It has often been noted that young people who grow up communicating via text message have more difficulty learning how to sustain a conversation.
People seem to be avid for the latest piece of advice about how to develop a relationship, how to get a job and how to keep a job. And yet, the answer is staring them in the face: learn how to conduct a conversation. And that involves perfecting what I called the art of the schmooze and that others call small talk.
Small talk does not have a very good reputation. Most people consider it to be superficial blather, akin to gossip, empty of meaning and depth, inauthentic.
One suspects that therapy has contributed to this situation. Clearly, you do not go to therapy to engage in small talk. You go there to explore your issues, in depth. In therapy you are supposed to get in touch with your feelings and to embrace them as your own.
Since the process is supposed to be beneficial, many people come away with the impression that all human conversations should be modeled on therapy. Thus, they believe that a genuine human connection involves the tactless display of deep feeling.
One must mention that the practice of free association, intrinsic to Freudian psychoanalysis tells patients that they must say whatever come to no mind, no matter how painful or how trivial.
Freud was not promoting idle chatter. He was saying that even the most idle chatter can point to hidden meanings. We have rendered them trivial, Freud might have said, because we cannot accept the dire truths that they are obscuring.
People often fail at conversation because they believe that they are being called upon to share deep feelings or to offer serious philosophical reflections. Worse yet, they imagine that conversation is about finding out whether you both think the same thoughts and feel the same feelings. Obviously, this makes the connection akin to what the French call a folie à deux.
If may feel like common ground, but you can never really know that you feel the same feelings and think the same thoughts. You can know, to a much higher degree of certainty that you are both standing on the same line at the movie theater.
Today Elizabeth Bernstein provides some useful guidelines that will help people to learn how to engage in small talk. I will follow her outline, but not very strictly.
The first principle of conversation is the need to find common ground. Common ground is not common feeling, and it is certainly not a battlefield. If you are going to connect with a stranger you need to connect over objectively verifiable facts. You might be sharing the same space or attending the same performance. If so your opening gambit should be to remark on something that you both have in common—the room, the chairs, the paintings on the wall.
Of course, an opening gambit is just that. With it you are offering an open hand of friendship, reaching out to another person. It’s an invitation, no more and no less.
At best, it should not sound like a quiz and does not seek to put the other person on the spot. Also, it should not be deeply personal. When first approaching a stranger you will not talk about your hemorrhoids and should not offer an opinion on politics or religion.
You want the stranger to feel comfortable with you and to feel like the two of you are on an equal footing.
An opening gambit requires follow-up. It is often good to work off your interlocutor’s response. You might echo what you just heard, elaborate a point or ask a question requiring some further discussion. You should offer a comment that affirms that you have heard what he has said, that you have understood it and that you value it.
At first, you should try to keep the conversation impersonal, the more impersonal, the better.
If the first conversational principle involves finding common ground, the second is the rule of reciprocity. Good conversations eventually move to more personal matters. You do need to know whom you are talking to. Here the rule is: each participant must disclose an equal amount of information about Self.
If one person mentions that he was just at the butcher’s, the other person should mention that he was at the cobbler’s. If one person says that he is coming from work, the other should not to say that he just had a major fight with his wife.
No one person should hog a conversation. If you do all the talking about your new acquaintance does all the listening, you are entertaining him, not conversing with him. As all theatre people know, when you become an entertainer an invisible wall rises up to separate you from your audience.
The process of self-disclosure must proceed incrementally. If your partner has failed to reciprocate, then you were probably oversharing. You accomplish nothing by calling out your new friend for being too reticent. If he has not responded it means that you have gone too far, exposed too much.
Finally, conversation is not an opportunity to express your feelings, to get in touch with your feelings or to regale your interlocutor with how you really, really feel.
In a good conversation, the feelings that matter are those of your interlocutor.
A good conversationalist shows tact and consideration for the other person’s feelings and does everything in his power not to embarrass him.
It is also good to listen so intently that you close out everything that is going on around you. A distracted listener is a bad listener.
I have occasionally stated my belief that when you are doing a job interview what matters is not selling yourself, but buying them. You will do better to show that you have studied up on the company that is interviewing you and that you have formulated good questions about it. Such a strategy is far better than boasting about your accomplishments.
In any conversation, even in a job interview, provocative topics are going to come up. If so, your task is to avoid turning common ground into a battlefield. Try to find some basic facts about the topic that you can both agree on. They, you should downplay your disagreements and negotiate your differences.
Despite what many people believe, negotiation is not merely about splitting the difference. In a good negotiation, both parties come away feeling that they have won.