Maybe it is the company I keep, but it seems good conversationalists are becoming rare; the genuine give and take, and general individual curiosity. If you agree, do you think it’s a product of our American “look at me culture”? (”American Idol,” reality TV, etc.) The format of verbally throwing up on your “audience” waiting for approval.
— Posted by Scott
Long before Simon Cowell was a twinkle in his father’s eye, conversation was misconstrued as a performance art. To Oscar Wilde, it was stand-up. But I say, if they want theater, let them buy a ticket.
Give-and-take and curiosity are vital to conversation. The word comes from Latin, meaning taking turns, changing sides. But shouting out, being heard, seems a priority for increasing numbers of people, in this noisy age. What is Twitter but a swarm of one-sided conversational fragments? Where’s the connection? Can this compete with the sensation, when you look into somebody’s eye, and feel him or her hearing you? It’s the everyday magic that transforms worlds.
I meet many people from around the world, when I travel on business. There are two questions I’d like to ask you in regard to my travels and the art of conversation.
1. Many people assume that New Yorkers hate conversation, are terse and do not like to socialize. Obviously, this is completely untrue. Some of the most social and extrovert people in the country live here. What do you like to tell people from outside the United States (and maybe outside of the city) about how New Yorkers communicate with each other and the world?
2. What are your top two recommendations for starting conversation when on international business trips? I’ve noticed that there are varying degrees of acceptable approaches one can take among strangers when in hotel bars, or at conferences, or in the airport. I don’t like to come across as rude, or nosy, but I am fascinated with other cultures and am looking for ideas on how one can start conversations with someone who is not American, without coming across as slightly akimbo.
— Posted by Pudding
Pudding, your name is a very alluring ice-breaker. As for your questions, I don’t share that assumption about New Yorkers. (My ideas formed young, watching “Cagney & Lacey.”) Few cities have such a thrilling reputation, and that extends to the citizens. So I say, enjoy.
To Question 2: Prod for personal details and you might appear pushy or needy. Warm people up and you’ll get further. Build intimacy, first trading facts, then opinions, then feelings. Speculate what lies behind the bartender’s mysterious expression. Whatever your situation, make two comments about your environment, then tag on a question (like “isn’t it?”) and you’ve enough to keep talk going.
Hi, Catherine — on your Web site you brilliantly explained: “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.” Would you please offer a few juicy examples of situations in which you subtly served your listener a buffet of possible themes and then honed in on jointly savoring his selection?
Thanks and happy listening.
— Posted by Daniel Larkin
How juicy do you want to get? With a stranger? At least initially, what you want is flow.
Say you’re at a party. There are some brownies. You could declare: “I like chocolate.” Or you might observe: “Aren’t these brownies delicious? Can you believe chocolate is a health food?”
The first, bald approach is less inviting, offering little to build on. The second supplies several potential mini-topics (who wants healthy chocolate?). The tone is playful enough to encourage the other person to venture an opinion — be it his disdain of health food, or his preference for Twinkies. If he says no more than “yes” to your “delicious,” you’ll still feel warmer, having found some common ground.
Do you agree that “body language” is a dark-art of American conversation … as practiced expertly in this passage by our hero:
He smiled understandingly — much more than understandingly. It was
one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced — or seemed to face — the whole external world for an instant, and then concentrated on YOU with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just so far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey.
… from “The Great Gatsby“
— Posted by $
Is this about body language, or intensity of attention? For me, a charismatic person doesn’t strike a pose. He’s too busy, having eyes only for me. Like former President Bill Clinton, who apparently convinces whomever he is talking to that he or she is the most compelling person in the room.
But yes, body language is a large part of the art. Without thinking, we mirror each other’s behavior. So there is no universal grammar: folded arms don’t necessarily signal defensiveness, and if someone scratches his nose, it doesn’t mean he’s lying. Maybe he’s mirroring you, or has an itchy nose. On the other hand, this means we can use our bodies to alter a mood (lean closer, without invading, and they will lean closer to you). Indeed, tests found that waiters who brushed customers’ arms before leaving the bill received higher tips. So it’s worth reaching out …
Are conversations ever confrontational?
— Posted by Pete
You bet. Don’t you have friends who are never happier than when violently disagreeing, forcing each other to ever dizzier heights of hyperbole? A good ding-dong may help clarify ideas. Or it can intimidate. The art is knowing when, where, and how.
As featured in the New York Times