28 September 2013

Yak Yak Yak The Art of Conversation

There's a chap at work who doesn't so much talk to co workers as pontificate. Much of what he says comes in long speeches usually fact based with strong tinctures of opinion. There's typically not much to disagree with when he ascends his soapbox but it is nonetheless unpleasant to be exposed to someone who turns conversations into personal sermons. There is something terribly off putting about a person who feels he's doing the world a great favor by bloviating on topics both recent and historical. I've noticed others peel away when he starts in but usually one poor sap is left behind to nod and mumble until the blowhard's trap mercifully shuts.

I have another co worker who I've tried very much to like and and chat with and we have in fact had many conversations that I've enjoyed. However he has a tendency to turn a how-was-your-weekend question into an opportunity to share excruciating detail about matters too mundane to care about. Some people not only think the trivial matters of their life are interesting to one and all but are oblivious to the fact that they are rambling on for 90% of any given conversation. Conversations are supposed to be dialogues between two or more people and should never be dominated by anyone who has not either just scaled Mt. Everest or arrested Whitey Bulger.

There was for a time at my job someone who everyone liked even those of us who also despised him. He was what some people would call "a character." A unique individual with a colorful manner a rich sense of humor and an easy charm. But I've never met anyone so self possessed. Ever. Period. When he was in a room all conversation flowed through him. When he left a room people were free to share in a conversation of their own making with everyone an equal partner. I recall one instance in which three of us were engaged in a nice chat and then Mr. Ego walked in. Seeing no way to access our conversation he finally said to the one of us "dude, check out this trailer" and showed him a you tube video of a forthcoming film. He killed our conversation deader than a mackerel.

Talking to another person isn't easy but it shouldn't be hard. It's meant to be a shared experience. Granted if one person needs to vent or share an extraordinary event or has an area of expertise that will help illuminate then sure they should  hold forth. For a bit. But we need to honor one another by listening. We all want to be listened to and so its incumbent upon us to return the favor. Of course this requires an awareness that many people don't possess. During a conversation try asking yourself if what your saying is interesting to anyone else or if it is something you really need to say. If a relationship of some length is ending then feel free to bare your soul provided of course that the listener is close enough to you to care. Meanwhile the details of your nasty cold or your obnoxious neighbor or the new goldfish you bought may be things you want to severely edit for brevity.

Talking is an area where I've shown massive improvement over the past few years. As a teacher I am forever conscious of not boring those souls who enter my classroom. This was a gargantuan task when I taught middle school but as an ESL teacher of young adults it is a reasonable assignment to give oneself. I apply the same principal of boredom avoidance in conversations. This is best done by sharing relevant information or insights and doing so succinctly. You also have more latitude to talk if you are being funny (a speciality of mine) or have a story to tell. I also remind myself to stop and listen and allow the person equal time if not more.

I spent a great number of years among drunks having been one myself at the time. People who are inebriated or high on other substances are particularly prone to rambling diatribes. While some people can remain quite articulate while in an altered state of consciousness the vast majority of folks who mix drugs or alcohol with conversation are slurring bores not averse to submitting enormous lies as cold hard facts. I was sure guilty. I don't know how many people heard me claim that I'd met Paul McCartney's aunt in a Liverpool pub. For some reason when I told the very true story of scoring the winning goal in a state championship soccer game I appended the account with the falsehood that I followed the goal scoring celebration by flipping off the opposing fans. And if any of you reading this ever heard me say that I disarmed a gunman I'm sorry but it never happened. Stop the presses on the book you were writing.

Of course one must realize that people still lie even when stone cold sober though the instances are far more infrequent and generally harmless. People are more commonly guilty of exaggeration which is usually a victimless crime. Really though are our lives --  or at the very least our observations -- should be interesting enough that we needn't resort to prevarications. And if your life is really so terribly mundane and you are totally incapable of offering a meaningful insight (believe me this applies to large swath of people many of whom chatter on incessantly) have the good sense to shut up about it. Listening is polite. Not talking is also an option. An exchange of "how you doing?" "pretty good and you?" "fine thanks" followed by carrying on with non verbal tasks is perfectly fine. Save talking for when you have a something to say.

I close with this. At the workplace earlier this week I overhead snippets of a conversation which included one person saying "I'm a Cancer so I like to cook." I always think it wonderful that people don't confine themselves to a world with science and empirical facts and rational thinking. It's such a delight when people decide that the alignment of the stars at the time of their birth has played a role in determining the type of person they are. It makes about as much sense as believing that an invisible entity in the "heavens" is guiding us and protecting us although he lets some of die from cancer or in car accidents or by random gunfire. The people on planet Earth -- you couldn't make some of this shit up.

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