Sunday, November 3, 2013

Wisdom from the Sisterhood

You take your good advice where you find it. This time I found it in the “sisterhood.”

No, not that “sisterhood.” I am thinking of what a young woman can learn by belonging to a sorority.

These days, I suspect that students learn more about life outside the classroom. If you want to build your character, you should join an athletic team. You will learn more about how to work with others by playing on a team than you will by listening to a professor drone on about political correctness. If we are to believe Becky Graebner—we have no reason not to— sororities teach young women the art of conversation.

There are few more useful, and, unfortunately, neglected social skills.

I hope I do not need to list all the situations and circumstances where good conversational skills will be valuable. If you insist, I will tell you that the correct answer is: everywhere-- from job interviews to cocktail parties to conventions to relationships to friendships to family dinners to chance encounters.

Few people really emphasize its importance, but the ability to engage in a good conversation is vital to a successful life.

Graebner shows how she acquired the skill through her participation in a sorority. She learned it by working at it, over many years and through hundreds of different encounters.

The lesson to be gleaned: you do not learn how to converse by taking a weekend seminar in how to pick up people. You do not learn how to converse by talking to a therapist who does not talk to you. You do not learn how to converse by trying to find out how you really, really feel and what you really, really want.

What’s the point of knowing what you want if your inadequate conversational skills make it nearly impossible to acquire it?

As Grabner makes clear, conversation is not about how well you express yourself. It’s about how good you are at connecting with another person. The more you are absorbed in yourself the less you will see that another person is there.

Graebner’s first lesson is: learning how to talk to strangers:

… we learned how to talk to strangers really well.  (In this case, unfamiliar sorority girls.)  This might seem like a basic skill, but most humans are really bad at a) striking up a conversation with a stranger, b) continuing this conversation for 20 minutes to an hour, and c) coming off as welcoming and interested throughout it all.  Recruitment challenges you to do this hundreds of times during your college career.  We are the masters of conversing with shy girls, mute girls, crazy girls…etc.

She applies the skill to job interviews, because, after all, the situation is set up to challenge you to make contact with a perfect stranger. she correctly adds that this skill will do wonders for your job interview anxiety: if you are comfortable talking with strangers you will feel less anxious at job interview. 

Second, Graebner explains that you should learn how to talk about anything, no matter how trite or trivial. The skill is especially useful when talking to someone who is shy and reticent, thus, where your assignment—should  you choose to accept it—is to bring the other person out of her shell:

Sometimes in recruitment you were dealt a “clam” (aka a girl that was so nervous/shy that making conversation was almost painful).  If even the strangest of topics caused this kind of girl to open up and speak, we ran with it and put everything we had into it.  I once had to talk for 20 minutes about goats (yes, the animal)—but I did it because the visiting girl I was talking to blossomed when the subject came up. 

The first task in any conversation is to connect with the other person. The best way to do it is to show that you care about her by engaging her in a discussion of something that she knows well and that interests her. 

To coin a phrase, it’s the right way to reach out and touch someone. That is, anyone will be touched and moved by your willingness to engage in a conversation about something that interests her.

Besides, how many men would love to know how to make a girl blossom? Well, now they know—learn to talk about goats. Or else, as Graebner discovered on another interview: have something to say about brass knuckles!

Graebner is correct to point out that a firm handshake speaks volumes about you. Strictly speaking, it belongs to the art of conversation. Hopefully most people know it already.

Finally, Graebner emphasizes the importance of reading people and situations.

Perhaps the point is not self-evident, but someone who is good at conversation is neither self-absorbed nor self-involved. She is reaching out to the other person and reading the cues that the other person is sending.

She is, as I have mentioned, trying to achieve harmony by showing respect. She is not learning the useless skills that relationship counselors often promote: how to fight and to argue effectively. Have you noticed how much time counselors spend talking about constructive arguments and how little time they spend teaching people how to converse?

If she is reading the other person’s body language and studying the situation, a woman is not performing a role. She is trying to make a connection.

Of course, it's more than a feeling. A woman who is reading the situation will be adjusting her comportment and demeanor. She will be changing topics according to the subtle signals that are part of any conversation. If you learn how to do this well your interlocutors will think that you can read their minds.

Graebner explains:

I’ve become very good at reading other people and then adjusting my behavior to complement the style and demeanor of the person interviewing me. (Knowing how to carry oneself around a reserved interviewer is vastly different from a bubbly, type-a interviewer.)  Like the example with Miss Brass Knuckles above, I knew I could get away with being more candid and relaxed—and I used this opportunity to tell stories and let her get to know me at a deeper level.  However, later in the process, I was interviewed by an executive who was more rigid.  She leaned back in her chair, crossed her arms, and didn’t smile.  She reminded me of the recruitment girls who had already made up their minds and didn’t want to visit my sorority house.  I knew I had to switch from telling her stories to selling her on my skills.  I switched up my rhetoric and changed my body language to match her.  By the end, she and I were telling personal stories. (Again, being able to talk to anybody).  Being able to change gears seamlessly and interact appropriately with whomever you meet in life is extremely valuable. 


Anonymous said...

A personal mentor once told me, "Sales is about you getting what you want, prospecting is about other people getting what they want." Sage advice I use every day.

It's always interesting when people are reflexively opposed to Greek life at college. My experience is that my college fraternity days mirrored most others' in terms of social growth, provided they did something with a structured group or organization. Playing college sports is different, because of the character-building intensity on many levels. My fraternity experience demanded as much conformity of me as any other campus organization or group, despite the rationalizations of detractors trying to prove what "individuals" they were. Specifically regarding sororities, such groups can help one's daughter, sister or granddaughter avoid many of the pitfalls of college excess and impropriety oft-mentioned on this blog.

So there is great wisdom in what Graebner is saying here. It's important to work within groups, and the business world is demanding this more and more. Her key premise is also correct about how to converse: "It's not about you." Actually, when considering the central idea behind Christianity in general, that's it... and most sororities were founded with a distinctly Christian framework in the latter half of the 19th century.

The art if conversation seems to be going by the wayside because of the context people have about time in today's hyper-efficient world. But it's a mirage. There is little that's efficient about the way the under-60 set conducts life today. And there's little those under 30 have time for other than work (which now gives life all meaning), food (for fuel, not fellowship), sex (as a rapid-onset substitute for connection), intoxicants (to numb the dislocation) and the glowing box (escape into voyeuristic human interaction). What passes for "conversation" today is a bunch of quick, clever skills and techniques for you to get what you want. These professional tricks are often offered without regard for the human cost, because humanity isn't even a part of the game. It's strictly for material consumption and aggrandizement.

We are lonely when we don't create space for conversation. We view our fellow co-workers and citizens as competitors for scarce resources, which makes each interaction a chess match. We move far away from our families and ties of friendship to pursue riches in a cold, impersonal big city the "cool" company is located in. Church attendance declines because of "a lack of time." People become disconnected. It reminds me of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers," where he talks about the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania, demonstrating the mental and health benefits of tight-knit communities. Still, despite all evidence, we think amassing riches is the ticket to happiness.

Thanks for sharing this one, Stuart. Something to reflect on this Sunday as I was contemplating not going to Mass this morning because I'm "tired," even though I just gained an extra hour of sleep last night!


JP said...

"We are lonely when we don't create space for conversation. We view our fellow co-workers and citizens as competitors for scarce resources, which makes each interaction a chess match."

You mean that life isn't meant to be a sociopathic war of all against all?