I started the day by writing a segment for the Confessions project because I felt I needed to do more writing this week in order to keep apace. I wrote several pages.
The segment is about conversation and my caution about entering into social conversations these days. I say that it is hard to find good conversation and people with good conversation skills these days, for a wide assortment of reasons, some of which I breeze over. It makes me wary of conversation.
However, I must keep trying. Perhaps I can offer myself as a role model, if that is not too vain. Anyway, the point is that conversation is necessary for society to be functioning, democratic healthy and thriving. In short, conversation is at the crux of collaboration. Collaboration is a kind of conversation. As I have been saying all along here, collaboration is the best way to build human relations, communities, nations and international rapport. Collaboration is necessary for solving problems, the big and the small ones. Collaboration is necessary for survival and for peace.
Though I have been feeling drowsy all day, I am trying to get work done. I looked at my Korean language class notes again, but my mind is feeble. Maybe a short nap would help. I will have to have some coffee later before my class if I am still feeling like this this evening. The class starts at eight and, though it is ostensibly a practice session, all students know that it is a test because you have to demonstrate what you have been studying. I tried to sleep after lunch but did not.
Late morning, after some writing, I went out to do some errands and brought back a delicious lunch. I had a crab salad filled croissant sandwich and apple pie—a real indulgence. It made me sleepier, although the weather did not seem as muggy as usual. It is still quite warm inside the apartment and the thermometer showed 33 degrees just before I went out, which is the highest I have seen it, for I try to keep it below 32 by using the air conditioning system.
Dining Table Conversation
I am not an extrovert. I am generally sociable but not thoroughly so and certainly not always so. All the same, I do like to go out for dinner with a crowd now and then. I enjoy the company and even the conversation in addition to good food; well, if we’re lucky we get good food, and we usually do, although somebody always complains (How bourgeois!). There is no guarantee about the conversation. There may be no reward in the conversation at the dinner table.
I think good conversation is rare. For one thing, it takes people who know how to do it, for one thing, and, at the same time, it takes people who are not significantly socially or personally flawed. I am differentiating between overall verbal skills and conversational skills. A good speaker is not necessarily a good conversationalist, for a good speaker can monopolize the situation and run off on monologues rather than engage in exchanges. That sort of participant may be highly self-engrossed. She or he (more often he) also may be tempted to jump around from topic to topic. Conversation requires listening, social etiquette, the ability to stay on topic and follow the flow as well as good enunciation, charm, vocabulary, story-telling and other skills and qualities that make a good speaker. It requires caginess. One must have the strength to restrain oneself and await one’s turn, yet have the verbal agility and strength to insert a few timely sentences. Conversation requires awareness and attention to the social situation. It requires building and maintaining rapport with others. It requires someone who enjoys society and can engage in relationships.
English speaking universities and schools say that language skills are on the decline. One causal factor no doubt the over reliance on communications technologies, and another probably the overly materialistic society. Language skills are just not valued a lot these days, when you can manufacture a brand, that is an image, and manufacture numbers and identities. You simply do not have to negotiate so much. Those with the power and influence simply rule the situation. It is very much a world where might, status and image make right.
Further to that, conversation is not appreciated in the push-button world where you demand and expect to get, and can get what you demand and gratification in short order, with the right technology, status and amount of money. Talk shows and books, so I hear, are complaining that men are losing their skills in relating to women because of dependency on computerized technologies, especially internet porn. As disgusting and incredible as it sounds, the statistics of men “addicted” to pornography found on the internet are high. They look for greater and greater excitement and enjoy (somehow) immediate gratification. That is to say, there are lots of guys sitting in front of images letting their fantasies go wild, getting emotionally and physically stimulated and then ejaculating in front of a monitor. Who needs women?—so the argument goes. Wow.
Whatever the cause(s), it is hard to find good conversation. It takes two or more open-minded, socially sensitive, empathetic, sociable, courteous, well read, thoughtful and articulate people. Yeah—it seems like a lot to ask, though it should not be.
Some cultures are more orally grounded and oration is a prized skill, though that means skill at soliloquy or speeches before audiences. Western culture has become more reliant on text, and I think that emails, blogs, web pages and so on, all being texts, are an extension of that kind of culture. We expect less talking, more silence, more reading and more writing. We want to reduce if not dispense with in-person interactions for the sake of expediency. “Didn’t you read the memo?” “Haven’t you opened my email?” “We sent you a brochure.” “Check out our website.”
