January 3, 2010
The (Vanishing) Art of Conversation and Small Talk
My sister Jen and I were talking about the parties we attended this year, and the topic turned to interaction amongst fellow partygoers and the interesting social behavior that came of it.
One party that Jen attended was thrown by the parents of my niece's friend, and the whole family was invited. My bro in-law Mike had to work, so Jen went with my nieces and Mike met them there later. Now, Jen had met the dad a few times (he stays home) but never the mom (she works). The dad greeted Jen at the door but the mom never introduced herself, nor did anyone else there. So she took a seat by the food. There was one other couple there that she knew, but that's it. So there were times that she was sitting there by herself.
She posed the question to me: If I were at a party, and I saw someone sitting by themselves, wouldn't I make a concerted effort to include this person in the conversation? I of course said yes; nothing is more uncomfortable to me than seeing someone being excluded. I've always had issues with this - I was the kid who was the first to talk to the new kid in school. Nine times out of ten we didn't wind up being friends, but I always empathized for the people that were in that situation. I still do.
Jen and I have never had a problem with striking up a conversation with complete strangers. Growing up, our mom and dad were quite good at sharing the gift of gab - mom especially. Because we've been surrounded our whole lives with people (including my very charismatic Grammie) who engaged in the lively art of conversation, we thought nothing of it. It came very naturally to us, especially in adulthood. In fact, it was just expected that we behave this way. So it's always a bit of a surprise to us when we find that many, many people have a hard time with this seemingly innate ability.
Here's the real question: Why? Is it because we're so used to just posting things on Facebook now and having people respond? Is it because, even though most of us are around people all the time, we are so overwhelmed with our daily lives that getting to know someone new feels like a chore? Or is it because, as a society, we are so narcissistic and me-centered that we've forgotten that good conversations require talking AND listening?
I tend to think that the give-and-take of conversation is a vanishing art. It's becoming harder and harder to make friends, let alone find people who can engage in a talking-listening dialogue. I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that many people think that conversing means going on and on about themselves. Of course, when getting to know someone, one should be genuinely interested in what the other party is saying. But it has to be a two-way street. I also find it interesting that the people I've met who go on and on about themselves without reciprocity are also the same people who think that we're great friends, even though they don't know anything about me.
I read in a travel magazine that there is a "salon" in Chicago called the Violet Hour, where conversation is encouraged and cell phones are banned (that's a whole OTHER entry!). Doesn't that sound wonderful? I would love to have a place around here to gather with friends, meet new people and talk about IDEAS, rather than just gossip. I'm glad to see the salon idea being rejuvenated; it scares me that technology could render us unable to interact without the aid of a smartphone. Because no matter how many "friends" we make on the social networks, we should ask ourselves - how many are true friends?