What not to say

“So…” said the familiar face.

“Anyway…” I said.

In truth, Gav and I never had much to say to each other. He was the reprobate mate of a boyfriend at university, and to him, no doubt, I was the snooty girlfriend. We were only talking, twelve bewrinkling years later, because we were at a wedding, watching my ex and his bride perform a strange, leaping dance, some Russian variant on the volta, with which Elizabeth I and her toyboys used to outrage the royal court.

I didn’t voice this opinion, lest it was misinterpreted as sour grapes (I love my husband, I like my ex and his lovely bride, just so’s you know). Before I thought of something else to say, Gav spoke.

“So, what are you up to?”

“Oh, I’ve written a book about the art of conversation.”

“A whole book on talking posh?”

“Not exactly.”

This poignant exchange illustrates three problems that my book sets out to solve. Greatest of these is the popular misconception that “great conversationalist” means “good at saying lots”.

It’s all very well knowing how to talk to anyone. But too many people monopolise discussion, labouring under the delusion that they’re selling themselves. They fail to see that conversation is about exchange, and the most fruitful topic of all is the one standing in front of them: the other person.

Conversation transcends words, embracing timeless skills for an everyday miracle: connecting. We read and change each other’s minds by the smile tingling our lips, by a telling tone of voice, and, most important of all, by taking turns and listening.

Unfortunately, in this so-called communication age, so much competes for our attention that making our voices heard is increasingly difficult. I understand why people forget communication means more than expressing yourself. Especially when alluring new channels such as – ahem – blogs exist.  But neither e mail nor Facebook hone our ability to be witty, to focus debate, or draw out common threads, let alone negotiate, navigate difficult discussion, make bores interesting, or (if truly necessary) shut people up.

These are just a few aspects of an infinitely sophisticated communication technology commonly known as conversation. Did I get any across to Gav? Probably not.

What about that second problem? Namely, that I’ve written a book of manners.

For some, to call conversation an ‘art’ implies snobbery, about pretty accent or words. For me, ‘art’ means two things: it encompasses many skills, and they can be done better (see above). If anything, conversation is the most democratic art. Well, nobody can be a greater master than you at expressing yourself. And the better you get on with others, the further you’ll get in life.

Manners, like comedy, are determined by situation. To a Western Apache, to introduce yourself to a stranger is rude; at a Manhattan cocktail party, failure to do so is a pathetic lapse.  So while being nice is part of the art, I don’t dictate etiquette. It’s your words’ underlying message – whether you open yourself up, or shut people down – that interests me.

Finally, the third misconception.  Asking somebody ‘what they’re up to’, or ‘what they do’ does not make good conversation.  It reeks of status sniffing, salary sifting. And what if that person is unemployed? Or recovering from an illness you really don’t want to hear about?

Direct questions are mined with hazards. Better to take a suggestive approach, stitching your sentences with several potential topical threads for him to take or leave.

Believe me, if the other person loves his job, you’ll soon know.

As seen at penguin.com

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