Conversation is one of my biggest challenges professionally. I work in an industry of mostly older folks consisting of lawyers, bankers and politicians who bring up random topics about legislation, history, politics that I simply cannot follow to where I’m at the point where I add in one-word comments at the end like “right,” “interesting,” and even “wow.” 
While researching more on these topics and following them continue to be goals of mine, how can I bridge this gap now and become less of social mute? It is seriously hindering my growth at work, as I need to be able to build more relationships.

— Posted by Michael


I’m glad you’re planning to widen your knowledge. For now, you need a game plan, and a bit of confidence. Although you feel inferior to these people, you have an advantage: your point of view. They’re as ignorant of the younger person’s perspective as you are of the finer points of torts. So see the asset in your liability. Try to get them interested in your youthful person things. Or you might express your confusion: “Fascinating that you should say that, because there was very little emphasis on the historical angle at my college.” Then ask their opinion as to why that might be. If you really want to flatter them, ask where you would find out more. People love doling out advice. Work your weakness and you could end up with influential mentors.


My marriage of 30 years might not have happened but for the fact that from our first date on, both of us were comfortable with long periods of silence. When conversation occurs naturally between us it is a great pleasure. But so is the fact that we can be together under many circumstances — and for long periods — with no feeling that we need to speak. In your view, what place does silence have in conversation and socialization?

— Posted by Edmund


Silence is a communication tool as flexible as the queen in chess. A pause can add drama, seize listeners’ attention, make a joke’s punch line seem a lot funnier, and — in tricky negotiations — compel the other side to speak. Rush to fill a silence and you may be treading on someone else’s toes, preventing them from completing a thought. So yes, you’re right, silence is valuable, as well as the mark of a happy relationship. But in our noisy world, people fear it. Truly powerful individuals wield silence cleverly. How they do so is worth appreciating (I have a chapter dedicated to the subject).


We all know the awkwardness involved in listening to someone talk extensively about a subject we have no interest in listening to. Many people are unable (or unwilling) to gauge the level of their listener’s interest. But if we, the listener, wish to be polite, how can we find a way out without appearing rude?

— Posted by Hunter


I sympathize, Hunter. But I have bad news: It’s your own fault. The good news is you can do something about it. Listening is not about opening your ears and putting your mind on hold. Your face should show that you’re listening. You should make supportive comments, too. This means you have the power to spotlight what might be of interest. You can and must exercise editorial rights in your reactions. Say “That’s interesting,” then pose a question that leads in a more fruitful conversational direction (if he’s talking about cars, but you’re into the countryside, you could transition there by asking where he drives). Alert listeners can steer discussion where they wish.


When I first moved to New York, I found that everyone seemed to talk faster than me. This put me at a disadvantage, as they would answer their own questions while I was still thinking or interrupt my response, or start talking down to me as if I was stupid. Do you think it’s true that people talk faster here — is the fast-talking New Yorker a true stereotype? What strategies can people follow who are new here to get these people to slow down?

— Posted by Outlander


Linguists term New Yorkers “high-involvement speakers.” What they mean is that, compared, say, to Californians, your city encourages demonstrative, interrogative, fast-talk. Asking questions, disagreeing and making a lot of noise while you do so — which may seem rude to gentle souls — are the mark of a lively New York conversation. Whether this is down to competing with honking cabs, or native terror of silence, is a matter of speculation. But a pacy town has evolved its distinctively pacy style.

So what chance do you have? Well, people tend to synchronize their rate of speech fairly quickly. Inevitably, you will speed up. In the meantime, play for time. Advertise that you are thinking, using those water-treading phrases so loved by politicians: “That’s an interesting question…” “Funny that you should ask that…” And if somebody interrupts, counter-interrupt: “But wait, I haven’t got to the key point.” Don’t be too offended. When people finish each other’s sentences, often they’re just showing their enthusiasm.


How does texting and Facebooking impact us as conversationalists?

— Posted by Shelley Rankin


Apart from the likelihood that today’s teenagers will need thumb transplants before they hit 30?

Sometimes modern life feels like a conspiracy against conversation. But we are complicit. I welcome information technology. It has opened my life to a host of possibilities. But while a wired-up world is all very well, only conversation wires our minds. Those skills we bundle under that mysterious term, “intuition,” are acquired through conversational practice. And we can’t get to know people as deeply, communicating via machines. Too many clues are missing: tone of voice, facial expression. So to imagine that texting is equal to conversing is to believe the X at the bottom of a card is as good as a hug.

Although a relatively limited form of communication, online interaction is addictive (possibly because it doesn’t satisfy; it merely scratches the itch). And as e-mail messages proliferate, many of us end up hiding behind screens. Hours dissolve in drawn-out dialogues that could be dispatched more efficiently in a quick chat. Worse, we risk losing our relish of and confidence in life’s most vital pleasure: conversation.


As seen in the New York Times


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