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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A cup of tea: extending the olive branch

“There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea.”

– Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

It’s highly probable that each of us have some sort of tea ritual. Some of us may cherish the first cup of tea in the morning, when we are bleary-eyed, cold and disoriented. Others may prefer the tea of the afternoon or early evening, perhaps taking it on our own, hands cupped around our mug, our thoughts a million miles away from the moment. We may only be able to take our tea a certain way: with a dash of milk, a slice of lemon or two spoonfuls of sugar; in our favourite cup, at the right temperature, or made by our Mums.

There is simply no other beverage that exists which is as diverse in its benefits as tea: “Tea tempers the spirits and harmonises the mind, dispels lassitude and relieves fatigue, awakens thoughts and prevents drowsiness, lightens or refreshes the body and cleans the perceptive facilities,” wrote the Chinese writer Lu Yu in what is considered to be the earliest specialist work on tea, ‘The Classic of Tea’. But tea is more than just an antioxidant or detox for the body and mind; it’s the fabric that holds society together. The ritual of tea in the morning brings the groggy and moody to the breakfast table seated next to their bright-eyed counterparts; the tea-round in the office offers respite and relief from the grind, giving each colleague the chance to be charitable and sacrificial by making tea for the greater good. Putting the kettle on can be an ice-breaker between us and the builder, plumber, electrician or a new neighbour. It can be an offer to make amends or build relationships. Making the tea is the modern day metaphor of extending the olive branch. The stakes are high however; not asking how someone takes their tea could just as easily undo all good intentions.

It’s always the simple things in life which gives us the most pleasure. Having a cup of tea is not just enjoying a hot drink, it’s an experience to be savoured and enjoyed. It’s an alms-giver, peace-dealer, relationship-forger. When we decide to make someone a cup of tea, it’s an expression of our willingness to that person: be it to love, to tolerate or to show humility.

Let’s have a tea truce, a tea party, or just a tea for two. Then let’s take pride in the joy and harmony that we have just created.

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My tea ritual

Lessons from an arch-nemesis

An arch-nemesis is more than just a rival. I’ve had quite a few rivals in my life: people who you are sort of in competition with, whether at work or playing football. They have been members of family, colleagues and sometimes very good friends. Yet, I never really minded the rivalry so much because we rivals generally liked each other (even loved one another) and the rivalry was usually in one aspect of life, not many.

An arch-nemesis somehow manages to sort of linger in and out of your life, and yet is always present: they share mutual friends; they go to the same places you do; they take the jobs you want; they go out with the men you fancy; they meddle in your life long after you have deleted them off Facebook.

I had an arch-nemesis. She was a friend of a good friend. When I first met her, I thought she was friendly and we had fairly common interests. Yet, something was niggling at me about our connection, that perhaps her friendliness was not completely genuine.

As she started hanging out more with my friend, I was spending more time with her. I noticed that she was quite secretive about job hunting and relationships. Since we three had just finished our studies, finding a job was starting to cause us anxiety. I eventually found out that she got a job that I had set my sights on. Around the same time, I also found out that she had started dating a guy that I had a crush on. This may sound a bit melodramatic but her getting the job and getting the guy didn’t just happen once, but twice!

I felt like the Universe was conspiring against me and she was deliberately out to get me. She was my arch-nemesis: every where I turned she would be there, grabbing any opportunity out of my hand.

In reality, nothing could have been further from the truth. The problem did not lie with her, but with me. At the time I was threatened by her because she seemed to have the things I wanted: the jobs, the drive, the attractive personality and the sex appeal. I was feeling so inadequate and insecure on the inside that I was looking to the outside for blame, and she was the easiest target. I also realised that she wasn’t really my “arch-nemesis”: she was not out to get me, things just seemed to come to her more naturally and that was all. Whilst I was wasting my time feeling hard done-by, she was out there living her life, and I am sure not wasting a minute of it on me.

The last I heard, my former arch-nemesis was travelling the world pursuing her dreams. I wish her well and I am thankful for the lessons she taught me.

Making the world a better place

Yesterday I was clever, so I wanted to change the world. Today I am wise, so I am changing myself.”
– Rumi

I always thought my mission in life was to make the world a better place. I tormented myself with these dreams and ideas and questions. The endless stream of questions was what tormented me the most: “How was I going to do it? Should I start my own charity? Maybe it’s by becoming a human rights lawyer or campaigner? How would I get there? Would I make my mark in this world? Would I save the world and would people remember my legacy?”

Gosh. Those are extremely demanding questions to ask of anyone, let alone of myself. I used to get extremely bogged down by these questions to which I had no answers to. Of course I would try: I did the volunteering, interning and working; I did the studies, I read the books, I even marked out a plan to my Mum, but I always felt lost, out of my depth. And when I started to feel all those things, I felt pretty useless and then I felt like a failure.

I remember one morning late last year when I was hanging up some clothes in my wardrobe, that a clear realisation hit me: perhaps I am not supposed to make the world a better place. Suddenly, with the weight of those words falling from the tip of my head to the depths of my stomach, I felt at peace. I accepted it and it felt ok.

That afternoon, a friend came round for a cup of tea. A lot had been weighing on her mind but I got the impression that she was at pains to talk about it. I had asked after her family. What I thought was an innocuous question opened the floodgates of tears, fears and regrets. I sat with her on my comfy couch, I held her hand and gave her a big bear hug, with all my might. She let it all out, and I was grateful.

When my friend left I suddenly knew. Making the world a better place is most of time not “saving the world”. Most of the time it’s the little things like telling a friend that you are there for them and are proud to be the person they opened up to.

It’s funny, you have an idea of what something ought to be, and then life turns round and shows you how limited in your thinking you were.