I don’t blame COVID. And I don’t blame a generation of communication driven by texting and social media. But somewhere along the way we are forgetting how to have a conversation.
My husband and I went to a wedding a couple of weeks ago. It was one of those incredibly happy weddings where the bride and groom are “perfect” together and the families and friends have nothing but love and enthusiasm for the union. We were placed at a table where we didn’t know most of the people and I was seated next to a lovely couple. We spoke briefly about how we were each connected to the wedding (they were groom family friends and we were bride-side) and a little bit about where we each were from. With each round I would ask a question and my dinner partner would answer as we verbally danced, trying to find common ground. We found some when it came to twenty-something kids starting their lives during COVID and our shared interest in skiing. He and his wife were lovely and I am very glad to have shared time with them.
What I was sad about was that this was another experience in which I meet people who are happy to answer questions but do little to proactively initiate or advance a conversation. Conversation is an art and I fear it’s one that is getting lost.
I acknowledge that large events can be especially intimidating since it’s difficult to break into a group of people when you don’t know anyone. But, think about the many individual interactions on a daily basis where it’s easy to have a conversation and yet it’s all transactional data without human interest.
The morning of the wedding I went to a salon to get my hair blown-out. The stylist was someone who I never met before. I was there for 30 minutes and, of course, it was loud. But in that time I learned about the dear friend who my stylist had lost to a drunk driver, her father’s strict rules and her push back on them as a teen, including body piercings just to “piss him off”, her close relationship with her sister, and the wonderful 17 year old son that she is raising despite her becoming a single mother after getting pregnant at 17. The son’s plan after high school: enter the Navy to gain training as a nuclear technician which he can then take to college after discharge for an engineering degree. Pretty impressive. All of that information and her fascinating story started with a simple question: “What is the story behind the tattoo on your arm?”
This wasn’t an interrogation – I shared my own tales of parental pushback and we talked about the challenges facing our young people today.
I was genuinely interested. All it takes to develop the art of conversation is a sense of curiosity and a genuine interest in other humans. Has our laser-focused-search-engine-centric world dulled our ability to be broadly curious? And has the electronic age suppressed our desire to be honestly interested in other people?
How do we re-develop the art of conversation?
For starters, don’t be afraid. I see a number of young people who are afraid to speak up or ask questions, especially personal questions. I don’t understand what their fear is. When I ask “why” they tell me that they just think it’s inappropriate. But it’s not… would you be offended if someone showed genuine interest in you? Or spoke to you as a person rather than a transaction? Neither would I. It’s ironic that in the world of social media where people overshare extremely personal images that they are afraid to actually talk to others on a personal level.
There is much complaint about the demise of customer service, but it’s amazing the great service I can get when I talk to the phone representative as a person – admiring their name (which are often beautiful and interesting thanks to off-shoring of telephone support) or asking where they are based.
The other critical aspect of conversation is to think about it as a game in which the goal is to keep the ball in the air. I would use a tennis or volleyball analogy but there you want to go for the kill shot to win the point, rather than continue the rally. This means that even if you are asked a specific question like “where do you live”? Or “have you ever been to [fill in the blank location where you currently are] don’t give a single word answer. Add in a little bit of extraneous information that provides fodder for continued discussion.
For example… even something as straight forward as “where do you live” can be interesting if you talk about the fact that where you are living is the fifth state that you have lived in during your life (“Well, I currently live in St Louis, but it’s just the latest location since I’ve moved five times in the past 10 years”), or that even if you’re still living in the town where you grew up you can make a comment about how much it has changed, or that you like the city, country, beaches or some feature about where you live (“I live in Pennsylvania, right near the Pennsylvania Dutch community” or “Right near Hershey Park”). There is something interesting that can be included about any place. Maybe someone famous lives nearby or a reference to it from a popular movie or book. I will frequently weave the fact that my husband is from Denver and my daughter currently lives there into a conversation simply because Colorado has so much lore around it and there are many who dream of visiting one day. Or I will mention that I have two daughters. Kids are always easy jumping off points from which further conversation can flow.
Beyond that, it’s truly just caring and curiosity.
Not sure where to start? Here are some conversation topics and starters for you…apologies that some are so basic but clearly bear repeating
- At a wedding or celebration (as mentioned above) What is your relationship to the bride/groom/guest of honor?
- Tell me about your tattoo – I love asking this because almost all of them have a story behind the art.
- Are you having a good day?
- I’ve never been here before… where would you recommend that I visit? Eat?
- To a store clerk or customer service agent when response time seems to be slow: “It seems to be especially busy today. That’s great.” This may not open a big conversation but it demonstrates some empathy for the other person in spite of your own frustrations. And, I have often gotten interesting insight into their business challenges when I give someone an opportunity to know their situation is noticed.
Needless to say there is an endless list of conversation starters that can be found on line. For me it starts with paying attention to the situation.. noticing the environment and the person with whom you’re interacting…and letting yourself wonder.
All artists start with a blank canvas, piece of paper or unformed piece of clay. A conversation is similarly a blank canvas just waiting to be the foundation of something beautiful.