asians doesn’t feel the same as being the only Asian in a group of white people. Being the only black person in a group of white people doesn’t feel the same as being the only white person in a group of black people. Some races just enjoy more prestige than others internationally.
Many people don’t realize that they’re evaluating based on appearance or ethnicity, but their behaviour or words reveal it. I recently complimented a woman for her friendliness towards me, and she said, “I speak to people of ALL races! It doesn’t matter to me.”
Thank you for speaking to me despite my race?
It was a bit of a surprise. You see, I do not assume that people are interacting with me in a certain way based on race. Do you? I think you don’t. I think the general rule is that when people do or do not interact with us, we see their behaviour as a product of the general circumstance, and as a product of who they are, not as a product of who we are. Yet many (if not most) people are interacting or not interacting with others based on race.
Usually, we don’t realize it’s happening, but sometimes, we are reminded.
I am asked, not infrequently, where I am from. This question comes usually from a white male, aged about 55 or older, who immigrated to Canada a decade or more ago.
I am not offended. It simply betrays a lack of knowledge about Canada and Canadians.
But anyway, nowadays I ask them to tell me their guess first, before I will tell them the answer. (I am curious how wrong they will be.) After they guess, I tell such inquirers that I was born in Canada, and I do provide enough background information so that the mystery is solved for them, but that’s about it.
What I don’t tell them is that my ancestors Pierre Surette and Jeanne Pellerin married in Port-Royal (now called Annapolis Royal) in February of 1709. The country called “Canada” didn’t exist then, but the land was here.
What I don’t tell them is that I can boast of a sliver of Mi’kmaq ancestry too, which means that my connection to this land goes back a long, long time.
Where are you from?
My point is that race is another barrier that prevents people from engaging in conversation with others. There are conversations that I never had, because people did not feel that I was racially at their level.
Alas, there are many conversations that do not happen because someone viewed himself or herself as above another person, due to race, age, occupation, appearance, or social position within a group.
Some of us won’t even speak to some of us.
On one level, it is tragic, but certainly, the one who snubs will lose more than the one snubbed. This is because all of God’s children are equal. God created us as equals. We humans are the ones who create these different standards. We are the ones who exclude and demote each other. We are the ones who decide, “This person is worth my time. That person is not worthy of me.” We are the ones who ignore others, who say, “I don’t talk to such people.”
Now, it is true that there are some people who have taken much of our time, and yet demonstrated ultimately that they are not worth our time. So I am not speaking about people who have proven to be abusive or deceitful or both. Feel free to protect your time from such people. I am speaking here about the people we haven’t even met.
Are there people in your path, in your day, in your life, you avoid seeing? Why is that? Are there people you consider beneath you? Do you snub others without even getting to know them?
I can say definitively that although it seems that those who are rejected are the ones who will lose out, the truth is that those who snub others are the ones who lose, because they will not gain the gifts that God wanted to send them through this person in their midst. What was that gift? Perhaps that person would have made an off-the-cuff comment that helped you. Perhaps that person would have offered surprisingly wise advice that you would have always carried with you. Perhaps that person would have become your friend.
As for the person snubbed, that person will gain everything that was not supplied by these others. God has the final word, after all. The one who intends what is good will never be short-changed in the end. New friends, new acquaintances, and even new family will enter this person’s life to fill the void.
So the subject of conversation is more complicated than it first appears. That’s because in order to properly talk about conversation, we must delve into the issue of intention.
It may appear that Cynthia doesn’t know how to carry on a conversation, but the truth is that Cynthia just can’t stand Gertrude. It may appear that Harold is a big dumb ox, but the truth is that he has plenty of ideas; he just thinks, based on how you look, that you won’t be smart enough to understand them.
It’s about intention. Intention can build walls but it can build bridges. If two or more people want to have a conversation, they will probably have one. Even language barriers can be overcome when the intention is there.
You understand, right?
But let’s pretend that your intention is good.
Even then, with good intentions all around, it may be time for a refresher. After all, things are worse nowadays, in terms of conversation, than in the past. Nowadays, we are more comfortable, or so it seems, with short texts than phone calls, and more comfortable with phone calls than in-person conversation. People are inexperienced. They’ve been texting, not talking. They haven’t talked enough with anybody.
So even when they are seemingly ready to talk, they sound something like this:
Roberta: I was so cold today!
Roberta: I cranked my thermostat way up. When I get home, the house will probably be boiling!
Rebecca: I really have to take my car in.
