The art of conversation

“Human relationships are rich; they’re messy and demanding. We have learned the habit of cleaning them up with technology. And the move from conversation to connection is part of this. But it’s a process in which we shortchange ourselves. Worse, it seems that over time we stop caring, we forget that there is a difference.”

– Sherry Turkle

My article (p.17 – 18 of Pdf or pasted below) for Together magazine’s September issue focussed on the art of conversation. I have to admit, I started having more conversations with strangers because I wanted to practise getting more dates. But as this, er, “practice” continued, I realised how important it was to just converse with someone, even anyone!

A couple of years back, I watched the Ted Talk ‘Connected, but alone?‘ by Sherry Turkle, a cultural analyst who studies how technology is shaping our culture. Her talk chilled me slightly, that we are withdrawing more and more from face-to-face interaction and substituting it with technology: text, email, social media. In her New York Times article, she questions whether we have lost our trust in each other as human beings when we prefer a technological device as our confidante.

Please let us prove her wrong.

A little bit of conversation: Gemma Rose suggests that conversation should be treated as an end in itself

In January, I made a pledge to meet more men. My dating history was a bit chequered. I was often flummoxed as to why I wasn’t meeting many men in general, let alone decent ones. I lamented to my girlfriends over all the good guys being taken and so consigned myself to spinsterhood. Sick of hearing my dating woes, a friend floated the simple, yet ingenious idea of having fun with single people instead of drowning my sorrows with smug marrieds. My ears plucked up; I awoke from my stupor. The year 2014 would be the year of more dates, which meant meeting more men.

I sought knowledge on how to ‘put myself out there’ from the New York Times best seller Get the Guy by Matthew Hussey. Unlike other dating books that are either akin to the Ten Commandments (The Rules), or summarize all disingenuous male behaviour into one line (He’s Just Not That Into You), Matthew Hussey’s approach differs: take the focus off him and put it back on me by living  a life that I love, true to my values and my worth. Being sociable is part of loving life. So if I wanted more dates, I needed to meet more  men. If I wanted to meet more men, I needed to start talking to them.

The first step was to start conversations with anyone. I asked the security guard at work about his day; I discussed the dangers of processed carbohydrates with the dinner lady at the canteen; I got life tips from the elderly lady at the hair salon. I started complimenting people more, from strangers to friends, ranging from their shirt to their character. A little conversation and a smile went a long way.

This practice made me more at ease and confident when starting conversations with attractive men at parties, in bars, in the supermarket or on a plane. The key to building connection and seeking compatibility, according to Matthew Hussey, is to “seek values, not facts”. It is fine to launch into the “What do you do? Where do you come from?” type of questions, but the values lie in the ‘Why?’ questions: “Why do you do what you do? Why did you move to this city? Why did you decide to quit your job and go travelling? Why did you have a sex change?”. ‘Why?’ gives you the clues to probe more, to respond, or to subtly move the topic on. It opens the door to let the other person out, and to let you in.

It soon dawned on me that great conversation was not just for meeting men but for all the encounters in my life. With more opportunities to talk to people, I became more authentic in the questions I asked and the answers I gave. If I was stuck in a boring or difficult conversation, I made a bigger effort to be interested. I studied the person’s facial expressions and voice, I asked for clarification when needed. I placed  myself in my companion’s shoes. My  frustration, annoyance or boredom soon faded.  I made a connection.

There is a wealth of information on how to have good conversations. The book How To Talk With Anybody About Practically Anything by Barbara Walters is lauded as one of the finest books on the subject. It’s dangerous to believe that some people are blessed with good conversational skills and that a good conversation arises by pure chance. Beliefs like these give us an excuse to be lazy and complacent in our interactions. A good conversation takes work, practice and cultivation. It requires listening, understanding, openness and creativity; it demands the communication of our views, the clarification of our thoughts and the confirmation of who we are, all under the auspices of politeness, care and respect. Making conversation is about adding value to that person at that moment, whether that moment lasts a minute or an eternity.

As we conduct more of our lives over the internet, never have our efforts to have good conversations been so vital to our wellbeing and for living the good life. If we don’t force ourselves, we risk becoming as banal, soulless and disconnected as a 140-character tweet.

In the book The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis defines the love of friendship by this question: “Do you see the same truth?” He writes that a friend is someone who agrees with the question, yet may not necessarily agree with the answer. This is what a good conversation should be based on: the willingness to see the same truth, irrespective of whether you actually do.

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