The Absurd and Amazing Adventures of Cafe Girl: An Absurd Lesson: How To Have A Conversation

November 12, 2006

An Absurd Lesson: How To Have A Conversation

You wouldn't think people need to be taught this. But I'm sad to say that young people in their 20s and 30s no longer know how to make conversation, face to face, in a social context, with people they don't really know.

I blame it on the internet. And yes, I recognize that is ironic.

Since it's Sunday, which is the Lord's Day and all, I'm making a secret confession. I walked out on a conversation today because I was bored. But before you gasp in horror, let me qualify that it wasn't a one-on-one conversation I left in mid-sentence. There were a bunch of people there, I politely said my good-byes before I left. I'm not a horrible person.

That being said, I did make a very conscious decision to leave the group because, yes, I was bored out of my skull. Were the people in the group boring? Not at all, they were bright, funny, good people. Were the topics discussed boring? Not particularly. What then, you may ask, was the problem? The problem was that no one in that group knew how conversation is supposed to work, both in structure and in content.

I'm not an expert on conversation by any means. Goodness knows I've had multitudes of awkward conversational moments. And it is precisely because of my great desire to avoid these awkward moments at all costs that I have learnt the art of social conversation.

Let's start with structure, shall we?

For a conversation between two people, here's how conversation should work. You say something, I say something, you ask a question, I give you a descriptive answer, I ask you a question back. It's pretty simple. Remember tennis? Or ping pong? Or badminton? Yeah, it's like that.

If you are flirting, or trying to flirt, you can also consider using the fencing or chess structure. With both these structures, there is an element of strategy and flair, trying to foresee what the other person is going to say next, and coming up with a move. Just try not to shout, "En garde" or "checkmate." That will pretty much kill all conversation in any situation.

For group conversation, you have a number of options. We have the relay structure. One person starts a topic, hands it off to someone else, who hands it off to someone else.

We also have the group game structure. This usually works well when there are couples involved who have a lot of shared stories. In this scenario, couples may form a single unit that start a conversation topic, and then each couple takes a turn at telling a story or giving an opinion around that topic.

And finally, there's also the team sport structure. Such a structure is beneficial when there are differing opinions going on. It could be like a volleyball game, where one person starts a conversation topic, throws it to someone else, who elaborates, then "volleys" it to someone else. Or, it could be more like a soccer or a football game, where one person makes a play for a little while, then another person picks up, and then it moves on to someone else.

Conversations should never be structured like a pool game--whereby the one person who is "winning" continues to talk. Nor should it ever be structured like an ice-skating competition, where a person (or persons) performs and everyone watches. My conversation with you should never be about you showing your brilliance. There are other avenues for that. Avenues, hopefully, that I am not a part of.

And bear in mind, that if you find your group conversation starting to feel like a tennis match between you and someone else, change courses quickly because your tennis match is likely just an exhibition game for everyone else.

Now that we have structure covered, let's move on to content.

The age old rule, don't talk about politics or religion is still a pretty good one. Unless, of course, you are in a political or religious group, then by all means, feel free. I would also like to add to that list, philosophy. I don't know if you've noticed, but philosophy tends to be about thinking, rather than about talking. If you have a philosophical diatribe to share, journal, write an article, or get a blog. If you need feedback, join a discussion group.

In a one-on-one conversation, you can pretty much talk about whatever that isn't fundamentally offensive to the person you are speaking with. Hopefully, you will know enough to start in the pretty neutral topics, such as, "How was your day?" or "Where are you from?" before you go onto meatier topics such as, "What are your thoughts on the secularization of Christmas?" or "How did your grandma die again?" Once more, remember the structure--back and forth, back and forth, and you should be fine.

Group conversation topics are a little more difficult. If you only stick to topics that everyone can relate to, you're pretty much left with talking about the weather or this morning's (or evening's) rush hour traffic. As such, I'm not going to stipulate what is "appropriate" in group conversation.

There are, however, some sure-fire tools that will make any topic easily accessible to all members of the group. First of all, when you start a topic that someone may not be familiar with, explain. Don't assume everyone knows about life in the sub-Sahara, or has an opinion about your fantastic vacation. All most of us need is some context and we'll be right there with you.

If you find yourself talking for a while, and not one else has jumped in, or everyone just goes, "Huh. That's interesting" STOP SPEAKING IMMEDIATELY. You have wandered into the realm of exhibition sport. Instead of continuing with your story, say, "What does everyone think?" or "Does this happen to anyone else here?" Most of the time, someone will jump right in. If you have, indeed, gone over everyone's head, and an awkward silence ensues, just smile graciously and say, "Guess not." Yes, it is awkward, and yes, it is embarrassing, but for the most part, someone will start another conversation topic and move on. No one will resent you or think any less of you. We will, however, think less of you if you keep babbling.

Pause every 30 seconds or so. It gives others a chance in the group to jump in. Besides, breathing every now and then will be good for you.

You get about one initial story per topic. I'm sorry if you have more to say, but let everyone else have a go before you launch into story number two.

Please remember that inside jokes are not funny. If I "just had to be there" please don't bring it up in a group. Because odds are most of the group wasn't there when it happened, and so, we're just watching some moron tell a story badly.

If you are relating a story that involved most of the group, and there is a newcomer, turn to the newcomer and give them the background before you launch into the story. And, if you are part of the group that was part of the story, don't hesitate to stop the person telling the story so that you may give the newcomer the story's background.

When there are new people in the group you are in, take an interest in them. Ask them where they are from, what they do for a living, who else they know in a group. Introduce them to other people in the group. Ask them about their lives. Most people want to talk about themselves. In fact, they crave it.

Here's the biggest key to having a meaningful conversation--talk about things that mean something to the heart. We don't have to be all serious, deep, or intense. We don't have to talk about our wounds and our pain. But we do have to be real. We do have to say how something makes us think, act, or feel. This will ensure hours of conversation that is fundamentally satisfying.

Because ultimately, this is all communication is about--the desire to know and be known.

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