Yes, I think there are attempts at rebuilding and consolidating interpersonal interaction and the art of conversation. I cannot be the only one who has noticed this problem. There are many pockets of “community-building” efforts, neighbourhood outreaches, forum hosting occasions, friendship exchanges, dramatic works and clubs, so it seems.
There is a lot of work to be done. For now, awkwardness and oppression in social situations where the conversation is lacking happen too often, as far as I am concerned. Imagine where these situations have happened to you:
l You are squished between two people in heated and intense debate or anecdote sharing and they seem to have forgotten about everybody else, and the relevance of their topics.
l It is an odd mix of people who do not seem to like each other or share much in common and the conversation is stiff and minimal.
l One outgoing person keeps forcing his/her monologues on the whole table, leaving little opportunity for responding or sharing.
l People speak without thinking and the impulsive commentary or responses bounce around all over the place so that there is no flow.
l Every time you introduce a topic or make a comment, the other person(s) respond(s) as if it is a word association game, so that they keep switching topics.
l Everything that is said prompts a listener or (the horror!) some listeners to relate it all to themselves.
l There is an objector who makes it his or her business to object to nearly everything that is said. (I have witnessed lots of those!)
l You are jammed in a conversational crevice between two or more conversations around you and you cannot seem to find a foothold to get yourself out of it and join one of the conversations. (This happens to me a lot.)
l Someone erroneously considers it an occasion to opine away, even mount a soapbox. (How dreadful!)
l The whole table is engaged in a single conversation (often very pleasant) but someone there seems to want attention and keeps trying to drag another person away into a private dialogue.
l A pair or clique at the table only seem to want to talk about topics that concern them only and their relationships, which alienates or excludes others because they are out of the loop.
l One or more person is speaking loudly, over everyone else.
l One or more person is speaking too quietly or only in one direction away from man of the others, so that some of the others cannot hear the conversation.
l There is the drunk determined to be “happy” no matter what.
l At a restaurant, someone at your table keeps breaking off to be rude to the staff. (Cringe!)
l Of course, there is usually a persistent interjector or interrupter. (This happens to me a LOT.)
l Have you met the nodder, who feigns being agreeable but does not want to step into the conversation?
l How about the times when the a dynamic of competition seems to evolve, and some at the table try to outdo the others in terms of getting laughs, attention, dominating, storytelling, volume, bragging and various other neuroses? It can start out tame and good-humoured but get ugly. (Ooh—time to make excuses and leave.)
l Though it is a social occasion, people cannot seem to refrain from talking about work.
l There may be one who likes to prickle others, and/or one who feels prickled a lot. (God save you if there are both types present. Also, a good time to make an exit.)
l Etc., etc., etc.
I could go on and on. Perhaps the reader has thought of other types of bad or hazardous conversation behaviour.
Having experienced all of the above situations, I have grown wiser and more cautious. I try to pick and choose my conversation opportunities. I like to be with friends, of course, who have gotten to know each other and gotten used to each other, and like to hear everyone have a chance to speak and talk about themselves, and are open to anyone initiating any of a wide range of topics, and where my company chooses to interpret what is said for the best and with empathy and humour, and where permission to talk about work or politics is limited. Your friends are friends because they like you, share things with you and are supportive, is it not so? I want to spend time with my friends, like my apartment building mates or chums among my colleagues, or hiking pals. I am leery about other types of situations, however, and are careful about setting myself up to get involved in a conversation with people I know less well. Sometimes, it works, however. Group social conversations have worked at conference social gatherings where I am just making acquaintances, but after a series of one-on—one conversations have taken place so that some familiarity has been established, and we have heard many among us present, so that we have some topics to begin with and the shared experience of being at the conference. They can work among people starting a new class or project, because a phase of rapport-building is needed with the prospect of having to work together at close quarter for an extensive period of time. Beyond these kinds of situations—and I will not bother talking about family because, you know about family dynamics, right?—It is too risky to try to engage in conversation. Better to disengage, or at least hang back.
These days, I try to pick my conversations. Having control over your life is all about being conscious and making choices instead of letting things and people happen to you. I guess I still drag my feet when I should be pulling myself out of a conversation or avoiding one that I know will not feel satisfactory, when I do have a choice as to whether to pull away. For instance, I have been having a problem with an associate who likes to be on stage and likes to reel one in with little gifts and complements, then corner them and then heartlessly start rambling on about the past or preferences or relationships for 20 to 30 minutes at a time, hoping that one feels obligated enough that they must endure. I find that happening to me. I need to be more assertive in managing the conversation or walking away. This is a friend and colleague and I shall have to tell this person what is bothering me when she is talking to me.
