The lost art of talking: 11 things I’ve learned about having a decent conversation

“It’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore.” — Cliff Richard.

So sang Sir Cliff in his massive 1979 pop hit. I wonder what he’d sing about the state of conversation today.

Talking is such a lost art. Some blame social media and modern technology, which is ironic, since both have improved the expediency of communication exponentially. If they were to add the deterioration of good grammar to the list, I’d say they have a solid argument. But this is not about grammatical shortcomings in a world where the misguided can mistake “conversate” for a heightened command of the English language.

This is about a world in which we’re “friends” with strangers we’ll never meet on Facebook, and our self-worth is determined by our number of “likes” and “followers,” the latter of whom we communicate with through narcissistic selfies and in 140 characters or less (#hashtags included). In this strange new world, people aren’t really saying much anymore.

Many 21 year olds are hard to talk to but not because they’re young and have nothing to say. They’re hard to talk to because they’ve grown up in a modern world where they don’t have to do much actual talking. Texting and tweeting don’t exactly allow the gift of gab to flourish.

So if you were born in the ’90s or later and struggle with face-to-face communication, or if you’re old enough to know better but don’t, this one’s for you.

1. It all begins with “hi,” “hey,” “hello” or “howdy.” A clever opening is optional…and unnecessary. Some jerks on Grindr insist on being impressed and take issue with certain one-word openers. Personally, even if I were up for “Fun?”, I’d prefer “Hi” to some of the crude alternatives (“Horny?” “Looking?” “Hung?”).

If you want sophisticated opening prose from a stranger, listen to “All I Want,” track one on Joni Mitchell’s Blue album. Taking issue with “Hi” makes you seem like a douche before the conversation has even begun. How does the line go? “You had me at ‘hello.'” Yup, that’s good enough for me.

2. Q&As are for interviews. Maybe it’s the grumpy old man in me taking over, but nothing will make me want to end a conversation faster than a string of queries. I know, questions are the cornerstone of conversation, but a good conversation should flow naturally, and it shouldn’t be all about the person doing the heavy lifting. Answering boring questions is a lot more work than coming up with them. After asking two or three good ones, start making some interesting declarations…about yourself, not the other person.

3. Speaking of lame lines of questioning, “What’s up?” and “What’s doing?” are not conversation starters. I really never know how to answer those ones. They make me feel like I’ve got to deliver some vicarious excitement. “How are you doing” never gets old, though — especially if the person asking really cares.

4. Look at me when I’m talking to you. I was recently chatting in person with a 20 year old who spent most of our conversation messaging his friend on Snapchat. I let it go because he did offer some interesting information about the driver’s licensing system in Australia. (There are fewer requirements to run for President of the United States than there are to become a full-fledged Australian driver.) Good thing it wasn’t a date, though, for if it had been one, he would have been breaking my cardinal rule of dating, which is…

5. Put your phone away! Answering one’s mobile at the dinner table is the No. 1 date killer. Don’t do it.

6. Acronyms should be used sparingly in writing and never in oral conversation. I admit “YOLO” might look kind of cool on paper, or onscreen, but “LOL” takes more effort to say than simply laughing, which sounds infinitely more sincere.

7. Don’t stand so close to me. If I can smell what you had for your last meal, we have a problem. Lean back!

8. It’s OK to ask someone how old he or she is, but if they don’t want to divulge a number, let it go. No matter how often people say age is just a number, it’s not. It’s so much more than that. For better and occasionally for worse, I’m not the man I was at 25, or 30, or…well, we’ll just stop right there!

Age matters, and if it didn’t, people wouldn’t ask. Not everyone is comfortable with big numbers, so take the hint if someone declines to reveal theirs, and just drop it. If it does matter to you and you must know, move on. The world is full of people who have no problem revealing their true age.

9. Just drink up. Toasting, though harmless, is pretty pointless…and it often results in unnecessarily spilled booze. It’s extra-annoying when the person insisting on toasting acts like making eye contact when the glasses clink is the height of courtesy. Making eye contact when you’re actually talking — and listening — is far more important.

10. Don’t say a word when the other person is talking…unless it’s to interrupt them. Yes, I’m totally fine with people getting passionate and talking over each other from time to time. Raised voices mean people care. I’ll take that and the occasional (occasional) interruption over quiet indifference. That said, there’s no need to pepper someone else’s monologue with “yeah…yeah…yeah.” When people do it to me, it makes me think they’re in a hurry for me to shut up.

11. Be respectful of conversations of which you’re not a part. I’ve rarely had someone interrupt a conversation of mine for something that couldn’t wait. If you have to ask “Am I interrupting?”, then you already know that you are, so why even do it?

Now talk, drink and be merry!

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