Thursday, August 31, 2006

Conversation 101

Some people just give good conversation.

Maybe it’s your best friend. Your mom. Or if you’re really lucky, your spouse.

Time flies when you’re with them. You usually learn something new – an easier way to do something or a different way of looking at your world. Sometimes you even learn a little bit about yourself.

The good conversationalist you know is genuinely interested in what you have to say and asks questions about what’s going on in your life.

And they make it easy for you to do the same in return.

It’s a cool and equal exchange of ideas and information – what a conversation is truly meant to be.
Then there are those folks you go out of your way to avoid talking with – people who wouldn’t know a good conversation if it sat on their face, spun around three times, and shouted hallelujah.

These people are the Conversationally Impaired. Chances are they fit into one or a even a few of the following categories:

The Historian – A simple yes or no answer would suffice, but this guy has a story to tell. It usually involves his wife or kids or dog (sometimes all three) and takes a minimum of 30 minutes to tell. By which point you’ve both forgotten why he’s telling the story in the first place.

The Bitch – Male or female. Loves ranting (with no interruptions please) about how wrong it is and who’s responsible for it. Usually accompanied by much finger pointing and hand waving. Expects the worst out of the world and usually gets it given their attitude and disposition.

The One-Upper – Ironically, conversations with this person rarely go anywhere and they usually go something like this:

“We went to Brazil last year and it was great.”

Instead of asking a question like “How long were you there?” or “How was the food?” the One-Upper responds:

“Oh yeah? Well when we went to the South of France…”

It’s never a conversation with One-Uppers, just a verbal volley – a boring competition to see who’s done or seen or spent the most.

The Close-Talker – Violates your personal space by getting thisclose to your face. The more you back up, the more they move in. Unless you can maneuver yourself to the edge of a convenient cliff, it’s tough getting away from the classic CT.

Deadly Phone Yapper – You’ve said “I really gotta go” five times in the past 20 minutes and the DPY is still talking. You put the phone down, visit the bathroom, fold some laundry, do your taxes and mow the lawn and the DPY is still going strong when you pick it back up. Caller ID is proof that God loves us (apologies to B. Franklin) and is kryptonite to the DPY.

The Know It All – The self-appointed Smartest Person in the Room. Enjoys hearing the sound of her own voice and is an expert on Everything including topics with which she has little knowledge or experience. Always, always right. Unless you’re into self-flagellation, arguing with her is an exercise in futility.

The Interrupter – Never lets anyone finish a sentence. A classic conversation killer when combined with a One-Upper or Know It All. Too busy thinking about what they’re gonna say next to listen to what you’re talking about.

The Egomaniacal Babbler – Doesn’t actually need others to have a conversation. Talks incessantly to anyone within earshot and doesn’t wait for or even expect a response. Tells you every single thing that’s going on in their lives without taking a breath. Often wonders why they never know what’s going on with anyone else but is usually too self-absorbed to ask. Add a phone and the EB easily transforms into a DPY.

The Drunk – Says the same thing over and over again regardless of how you respond. Usually bossy, weepy or angry – sometimes all three. Often combined with the Close Talker.
Recognize someone you know? How about yourself?

C’mon, you know you do it.

I’ll be the first to admit that I am an Interrupter and can be a Know It All on occasion.

And when I’m The Drunk I tend to repeat Really Bad Swears at the top of my lungs in public places.

Very charming. That’s why I don’t drink so much.
You need escape tactics for when you’re trapped yapping with the Conversationally Impaired. Here they are, in no particular order of importance or effectiveness:

Self-Extrication Maneuver #1: Drink heavily.

But Heather, you just said alcohol is bad.


Alcohol seldom makes any situation better. But this is one of those rare occasions when getting completely hammered actually helps.

Here’s why: An empty glass is always the perfect excuse to duck out of a bad conversation. If you get roped into a yap fest with the Conversationally Impaired and you have a drink in your hand, you are in complete control. Your conversation will only last as long as it takes to quaff that convenient can of beer. Plus, if you’re drinking a lot you usually have to hit the bathroom more often – another great excuse to get the hell outta there.

Tip: Always position yourself far away from the bar or kitchen or keg so you have to leave to re-fill your glass.

Bonus: This tactic actually works in the office with non-alcoholic beverages. Getting up to get a glass of water or hit the john works well in virtually any environment.

Caveat: Drinking heavily when dealing with The Drunk doesn’t work because he usually follows you to the bar or bathroom. The good news is that if you’re trapped by a Drunk, you can just keep drinking until you stop caring about the quality of the conversation and become a bossy, weepy, angry repeater yourself.

SEM #2: If you’re sitting down, stand up. This is a signal that you’re going somewhere and it is time for that person to leave. Works great in an office.

SEM #3: Instant messenger is your friend. If you get trapped in a long conversation with a Deadly Phone Yapper, IM someone you trust and have them call you. Turns out, you’ve “been expecting this Really Important Call” and can extricate yourself safely.

SEM #4: Give them something. There’s a psychology to this and I’m not sure why it works, but if you hand something to someone it is a signal for them to leave. I learned this from working high tech trade shows. The easiest way to end a conversation is to give ‘em a piece of candy or a cheap pen. Works like a charm every time.

SEM #5: Fart. Loudly, frequently, and fragrantly. Belching works, too. But watch out: This tactic could literally blow up in your face if you’re dealing with a Drunk One-Upper.

Tip: I find that combining several Self-Extrication Maneuvers is most effective. The Stand Up, Get a Drink, Hand ‘em Something combo is very nice in an office situation. The Drink Heavily maneuver usually leads to unintentional Fart maneuvers, especially when draft beer is involved.

Of course, the Drink Heavily, Fart, Fall Down and Shit Your Pants maneuver has the highest degree of effectiveness but is extremely difficult and shouldn’t be attempted by amateurs.
So we’ve learned who they are and how to avoid them, but what if like me, you’re guilty of being Conversationally Impaired on occasion? How can all of us make the world a better place by working harder to have great conversations?

Here’s the secret to being a good conversationalist: Shut the Fuck Up.

A conversation is usually give and take between two or more people. If you’re doing most of the talking, it’s not a conversation. It’s a lecture. And lectures suck.

If you work hard at becoming a good listener first, you’re more than halfway there. Focus and really listen to what the other person is saying. Maintain eye contact.

Ask questions based on what the other person tells you. I ask questions for two reasons: 1) It gets me out of “It’s all about me” mode and 2) I learn a lot.

Here’s another tip: Read up on current events so that you have something new or interesting to share with your friends. Try reading a good book once in a while, not just the latest James “I need to use TV commercials to sell books” Patterson crap.

Like I’ve said before, it all comes down to self-awareness.

Be aware of your tendencies to be Conversationally Impaired, shut the fuck up once in a while, and above all, listen.

And if all else fails, Drink Heavily.
I am listening to: You
I am reading: Nothing
And I am: Listening