The Light of My Life teases me. He says my eyeballs are getting square. A Luddite of the most determined kind – the man doesn’t even own a phone – he worries that this one-eyed monster, my computer, will eat my days and steal me away from Life-Its-Own- Self.
THE SOUND OF AWKWARD
Apparently, he has cause for concern. A couple of years ago, teacher Paul Barnwell wrote a thought-provoking article in The Atlantic magazine. He noticed that his students (juniors in high school), didn’t know how to have a face-to-face conversation.
I have a hard time imagining this. I come from a culture that values connection and takes for granted a certain gracefulness in our encounters-of-the-face-kind. Every so often I’ll meet an old friend who will bust out the pidgin and exclaim, “Ho, Netta! Some long time I nevah see your face!”
We laugh and fall into catching up with each other’s lives again as easily as walking into another warm hug.
That ease of communication is partly due to history and familiarity. Old friends don’t need to spend a lot of effort falling into Friend-Space. You know you’re accepted for who you are because the two of you have done a heck of a lot of silly, possibly embarrassing, things together.
Skilled conversation is also due to practice, I am thinking. People who are good at talking tend to talk a lot. They may be opinionated or dramatically expressive or grand storytellers. They might just like hearing themselves talk and, if they’re really good, they know how to make that interesting for their listeners as they do it. That takes a lot of practice.
Those who are good at being silent don’t talk so much but they don’t really have to. There isn’t that unattractive, overweening need to “audition” and to fill the air with noise just to prove they are there. Because they are comfortable in their silence, the quiet ones allow others to be comfortable with it too. That takes practice too.
GROWING UP TALKING STORY
I grew up in a large extended family on a very small island where ignoring other people was the height of rudeness. Going shopping along the main street of town could take hours. You pretty much had to stop and talk story with everybody you passed on the street (as well as wave or acknowledge the other people who were farther away) or run the risk of being considered arrogant or stuck-up.
As youngsters, we learned how to talk story. We hung out with each other and we talked. We learned how to be quiet together. We learned how to throw quick quips and exit on a laugh.
We learned to smile and wave to all the aunties and uncles and ask after their families. We talked to the neighbors, to assorted salesclerks, and to everybody else we met on the street. We were good at talking story.
Even though our world has gotten full of other folks who just got off the plane or who come from other less communicative places, we can still do face-time pretty well.
ENCOUNTERS OF THE FACE-KIND
If your whole world is made up of texting and words scrolling across screens, and all that, sometimes your mouth goes into sleep mode. It’s good to practice the face-thing and try to develop better skills at talking-story.
(Hey…it can even help you get a job or put together collaborations and projects and other good stuff like that.)
Family is a good place to start. So are familiar strangers.
Think of the people you encounter across sales counters. Acknowledge them, laugh with them, take a moment to pay a compliment or give them a kind word and it opens a new level of comfortable. You become a person, not a number. How cool is that?
One of the best YouTube videos I’ve seen on this is radio host Celeste Headlee’s TEDTalk, “10 Ways To Have a Better Conversation.” In it, she says, she’ll teach you how to “be a good interviewer.”
It is, she says, what good conversation is. When we talk-story, we try to step into each other’s worlds and find out more about them.
To reiterate Headlee’s tips:
- Don’t multi-task. Be present.
- Don’t pontificate. Assume that you have something to learn.
- Use open-ended questions that can’t be answered by a “yes” or “no.” Say, “What was that like?” Say, “How did that feel?” See where that takes you.
- Go with the flow. Follow where the conversation leads you.
- If you don’t know, say so. No shame.
- Don’t equate your experience with theirs. Your story may be nothing like their story. (Good conversations are not scar and wound competitions. Nobody gets a prize for being the most hurt.)
- People don’t care whether you get every single nitpicky detail right. What they care about is you – who you are, how you feel about something, what you’re doing and so on. That’s the same stance you need to take too.
- Pay attention.
- Be brief.
The best conversations are the ones that take you into other worlds that give you new insights and inspire you. They happen when you are prepared to be amazed by all the heartful people around you.
ONE CAVEAT – TAKE IT SLOW
You do have to make allowances for your own innate limitations. If you tend to go into severe overwhelm when surrounded by crowds of people, it might be better if you stick to one-on-one talks when you’re in analog world.
Here’s a poem that grew out of a weekend of me doing the networking dance at some industry conference or other. All the small talk and inane posturings and glad-handing got to me after a while. By the second day, my brain just sort of lay there, gasping, slumped over and drained.
(I did get a poem out of it so it wasn’t a total waste of time….)
SHE HAS NO CONVERSATION
Sometimes I cannot speak.
The words I need are dreaming
Deep down below the sea inside me
And it takes time to retrieve them.
I need stillness to get to them,
To dive down and find where
They are clinging to the rocks
In underwater caves.
It makes for sporadic conversation
And long, long pauses.
If I try to force it, churning and
Floundering all around,
What comes out sounds stupid –
Nothing hangs together right.
I have always envied the ones
Whose words are all
Laid out in neat rows on long shelves
(Probably categorized…and labeled, even.)
All THEY have to do is grab them up
And gift them to people easily.
They can do the small-talk game,
Easy fitting-in among any crowd.
Maybe they even have some neat
They can grab up and shoot off
To wow the Peanut Gallery.
Their words always seem to make a lot of sense.
(Until you think about them some)
And then they turn out to be breaths of air
Manipulated by clever tongues and teeth.
At their worst, the words are little more
Than those pressed-lips farts we used to make as kids.
Talking slow and deep is not so bad.
by Netta Kanoho
Header picture credit: “Talking Story” by Georgia via Flickr [CC BY-NC-ND 2.0]
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