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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Saying Yes

“Take the stupidest thing you’ve ever done. At least it’s done. It’s over. It’s gone. We can all learn from our mistakes and heal and move on. But it’s harder to learn or heal or move on from something that hasn’t happened; something we don’t know and is therefore indefinable; something which could very easily have been the best thing in our lives, if only we’d taken the plunge, if only we’d held our breath and stood up and done it, if only we’d said yes.”

– Danny Wallace, ‘Yes Man’

Something wasn’t right. It was the second weekend of January and at around 6pm on both Saturday and Sunday I got weepy. I had lost my phone earlier that week and had made no plans for the weekend, in an attempt to be spontaneous. However, being without a phone and leaving my weekend social life up to chance had not paid off. I spent the whole weekend in my flat, venturing out only to go to the supermarket.

Spending a weekend in on my own hadn’t really bothered me before. I have enjoyed it – sometimes even relished in it – and I freely admit that I have spent quite a few Saturday nights in. So why had this particular weekend affected me so much?

First, I put it down to the January blues. I soothed myself thinking that everyone gets them. Then I piled the fact that I couldn’t call or text on top of the January blues. I flung another excuse on the pile: I recently got a bit of disappointing news concerning someone I had a crush on. “That’s it!” yelped my eureka moment, “It’s January, I’m phoneless and my crush is unavailable! Yes, three very good reasons for feeling down in the dumps.”

And once that downward spiral started, there was really no stopping it. Pity-party Peter, Johnny no-mates and Sally self-loathing invited themselves round to my flat, parked themselves on my comfy couch and long out-stayed their welcome. Over the next couple of days I told a few friends about my depressing weekend in. I didn’t quite understand it: I love my own company. I have a lovely life here: a lovely flat; a lovely job; lovely friends; a lovely social life. Weekends are supposed to be a light relief to the working week. Why was I longing for the weekend to be over?

I was determined not to repeat the experience, but it wasn’t until I had lunch with a friend did this scary thought finally dawn on me: by spending my weekends in, my life was passing me by. I had my weekdays evenings booked with various activities but my weekend pursuits were a bit meagre. Take for example my knowledge of Brussel’s nightlife: I didn’t really know where the good nightspots were and I had only been clubbing less than a handful of times (I’ve lived here nearly three years). Dude.

I had no excuses: I couldn’t blame the commute to city centre – I live 15 minutes away by metro. I couldn’t blame my finances – I earn a decent salary. There is no language difficulty, there is always some event going on. No, I was being rubbish and hiding behind something.

About seven or eight years ago, my brother lent me Yes Man by the English author Danny Wallace. Danny Wallace was coming out of a long-term relationship and saying no a lot – mostly when it came to socialising. He met a man on the bus one night who simply told him to ‘say yes more’ and he decided from then on to do so. What ensued were wild adventures and finding the love of his life, not to mention getting a book and film deal out of it. Not bad going for saying yes.

I was reminded of this book when I came across the advice of dating guru Matthew Hussey on how to find my ideal man. One of his suggestions was to say yes to every opportunity that presented itself during the month of January.

I didn’t say yes to everything, but I said yes to a lot. I said yes to drinks, to parties, to exhibitions, to brunch, to coffees. I said yes to social events with complete strangers. I said yes to spontaneous adventures and trips, I said yes to going after crazy dreams. Most importantly, I said yes to not being in my flat on a Saturday night. If I only manage to stick to one Yes this year, it will be the last one.

Of course, sometimes by saying no, I am saying yes to myself. For instance, on occasion I do need to just relax, enjoy being idle, and slow down. The key – with everything in life – is balance. But what Danny Wallace makes really clear is that if you don’t say yes, things just stay the same. I think it’s ok for things to stay the same,  until you start feeling stuck.

That weekend was a turning point for me. So far, I’ve been out every Saturday night since. For Danny Wallace, saying yes changed his life: “The fact is saying yes hadn’t been a pointless exercise at all. It had been pointful. It had the power to change lives and set people free… It had the power of adventure. Sometimes the little opportunities that fly at us each day can have the biggest impact.” Matthew Hussey talks about how the smallest shifts in our dating lives can yield the biggest results. Saying yes is a small shift.

I challenge you to say, “Yes”.

When he’s just not that into you

Menthey say they’ll call; they never do.

