Talking to Other People

How are we to speak to others?  This may sound like a silly question but talking to people who are different is difficult. We don't share the same codes or the same referents. Which is to say, we talk about different things and we talk about them in different ways. We all have different things we think are even worth talking about. And we have different ways we like to talk about these things — what's interesting, what's exciting, how much to speak about how shitty vs. how cool something is, etc.

Like some others I know, I often feel a bit removed from the facts of the day. I am conversant in the code of white middle class so-called liberal urban people: I know how to speak like them, more or less. But I don't share many of the same referents. We consume, metabolize, and discuss, different things.

I don't know much about what people call politics. I don't know the names of lots of countries. Which I thought I did but people keep saying names of places I've never heard of.  It might be that all my geographic knowledge stems from fourth grade and due to various political events there are now different countries.  Either that, or I really never knew.  And while I do watch some of the television programs — man, there has really been a revolution in serial tv shows — I don't know many others and even fewer movies that are out now. And this ignores the manner in which people talk about movies and politics and such, what counts as judgement, as critique, as insight.

And so when I'm talking to people outside my thoroughly vetted community — a very small community, mind you, of approximately three people —, I often find myself at a loss as to how to speak to them, not to mention what to say to them.  Just look at how people respond to me on Thought Catalog.

Now, for the most part, I can usually avoid speaking to people about anything that matters. This, however, gets trickier when it comes to meeting women.  I often feel like Larry David in Curb Your Enthusiasm trying to pick up a girl in a bar.

But, despite my apparent if not rampant narcissism, my point is not to write about me.  My point is multifold, so it's not really a point at all, I suppose.  I am interested in how we can speak to each other despite our differences.  And I'm interested in the ways an interest in what McLuhan calls the environment makes social life difficult.

Ideally, we would speak to each not despite our differences but with and of our differences. We'd approach each situation not demanding or assuming that it conform to our conversational standard.  We'd not stick to our guns too adamantly. But nor would we abandon our likes and dislikes too readily. We'd be ready, poised for what of interest might come and what of interest we might add.  We'd inquire; we'd listen; we'd instruct; we'd hold forth: we'd converse.

There is a beautiful and complex ethics here, a posture that demands we be at once sure and open.

But what's really tricky, the thing I struggle with the most, is finding the right tone of voice to use when speaking with other people who don't share this same ethical posture (an ethical posture I only sometimes wear, to be sure).  When I hear someone talking about, say, Barack Obama, I'm not quite sure how to respond. But what I'm feeling are the following things, all at once: I don't care at all; I wish we would talk about something else; I have a bit of disdain for the conversation and those who are participating; I hope I learn something I don't know; maybe I'm wrong and they're right; I could do with another drink; Kierkegaard was right; what the fuck do I know, anyway?  

How, I ask you, do I express all that?


Glenn said...

My methods are smile, lie then steer the conversation in another direction or to a comfortable point if one exists. The tricky part is the lie and that means alot of inquiring and listening to get the right angle. I hate talking on the phone (particularly at work) because it takes my first move away. The smile puts people at ease, makes them less inclined to be critical and more likely to give over information which can be used for the lies and so on..

I have actually become quite good in live (non phone) situations because I get the oppportunity to set things up ... it has seen me rise quickly up the employment ladder in the last 12 -18 months but stick me on that phone and forget about it....

Email is the same ... i am actually a nice guy ... you just can't tell by the font!

So, to (finally) answer your question, how do I express all of that? Smile and nod! :-)

Daniel Coffeen said...

Ah, the ol' grin and nod. Never mastered that technique. I think I grimace and furrow which belies my nodding and smiling. It's a terrible weakness — a disability of a sort.

Nathan said...

I've found that a certain alternation between brow-furrowing and nod-smiling can be effective in establishing a more generous rapport. It's tricky to strike the right balance and, I have to confess, I typically proceed unconsciously and only discover the pattern afterwards. But, to provide a general outline of the method, I start with smiling, and organize the rest of my conduct around the initial response of my interlocutor.

If they reciprocate with a similarly friendly gesture, I favor the smile throughout while introducing the furrowed brow intermittently to communicate an attitude of concentration and interest. This lets them know that I'm taking what they're saying seriously but, ultimately, I'm more interested in the exchange, the back and forth, not the contents of the arguments or opinions shared. This tends to go over pretty well.

If they don't reciprocate the initial smile and affect an air of indifference or aloofness, I move to brow-furrowing and lean in a bit at times to suggest that what they're saying doesn't quite make sense to me. If possible, I may also pick apart some of their points just to drive this home and put them on the defensive. Once I see them start to lose their cool or make a genuine effort to explain themselves, I switch back to nodding and smiling. When in a defensive position, such friendly gestures are more affecting and tend to dissolve the facade of disinterest and aloofness. This is especially useful in professional settings.

These are somewhat mercenary tactics and, admittedly, have more to do with establishing a sense of safety and openness than creating the conditions for good conversation. As far as the latter is concerned, the only reliable method may be that kairotic sensitivity you've spoken of so often. Good conversation isn't something that can be engineered; it's something that happens. Of course, it happens more frequently under certain circumstances: with friends, etc. But, in less certain situations, I find it's best to keep my wits about me, listen and wait for that moment which may never come. Not much of a strategy, but really the only honest way to proceed.

Daniel Coffeen said...

I usually take the socially abhorrent, less generous path: stream roll with what interests me. I have very few friends, alas. But I like it like that.