Roberta: Oh yeah? Is something wrong with it?
Rebecca: I don’t know. It’s making some kind of funny noise.
Roberta: Lately I feel like I am just not hearing things properly.
Roberta: And it’s not my hearing. I’ve had that checked. There’s nothing wrong with my hearing.
Can you imagine me sitting there having to listen to this?
If you know me, then you know that it would be difficult for me to be near a conversation sputtering out like this.
If you know me, you know how I just feel like saying:
“CAN’T YOU GUYS HAVE A NORMAL CONVERSATION???
DON’T EITHER OF YOU KNOW HOW TO TALK???
SERIOUSLY, WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?”
Yeah, one time I should just stand up and go off in all caps like that.
They would be stunned.
They wouldn’t know what to say, so I would be able to carry on, uninterrupted. I would say, “LOOK REBECCA: ROBERTA MENTIONED BEING COLD. CAN’T YOU ASK HER SOMETHING RELATED TO THE TOPIC OF BEING COLD? IT’S A BIG TOPIC! YOU CAN TALK ABOUT TRAVELLING TO SOMEWHERE WARM! YOU CAN TALK ABOUT HOW PEOPLE GET SICK AT THIS TIME OF YEAR! YOU CAN TALK ABOUT HOW YOU ALWAYS WEAR SOCKS TO BED THESE DAYS! YOU CAN TALK ABOUT LIVING IN A CITY WITH A BIG WINTER! YOU CAN TALK ABOUT THE COST OF HEATING! YOU CAN TALK ABOUT WINTER COATS! HATS! MITTENS! MITTENS ON STRINGS! ANYTHING!!!”
And I would turn to Roberta. “I MEAN SERIOUSLY, YOU GUYS, ARE YOU REALLY THAT INCAPABLE OF DIALOGUE? SHE SAID HER CAR IS ACTING UP! YOU HAVE A CAR! CAN’T YOU TALK ABOUT THAT AT ALL? DO YOU REALLY HAVE TO LET EVERY SINGLE TOPIC DIE? ASK HER WHAT SHE THINKS IS WRONG WITH HER CAR! ASK HER WHERE SHE USUALLY GOES FOR REPAIRS! TELL HER WHAT YOU THINK ABOUT MECHANICS! YOU CAN EVEN TELL HER THE STORY ABOUT THE WEIRDO MECHANIC HARRY FROM CALI AUTOMOTIVE WHO ANSWERED HIS SHOP DOOR WITH A TOOTHBRUSH IN HIS MOUTH! ASK HER WHAT KIND OF CAR SHE DRIVES! ASK HER IF SHE LIKES HER CAR! ASK HER IF HER CHILDREN ARE LEARNING TO DRIVE YET! ASK HER IF SHE’S WORRIED ABOUT THAT! ASK HER SOMETHING! ASK HER ANYTHING! JUST STOP KILLING ALL OF THESE TOPICS!”
They would stare at me blankly, at first.
But then, of course, they would become aggressive, because Canadians are polite only at first.
I don’t think it would be worth the wear and tear on me. So I would have to leave them to their own devices.
Or wait — I have another idea.
Oh, this is brilliant. I could write up giant cue cards, like they used to have on news programs or television shows. I could quickly write up questions or responses and hold them up where one of them could see them.
Or I could get all modern and invest in a teleprompter. You bet — I could type up some dialogue suggestions, some “Talking Points.”
Oh! that reminds me of a Chesterton short story. It was about a guy who became really popular because he was so witty at parties, but his secret was that he knew a talented fellow who supplied him with clever dialogue. I can’t remember how it turned out. Which story was that?
Excuse me a moment. I am going to see if I can find the book.
Here it is. It’s a short story called “The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation.” You weren’t planning to read it anytime soon, so I’ll tell you how it goes. There is a man with beautiful hair (“his hair, which was largely grey, was curled with the instinct of one who appreciated the gradual beauty of grey and silver”) who gets all the attention at dinner parties. He is Mr. Wimpole. Mr. Wimpole amazes everyone with his words. When someone asks who Mr. Wimpole is, the reply is:
“Wimpole!” cried Lord Beaumont, in a sort of ecstasy. “Haven’t you heard of the great modern wit? My dear fellow, he has turned conversation, I do not say into an art — for that, perhaps, it always was — but into a great art, like the statuary of Michael Angelo — an art of masterpieces. His repartees, my good friend, startle one like a man shot dead. They are final; they are–”
Everyone draws near to him just to hear him. One such person is the young and single Muriel Beaumont, “who gazed at him with great violet eyes and with the intense and awful thirst of the female upper class for verbal amusement and stimulus.” She asks Wimpole how he is able to deliver such humorous responses (to Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh) so coolly. She says that whenever she thinks of something funny, she can barely help but laughing herself: “You say things quite philosophical yet so wildly funny. If I thought of such things, I’m sure I should laugh outright when the thought first came.”