Grace, ‘Grace Under Fire’

We walked together along the bank of the river, the sky an indigo-orange hue as the sun was setting. What had turned out to be an introductory cup of coffee turned into a leisurely three, followed by a stroll along London’s Southbank. We mused over interests (we both loved musicals and valiant causes); he laughed at my jokes. We marvelled at the vibrancy of the riverside: the bars brimming with rambunctious laughter; live music ringing out over the Thames; interactive art displays inviting Londoners to recklessly abandon inhibition.

Suddenly we were across the road from Waterloo train station where he had to depart. He told me had a great afternoon and that he would see me soon. He gave me three sweet pecks on the cheek.

That was three years ago and I am yet to hear from him.

This is a hard post to write. It’s hard because I try to keep my blog quite gender neutral – as in I think the lessons I’ve learnt have universal appeal and application. But this post – and I’m sorry male readers – is about men who are just not that into the women they date. Now, I know there are women who are just not that into the men they date as well, and blow them off in similarly spectacular fashion, but I think the effect on the rejected party is different. I believe this is true from experience: my own and that of my friends; from reading Dear Mariella, Private Lives, Baggage Reclaim; from watching talk shows; films and Oprah. Unlike men (and I know there are exceptions), women tend not to take these rejections easily. In fact, sometimes they take them quite badly.

When I was 25, I told myself that things had to change. I had just fallen for another guy who was just not that into me. He gave me scraps of his time. He was always too busy to call. When I called (and it was almost always invariably me who did the calling) I tried to be cool: “So what if he’s not calling me, nor making a solid arrangement to see me?” I’d assure myself, “He’s really busy: he’s just started a new course, he’s in a different city. He’s a guy – they can’t multi-task. Besides, I’ll be that cool girl that doesn’t bother him. I’m breeeeeezy!”

The truth is, I wasn’t that cool girl. I couldn’t be breezy. Because deep down, I was hurt. I was hurt that the person I liked didn’t really like me that much. So instead of walking away and letting him be, I tried to make him like me more. And guess what? That didn’t work.

It was shortly after this episode that a friend lent me the book, ‘He’s Just Not That Into You’ by Greg Behrendt and Liz Tuccillo. I decided that if I had any decent chance of finding a great relationship, I would have to start separating the wheat from the chaff (figuratively speaking) and figure out pretty quickly how to do this.

The book made me laugh and cry because it was so true. Every man I dated who was just not that into me was an example in it: the guy that was just too busy to call; the guy that I asked out first and then he went cold on me; the guy who couldn’t do long distance; the guy who didn’t want to call me his girlfriend; the guy who was still into his ex-girlfriend. They were all in there (sometimes they were the same person). I made excuses for them all: they’re scared; they’ve been hurt before; they are going through a difficult time at the moment; they are intimidated by me, blah blah blah.

No. They just weren’t that into me. Or they may have been. But either way, the outcome was the same.

I want to return to what I said above about how women tend to take this type of rejection hard. Blame evolution; blame living in a patriarchal society; blame our body clocks; blame absent fathers. There could be a whole host of reasons as to why we take it badly. But, whatever social or scientific reason may be the cause, the sole consequence of it all is this: we don’t love or respect ourselves enough. It’s because of this deficient self-worth that we are made hostage to accepting very little.

What I’ve learnt from both this book and experience is how to read the signs, accept them and move on. Most importantly, I know that it’s not personal. That these men are human. They are somebody’s friend, brother or son. They are not evil, nor arseholes. They are just trying to get on in this world just as much as I am. And once I realise that it is not a reflection on me, I am able to let go.

In the big, bad world of dating, it can be exhausting not to feel upset when another guy is just not that into you…again. Yet, I must strike the balance of following dating etiquette and putting myself out there. So yes, sometimes I’ll ask the guy out, sometimes I will buy the drink, sometimes I will make him a French mix tape. And I don’t regret it! But as soon as I get that feeling: that sinking pang of disappointment when I am waiting for his call because he said he would, or when I don’t hear from him after three days and I end up texting him, or when he says he really cares about me but does not love me; then I know. I always knew but now I’m braver at admitting it, and faster at moving on.

So here I am, just me and my standards. Of course, the better person for me may not come regardless of me and my standards. But, perhaps by breaking the status quo, by expecting more and not accepting less, I am at least nearer to finding him than I was before.

And surely, I cannot ask for more than that?