(About a 11 minute read)
“I begin with the principle that all men are bores. Surely no one will prove himself so great a bore as to contradict me in this.” — Soren Kierkegaard
PAUL: You! Woman! Tell me fast because I don’t have any time today for you and your precious small talk. I’m under a tight publishing schedule. My readers are hungry for new flesh. Answer me: What makes me the world’s best conversationalist? You should know. You’re one of the people still talking to me. Thirty seconds.
TERESUMS: Paul, I feel pressured. You’re not being fair!
PAUL: Got it! I’m great because because I’m not fair. What else? Twenty seconds.
TERESUMS: But Paul, I didn’t meant that!
PAUL: Got it! I never say what I mean. Fifteen now.
TERESUMS: Paul, you can’t be serious. Wait! I said nothing! Nothing!
PAUL: Serious about nothing. You’re being a great help. Wrap it up now. Bottom line!
TERESUMS: Paul, you’re off your meds. I can tell.
PAUL: Always on drugs. Great key factors, Terese! You’re a great help — for a girl!
TERESUMS: I swear by Krishna, if I ever get my hands even near your throat….Paul? Are you there, Paul?
Dear Readers, please take note this post is firmly in keeping with the excellent standards and traditions of Café Philos and of me, Paul Sunstone. It is guaranteed not fair, not what I mean, not serious, and I swear I was on drugs when I wrote it. Enjoy, you insatiable flesh eating beasts!
“Can the all but dead art of conversation be resuscitated?” That’s the question I ask increasingly often these days. And the answers I get nearly make me despair.
Women shoppers in the melon aisle giggle or laugh nervously at the thought. Panhandlers shake their heads in disbelief. Cops all-too-quickly change the subject to jail time, refusing to show the true turmoil of their angst at mention of the idea. And 911 operators simply disconnect in denial of the truth, the truth I’m right about this.
I believe it’s quite telling that no one wants to converse about conversation. To me, that’s a firm, objective indication that no one any longer knows how. Even the usually skeptical Teresums agrees with me:
“Paul’s insanely brilliant genius has never been more alive than it is in his post on the art of conversation. His insight into how conversation is all but dead these days fully deserves to be honored with thousands of reposts on major social media sites, and the Swedish Academy had damn well better give him the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature or I will personally prostitute myself to every sailor in the Sydney harbor until I have the money for a bomb. Paul is not off his meds again, and he didn’t really threaten to visit me as a month-long house guest if I refused to say this. Also, Paul says ‘Hi’ to all his beloved fans and flesh-eaters.” — Teresums.
Think of this post as a last ditch effort to save a noble art from extinction. The seven guidelines that I propose in this post are each one hand-selected by me and fully ripened before being offered to you for your reflective consideration.
Of course, you are absolutely under no obligation or pressure to embrace any of my suggestions. After all, they are merely my modest, certain-to-soon-be Nobel Prize winning opinions. And yet, the gods themselves would most likely inflict upon you a tragic case of diarrhea of legendary explosiveness at your next crucial meeting with your company’s CEO were you so foolish as to disagree with me. Just saying.
So what is a conversation, and why is it proper to think of it as an art?
Today, so many of us are of the alarming opinion that a conversation consists of talking to someone. Nothing could be further from the truth. There is a vast gulf between talking to someone, and talking with someone. This post is almost wholly concerned with the latter, rather than the former thing.
Talking to someone might be pleasant enough, but seldom is it pleasant for the person being talked to. Only one person is really getting much out of it, while the other might be feeling everything from anger to boredom. It is more like a species of masturbation, than an exercise in partner sex. Just as masturbation cannot match the pleasure of partner sex, talking to someone cannot match the pleasure of talking with them.
So the key take away here is that conversations are back and forth communications. Besides that such communications are much more pleasurable for both partners than single-sided lectures, your partner — whether that be your friend, your date, a family member, your boss, or anyone else — is more likely to be impressed with you in every way if you’re good at the art of conversation.
Here then are the seven guidelines, in no particular order of importance:
Number One: Tailor the conversation to your specific flesh-eating audience by planning ahead.
I have found that planning ahead to tailor your conversation to the interests of your conversational partner or audience is a fun way to accomplish at least four things at once. Obviously, the first of the four, tailoring, allows you both to avoid topics likely to bore your audience and to instead bring up topics of genuine interest to them.
