A few weeks ago, I attended a reception for the keynote speakers and presenters of a symposium. It was high culture–wine, tapas, discussion of obscure authors. No one referenced Jersey Shore or stood around texting. There was a lot of schmoozing and networking going on. After all, there were well-respected and influential people present, and if you want to get anywhere in academia, it’s all about who you know (I suspect it’s the same in the business world). While attempting to hold my own in discussions about Bourdieu and Anzaldua, I noticed something about the way many of these highly intelligent people conversed: almost no one was listening, I mean really listening, to what anyone else was saying. No one was asking true questions. They were all completely focused on themselves. They seized every opportunity to thrust their personal anecdotes and brilliant ideas into the conversation. If someone else had the floor, you could see these people watching to see when the speaker’s lips stopped moving so they could take the floor. The competition was fierce. Clearly, people weren’t focused on what the current speaker was saying; they were focused on generating their own impressive observations and looking for chances to butt in. This made for a few awkward moments, and sometimes killed the conversation entirely.
I did a lot better than most. This is not because I was smarter, wittier, or more interesting than those people. I just followed the basic rules of conversation that my mom taught me when I was four or five years old:
1. Ask people interesting questions about themselves and things they like. Don’t ask a question just because you have something to say about that topic.
2. Listen carefully to their answers. Nod and say “mm-hmm” to show that you’re listening.
3. Let them finish their thoughts. Ask follow-up questions or make observations that directly respond to what they just said.
4. If you’re not interested in what they’re saying, don’t pretend like you are. Tactfully end the conversation and move on to someone else.
It seems terribly self-evident to say, but people like talking about themselves. They also like attentive audiences. They will like you if listen attentively to what they have to say. This isn’t to say that you should never speak; you should just always speak in context. You say your piece not because it’s the thing you most want to talk about in the world, but because it fits the conversation. Trust me, it makes for a far more smooth and fascinating dialogue than abruptly interjecting the smartest thing you have to say.
Conversation used to be something you were taught both directly and indirectly. There were rules of polite conversation, and those who failed to follow the rules were (indirectly) chastised accordingly. Stifling? Perhaps. But that doesn’t mean we can’t learn a thing or two from it.
I blame the lost art of conversation on social media. We are so used to interacting with each other in a world that’s all about us–our statuses, our comments, our pictures, our profiles–that we carry Facebook over into reality. It becomes a fragmented game of making the wittiest comment on someone else’ status rather than an art of fluid, dialogic, mutually satisfying discourse.
Maybe people will figure this out on their own. Maybe they won’t, and I’ll write a book about it someday. Until then, I must confess that I enjoy having a bit of the upper hand.