The hero of the story, Basil Grant, knows what is going on, and later outside the house, he tackles Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh, and wrestles him to the ground, so that Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh can’t go to an evening dinner party with Mr. Wimpole.
At the party, Mr. Wimpole has nothing to say, even though people are there specifically to watch him in action.
Basil Grant, triumphantly pulling a ‘script’ from Sir Walter Cholmondeliegh’s coat, says:
This fat old gentleman lying on the ground strikes you, as I have no doubt, as very stupid and very rich. Let me clear his character. He is, like ourselves, very clever and very poor. He is also not really at all fat; all that is stuffing. He is not particularly old, and his name is not Cholmondeliegh. He is a swindler, and a swindler of a perfectly delightful and novel kind. He hires himself out at dinner parties to lead up to other people’s repartees. According to a preconcerted scheme (which you may find on that piece of paper), he says the stupid things he has arranged for himself, and his client says the clever things arranged for him.”
My apologies to Chesterton for reducing the plot to its bare bones, but I really did want to tell you about this.
So what do you think?
A side job for me. And of course, we could modernize it; you wouldn’t even have to memorize your lines. We’ll set you up with an earphone, and whenever you are in a social situation, I could help you figure out something to say. For starters, I could help you come up with a topic.
I think that the people who most need such a service would be the least likely to want it. As I said, those who don’t talk have their reasons. It’s usually about unwillingness, not inability.
And anyone desperate enough to pay someone for help with carrying on a conversation is not in bad shape. Such a person will get better and better.
I do want to digress a little about something in that same story, while we’re here. In the story, Mr. Wimpole, who bought the services of the clever poor man, is an evil man. I want to share with you the description of evil that Chesterton provides, because it is very insightful.
Chesterton writes: “I saw that while all ordinary poor men in the streets were being themselves, he [Mr Wimpole] was not being himself. I saw that all the men in these slums, cadgers, pickpockets, hooligans, are all, in the deepest sense, trying to be good. And I saw that that man was trying to be evil.”
The worst among us in this world have manufactured an entire persona (often one of benevolence, if not holiness) for the world to see. The inside of such people is so corrupt and rotten that they exert all of their effort in preventing anyone from seeing who they really are. They lie so much that they can barely remember what their own likes and dislikes are. Compared to this, yes, most people are quite good. Sure, they get frustrated and they do evil things, but their lives are not entirely a lie. They are the types of people Jesus was referring to when he described the white-painted tombstones atop the graves.
I don’t think I will ever be done this post. Maybe it will join the other blog posts on my computer which I haven’t yet finished. I have posts from the springtime. And having this Chesterton book near me now is dangerous. Every second page has quotations that I’d love to talk about.
It’s an amusing predicament, and I see the irony. I’m trying to post about conversation, but I won’t be able to finish because I just keep finding new topics. It’s either that or the topics are finding me. I better watch out. Before you know it, the prose will become poetry and the poetry will become songs and I’ll be in a musical somewhere.
But as I was saying, or as I meant to say, in order to have a conversation, you need to pursue a topic. As you keep talking about something, the conversation gets richer. A conversation will never be any good if you keep changing topics. You are not a talk show host coming up with random, completely unrelated questions. Stay on the same topic for a little while; look for interesting aspects of it. That in itself will smoothly and naturally bring you onto a new, but connected, topic.
It’s like changing parties. I knew a long time ago that if you’re at a party, stay at the party until you’re done. Don’t follow that break-off group leaving to go somewhere else. The break-off group is always worse. They don’t have a good plan, usually, and you’ll be left with a handful of people at some lame bar that’s going to close soon.
If you can choose a topic, then choose something that interests the people in the room. There’s always some common topic that everyone has opinions about. If you’re a student, talk about student life. How are your studies going? Are you enjoying university life? How did you find the midterms? Do you like your teachers? Do you like your professors? Do you know a lot of people in your classes? What’s your schedule like?
If you’re a mother, there are a million things to talk about. If you’re a woman, there are a million things, ranging from the things we consider small and unimportant, to the things we consider significant.
