The Art of Conversation: A Guide

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You come up to me on the street and say you know me from the columns I hide behind in the Bi-Line. Two things are liable to happen: either we are both instantaneously teleported to a clearing in a wintry forest and fight to submission like starved-out wolves turning on their own offspring, or a conversation has begun. If the latter, good luck. I am awfully particular when it comes to my fellow interlocutors. After all the times I’ve berated and subsequently ostracized my peers for falling prey to a conversational faux pas, I figured it was about time to put this handy guide together on, as you may have guessed, the Art of Conversation.

The catalyst for this guide was a BRIDGE meeting that took place a few weeks ago regarding sexual harassment and rape culture. If you like food fight scenes in movies and cut the crust off your sandwiches, then it was great. In truth, however, the meeting devolved into a meaningless back-and-forth about statistics with clear rights and lefts. No one’s mind was changed, I am not convinced anyone even learned anything substantial enough to contort into confirmation bias. Frankly, it was an uncomfortable, unexpected confrontation with our deep differences. I now think the fundamental unit of conversation is misunderstanding. The blame for this can fall on the listener, but really it can be distilled into people so eager to edge in that they never considered where the road would take them, or they never knew what to say to begin with. I know this is true of me. We are addicted to being listened to, but have no idea how to say a damn thing. That is an over-the-top, preachy, borderline pretentious view of discussion, but I truly think we don’t talk enough about talking.

So, you ask, how’s it done? How do I spit my brain stuff at someone else, appropriately and with taste? Well, camper, let’s take a few steps back. Some old philosopher who probably lived in a barrel once remarked that talking is only worth it if it improves on the silence. Is whatever you’re about to say markedly better than the dull sound of the blood pounding in your ears? I didn’t think so. Maybe: write it on a paper airplane and let the trade winds take it somewhere you will never have enough money to go to, or bottle it up until you boil over at Thanksgiving dinner with your problematic aunt. But! You finally centered on a suitably concise, compassionate, and careful anecdote to share with those around you, what then? First, take a sterling silver spoon and lightly tap it against fine Dutch china to get their attention, then clear your voice, introduce yourself (including all relevant titles such as “lord” or “grandmaster”), and deliver with panache. Make sure to announce your Twitter handle in case they have further questions. This is the single most efficient way to antagonize an entire room.

I don’t exactly know how we can have such strong beliefs and simultaneously be unable to communicate them. If they cannot be shared or broken down into their component parts, how are they well enough understood to build an identity around? It might be just too fun to disagree, or at least to have something to talk about, but that’s not very nuanced and assumes stupidity. The more intellectually flattering version is that people are so adept at critically thinking and utilizing logic that they rationalize in circles around each other. Everything ends up making too much sense and whatever is being discussed has been abandoned. Dumb it down, for folks like me who just what to know where you stand and why. Be honest, be available, and reserve the right to amend or completely abandon your position when confronted with new information. Also, wear a suit and get a haircut. See a dentist every six months. Yellow touching red is venomous, red touching black is safe.

Worst case scenario: you dress to the nines, clean shaven and all buttered up. You haven’t talked out loud in months, close friends and family have forgotten what your voice sounds like. Your hands are scarred with the fading pen marks of all the things you wanted to say but couldn’t. Then, it hits you like a bowling ball that has to be on the bottom rack on account of its immense weight, “How about those Packers?” It’s perfect, you think. Elegant, short, thought-provoking and sure to really resonate with the foreign exchange students from Wisconsin. You brought your own spoon from home, you had an aging artisan fire you new china and ship it over on a keelboat, you stand and let it ring out over the room. You wait. They turn. The clearing of your throat echoes off the walls and settles over the crowd. “How about those Packers?” and suddenly the whole building begins to shake, violent tremors like a giant tossing a dollhouse. Drywall falls and chandeliers ring out, preparing to plummet to the marble floors. The crowd cannot take their eyes off of you, however, and as pieces of ceiling tumble around them they remain perfectly still, staring at you. As you black out, unsure if it was real, faint as a butterfly alighting on a flower, you hear “How about ‘em?” and then the room caves in. I’ve only had this happen once or twice, and it’s not as bad as it sounds.

Go forth, then, and conversate with your peers like a professional! The world awaits.

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