But planning is also of tremendous help in avoiding brain-freeze possibly brought on by nervousness or other causes. If your partner is someone you’ve had several or more conversations with, planning can help lift you out of the ruts and routines such conversations tend to fall into. Last, it can help you pace your conversation so that it does not become bogged down by any one topic.
How elaborately you plan a conversation is up to you, but it’s a good idea to have at least three or four topics picked out on a variety of subjects. It can be hard to remember more than that, but when I’ve expected a long conversation, I’ve sometimes jotted down the topics on a note card, then predictably left it behind at home.
Number Two: Wear your opinions lightly.
This one seems difficult for many of us to do today. We appear to be living in an dark era of inflamed opinions — apparently many of those opinions are held merely for the purpose of feeling gratuitous outrage, arguably the fastest growing form of vapid and meaningless entertainment alive today.
But unless you have perfectly identical opinions as your partner’s, expressing them passionately is going to offend and endanger the spirit of your conversation. You’ll come across like a fool and a jerk. On the other hand, to wear your opinions lightly will give you at least a hint of being sage-like. It’s your choice.
Assuming you already know how to come across as a fool and a jerk by reading the gratuitously outrageous articles on Café Philos, let’s talk about how to wear opinions lightly. Mostly it’s common sense.
Express yourself often — but not necessarily always — in probabilistic terms — such as,”few”, “many”, “some”, “most”, “often”, etc, rather than in absolutes like, “all”, “always”, and “never”. Similarly, replace “is” with “seems” or “appears”. “Avoid saying, “That’s wrong”, and try substituting, “As it happens, that turns out not to be the case”, or some other, softer contradiction. Use the language of opinion, rather than the language of fact. “I think it’s true that…”, rather than, “It’s true that…”.
You can take those things to an extreme, so don’t be afraid to be “decisive” now and then.
Number Three: Avoid monopolizing the conversation.
Nearly everyone knows the importance of this one. Obviously, monopolizing the conversation absolutely kills it. Dead. Dead. Dead. You might as well drive over your partner in a pick-up truck — he or she will at least have a chance to scream.
Number Four: Avoid being censorious or judgmental.
The human conscious is by nature censorious and judgmental. You cannot entirely escape it under normal circumstances. But expressing it is another thing. Whether you realize it or not, judgmental remarks will increase tension and anxiety in your partner, even if they are not actually directed at him or her, and sometimes even if they are positive — depending on how they are delivered.
People cue into how you judge others to figure out how you’re judging them. And no one likes to be judged. So avoid as much as you can the appearance of judging, except when actually necessary, or when the judgment itself is made the butt of a joke.
Closely related: Constantly contradicting your partner. Even if everything your partner says is wrong, you should not do this. As much as possible be affirming or neutral.
Number Five: Listen to understand, not to respond, and ask Questions.
Most of us don’t pay sufficient attention to the people we’re talking with. Instead, we listen for key words only, words that then prompt our responses. This often results in our responses being at least a bit off, a bit missing the point.
It’s best to listen as attentively as you can muster, pause a moment afterwards to gather your thoughts, and then ask questions if you are not sure of what they’re saying.
Number Six: Switch topics when people begin repeating themselves.
Too soon is much better than too late here. By the way, there is usually no reason to apologize for changing the subject. Often, doing so comes across as awkward.
Number Seven: Follow the Rule of Threes.
The Rule of Threes: Spend one-third of the conversation talking about your partner, another third talking about neither your partner nor yourself, and the final third talking about yourself.
Of course, there are exceptions to everyone of the above rules. So learn them, learn them well, in order to know how and when to break them.
These things can be hard to implement because they take considerable practice to master most of them. But in my experience, mastering them is worth the trouble.
One of the main benefits of developing adept conversational skills, such as those that are
bombed bound to propel me to a Nobel Prize in Literature this year, is that doing so can boost the charm of nearly anyone, even Theresums, believe it or not.
A second benefit is that developing the skills will surely increase your enjoyment of talking with other people. And beyond charm, people are apt to form — or reform — an overall better impression of you, even if you don’t actually deserve it. I know, I’ve been faking it for years.
Questions? Comments? Spurious announcements of your intention to run for high elected office? Lame excuses why you failed to invite me to Christmas last year?