A mixed group of women, men, students, seniors and recent immigrants can talk about a lot of things too. Let’s talk about getting around the city, about speeding tickets, about pets, about travelling, about allergies, about Trump, about Greta Thunberg, about the oil industry, about the new premier, about the Oilers, about Rogers Place, about gardening, about good restaurants, about how to figure out which restaurants are good.
Come on, people! Together, we know so much! Why can’t we talk? Why can’t anybody get going on a topic? Nowadays it seems like a person can get more heartfelt, genuine and energetic information by reading reviews on GoogleMaps or Amazon than by talking to the person standing nearby. (Yes, I know there are fake reviews; I have seen how all the ‘different’ reviewers for one product sound the same.)
But even if you can’t or won’t choose a good and appealing topic, then at least, don’t kill the topic that has been presented, even if it’s weak. (Distasteful topics, however, can be abandoned without any acknowledgment of them.)
A few days ago, I happened to hear a group of boys talking during a catechism lesson. Nobody went with anybody’s topic. Everyone was just randomly saying stuff, with very little or no attention paid to what the previous person had said. It was just a bunch of chattering, in the hopes that maybe someone was listening. A lot of talking, very little connecting.
Connection requires back and forth communication. Connection requires dialogue. Ask: What do you think of this? Ask: What is your experience of that? You cannot have a conversation if all topics die the moment someone says anything about it. But to listen, you wonder if people think a topic is finished/dead/taken once someone has commented on it. Is this some sort of misguided idea of originality? Have we reached a sort of modern Tower of Babel, where everyone is talking, but nobody is understanding? This too, is irony, because nowadays so many people in the world speak English, but those who know English are communicating less and less.
Do people know what conversation is meant to be? Chesterton says it has always been an art. I would say that this is true, and it is more than this too, because even if it is done clumsily, awkwardly, it is still an opportunity to understand — to understand each other, to understand humanity, to understand life and all the big questions.
I observe that nowadays, radio stations which invite listeners to phone in or to text in are popular. They are popular because the radio station DJs think of — yes, that’s right — the DJs think up TOPICS.
The DJs ask the listeners to tell about that time they were speeding because they were listening to a certain song. The DJs ask listeners to tell about a time that they needed to rescue an animal. One station in my town tells people to “Join the Conversation.” (Another station has imitated this exact phrase, which must not be very impressive to the first station, which spent a lot of money advertising this slogan.)
But, of course, this isn’t even a conversation, because a conversation is not really a whole bunch of people answering the same question.
A conversation gets richer as it continues. It is supposed to be back-and-forth, and it goes where people don’t expect, usually. It expands to other topics that are connected to the original topic, and becomes even more interesting as it develops.
The radio conversations just end without going anywhere. There are a few more songs, a few more anecdotes, then a string of commercials.
It’s not terrible for radio, but in-person conversations should be able to do better.
In person, we should be able to do more, right? We could exchange tips about how to do things better, about where to buy this or that, about where to get this service or that, about when to do this or that. And we could go further. We could find out what we think about different things, even if those things are not particularly contentious. We could talk about how you feel, about how you’re doing, if you want. Or we could talk about controversial things too, if you want.
I was recently at a fund-raising dinner and the other guests at the table had almost nothing to say. They just sat there looking blank. What were they planning to do for the whole dinner? Just eat?
The three of them didn’t seem like they were even connected with each other, because there was so little interaction. So I was surprised to hear that this man was the husband of this woman. And I was surprised to hear that the second woman was friends with this couple. Could have fooled me!
So I couldn’t leave them like that. You know I couldn’t just sit there.
I wasn’t nosey, but just talking about things that weren’t even personal meant that we covered a lot of ground, and by the time we were done, I knew that this was the man’s second marriage, that he was from a European country, and he goes back every summer for several months because they have a place that they rent out to tourists. The new wife cleans up the property between guests. She was eager to show me a photo on her phone of the view from the property. She used to garden here in the city, because she has a condominium that gets a lot of good southern sun. However, she hasn’t been able to garden since she started accompanying him to his home country. He has children from his first marriage. He doesn’t go to church when he’s in Canada, but he does go when he is in Europe. He feels that church is for families. The friend is planning a trip to Europe this year, to such-and-such countries. She is going with her friend. And of course, there was more. And there could have been even more if the seating arrangements were different. Large round tables with tall centerpieces really aren’t the best.
They asked me very few questions. The man’s only question for me was, “Where are you from?”