For the sake of getting out and being sociable, it is risky. It is hard to foresee how the conversation will unfold, especially when you are unfamiliar ground. In recent times, I have weighed the costs of seeking company at social occasions, and have consciously decided I needed the company enough to tolerate poor conversation or poor conversation behaviour.
I thus sometimes find myself trapped. Out with a group when most of the others are busy in separate conversations, I might be the fixation of someone who wants to vent or tell me his or her troubles when I am not at all interested, which is different from consulting someone. In consulting someone, you generally, and eventually, seek a response in the form of advice. Some guys are just used to having the pleasure of a woman listening or be in the habit of bending someone’s ear. I have found that trying to insert a comment usually just meets with rejection because a response is not required, at least none more than an echo or grunt of acknowledgement, which may be taken as a coupon worth another hour of monologue, such is the self-preoccupation of such speakers. They think they and their lives are so important. Yuck! If the others in the group are so absorbed in their own dialogues, you can be coerced and stay stuck there unless you are willing to forfeit the company of the rest of the group. This happened to me just the other day.
Else, I have been seated among many in the middle on one side of a long table, back against the wall where there is no escape when the afore mentioned orator pounces on me, or a dominatrix verbally occupies the entire table section, or I am caught in that ravine between two creek beds of conversation, only catching fragments of each of them so that I am not able to choose one and dive in. You can’t even slink away under the table. The only way is to take the drastic measure of loudly and insistently demanding that your hostages release you on some vain pretext like going to powder your nose or whatever. Sometimes, it does come to that, if someone else apparently has a shorter fuse and does not make a move before I do. It is times like these when it would be handy to be a smoker, so that I would appear to have an excuse to break way for a while, and perhaps even find a better interlocutor in a smoking area.
One way to combat the conversation struggle, of course, is to come armed with topics and witty remarks. Actually, I do try to prepare in this way when I know I have to go to a social situation, especially in cases where I do not know my company very well or it is a formal occasion. I may spend up to three days making mental notes, even scanning news headlines or social media threads or events listings to make sure I can enter the scenario with tricks up my sleeve. I might even write them down and tuck them into a convenient pocket. I even keep phrases at hand, trying to remember my staged response or commentary when it is time for conversation.
I think that occasions for social conversation are times to strut one’s stuff and convey an image, to many people. I think a fair amount of bullshitting if not outright lying goes on. I am sure of it, today. People want to impress or hide things a lot of the time. That is what I guess, at this stage of maturity. Often it is all a game anyway, where people are seeking success in estimating by how much noise they have made and the frequency of the response from the company around them, so they can go away feeling smug and satisfied. They can aggressively go about this, they way people are known to lie, cheat and trick in order to get two dollars or some trivial bonus. Really, though. Who cares?--Only if the company is high society, but I am not talking about that kind of company.
Well, when you really assess social conversation, the only function is to be sociable, which is to be with people and maintain or build relationships. Actually, the conversation probably does not matter. The point is to show up, and a fringe benefit might be the food, drink and maybe some side entertainment like a performance or at least ambiance and ambiance music. Conversation can leave you with impressions, but it is not that important. You might feel good, whatever the conversation, and I do not mean it only has to come from liquor. With a positive frame of mind, you can put the conversation such as it is or lack of it in perspective. A meeting is a time to discuss substantive things and possible make decisions, which are not the functions and purposes of social conversations. Sure, business people might be wheeling and dealing on the side at social affairs that are really meetings dressed up to look like harmless entertaining occasions. I am not talking about that kind of situation. I am talking about real social situations in general.
I guess that is why I feel compelled to read and write. Most of my dialogue participation takes this form. I cannot even be a conversationalist in my conversation classes, because my role is a facilitator who gets people to talk and observes. At meetings, I may also have to facilitate, and cannot be free enough to earnestly converse. At work meetings, the conversation is constrained by a narrow agenda and driven by a leader. Opportunities for input are few because few are welcome and only at certain points in the exchange and it can be dangerous to give unwanted input and replies. Think of what happens when someone oversteps their boundaries at a meeting: the result may be violent up to and including an ejection and even a dismissal.
There is no doubt about it, conversation is political. People are political. They want power and power falls unevenly and usually unfairly in the most democratic of societies, not matter what the philosophers and socialists say. Only a fool speaks openly and spontaneously. It is best to be strategic. Not saying anything is often better.