And that brings me to my next point:
People, you need to ask questions — REAL questions about the other person!
CC BLOOM: “Well, enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?” –Mary Agnes Donoghue, Beaches, screenplay, 1988
Nowadays people don’t ask questions even if they have been asked something and have spent quite a while talking. It can actually be rather astounding. I already told you about the woman who chatted with me at my place for 5 hours and didn’t ask anything about me. I found that the only way to keep the conversation going was to ask another question about her. She liked to talk about herself and her life.
If someone asks you something, try to reciprocate.
Don’t spend the entire conversation talking about yourself. Just because someone is asking you about you, it doesn’t mean that the only thing they want to talk about is you.
People like it when you show interest in them. People have areas of expertise, and they are happy to share what they have experienced and what they know. They like to think that other people find them interesting.
According to Chesterton, they like to think that other people think they’re impressive, on some level:
(I can’t resist this next quote. I just saw it a moment ago; can you blame me?)
“What do you want now?” I cried.
“I want,” he cried out, “what a girl wants when she wears her new frock; I want what a boy wants when he goes in for a slanging match with a monitor — I want to show somebody what a fine fellow I am.”
— G.K. Chesterton, “The Painful Fall of a Great Reputation”
The world has many talkers, but so few listeners! People want to be listened to. People pay psychologists and therapists to listen to them. People call their mothers because their mothers will listen to them talk about their problems without expecting them to reciprocate.
I would know. For most of my life, I have been like a mother to other people, listening to their problems, consoling them, thinking through their issues, offering my advice, worrying about them, and praying for them. It goes back a long way. Even when I was young, adults wanted to talk to me and confide in me.
I remember my piano teacher telling me about his marriage woes. As a matter of fact, he spent so many of the lessons talking about his life that I was surprised that he always collected payment for teaching piano.
The mothering role suits me, because I’m interested in people; I’m interested in humanity. I’m interested in its experiences, feelings, thoughts, theories, fears, goals, dreams, worries, likes and dislikes.
I am interested in how we are.
Is this rare? Are people uninterested in everyone except themselves? I wonder whether our inability to communicate has roots in a deep sort of selfishness. We do not ask about each other because we just don’t care enough?
And I can only wonder about prayer. Watching how people interact with people shows you that people are probably praying in the same way: they are listening to their own words, they are telling God what he needs to do, and how, without even caring about what God might want.
Of course, some people learn the “art of conversation” in order to climb the social ladder. They learn to seem empathetic because they have another goal in mind. They want to appear charming. They gaze into your eyes as you speak, as if they’ve never heard anything so amazing. (“A beauty is a woman you notice; a charmer is one who notices you.” — Adlai Stevenson, speech at Radcliffe College, 1963)
I would hope that your intentions are better than that. I would hope that your goal is to build genuine connections with the people you meet and the people in your life. I would hope that your goal is to share yourself with others, and to discover the richness and beauty that is in the people around you.
So, to summarize, I am saying:
1. Be willing to converse with people who are different from you.
Be willing to talk to people who are less socially relevant, less educated, less powerful, less attractive.
Be willing to talk to people who are not “from here” or who aren’t the same race as you.
(But yes, of course, avoid anyone who would harm you, or those who genuinely frighten you.)
2. Introduce a topic which people will understand and care about, or ask a follow-up question about the topic which has already been introduced.
3. Keep talking about the topic. Show interest in the topic, and let it develop. Show interest in other people’s response to the topic.
4. After you’ve answered a question, reciprocate. Ask the other person the same question you were asked, or something similar. After all, there’s a good chance the person was already thinking of his own answer to the question while you were talking.
5. Show interest in the people you’re speaking with, even if they’re wrong.
And on that note, I’ll call it a night.
It’s late, but strangely, later it will be not quite so late as now.
Daylight Savings Time
Messes with my mind
Don’t you find, to play this funny game?
Wind wind wind
Look! Now it’s early!
Wind wind wind
Look! Now it’s late!
Don’t you find it so odd to go back in time?
The symbolism of the clock
The clock strikes two
And it strikes you
That it does that twice
Or does it?
Oh but does your mind not consider the possibilities?
Turn it back a bit?
Turn it back a lot?
Turn it back today?
Turn it back tomorrow?
Turn it back never
I tell you
Even if I love the past
I love the future more
I’m a Christian after all
I know about the fall
I look forward to the spring
A spring for all
Spring for all
8000 words and counting
Slip away now
Before the poetry
Has a chance