Saturday, July 30, 2011

Tell Me About Yourself

I consider myself a damn good conversationalist. I have my bad days like most people, but on my good days, well, I'm damn good. Not because I have anything that interesting to say. In fact, just the opposite. I think what you have to say is interesting. And I want to know more about it. He's an example:

"Hey [friend]! How have you been?"
"Oh, I'm alright. Not sleeping well lately."
"I'm sorry to hear that. What's going on?"
"Oh well, my cat's been really sick and my brother lost his job and my wallet was stolen."
"Geez! That's a lot all at once. I can see why you'd be losing sleep. When was your wallet stolen?"

There are a number of things I did in this example that make me a damn good conversationalist. One, I asked a question, "How have you been?" But the simple asking does not warrant the "damn good" status, but rather, actually caring about my friend's response. That's when I asked the follow up question, "What's going on?" This communicates to my friend that I want to hear what s/he has to say. I am using my damn good listening skills. (Also, note that I did not get all upset that [friend] did not ask me how I was doing). But I don't stop there. I keep going. Because my [friend] needs me to listen. I know my friend would do the same for me, if the roles were reversed.

My skills as a damn good conversationalist don't only shine in situations where a friend needs to vent. Let's say I'm just meeting a new acquaintance. In order to get to know someone, it's good to ask questions like, "So, do you have any pets?" or "How do you know (our mutual friend) So-And-So?" or "What things do you do for fun?" or even the old standby, "What do you do for a living?" will suffice. People like to talk about themselves. It's fun to give them a chance to do so.

I went to a literary event in San Francisco recently. About halfway through the evening, I was having some really interesting conversations when I realized something: not one person had asked me anything. Mostly, it was a feeling of relief to not have to talk about myself. But then I started to get a wee bit self-righteous. The pattern continued. Ugh! People here are so selfish! Why isn't anyone asking me about ME? Soon it became a game to see how long a conversation could go on being so one-sided.

Yesterday I was chatting online with a good friend of mine who lived in California for five years. She gave me some interesting insight (edited for clarity and spelling):

me: I went to this event last week and I realized at one point that not one person asked me about myself.
everyone just pretty much talked about themselves.
Friend: well that might just be a regional thing - they assumed you would too so they didn't think they had to ask
me: huh
Friend: California is known for narcissists
me: I hate that. I enjoy listening, asking questions
Friend: it's like learning a different language

Sal and I were at dinner last night before going to see Harry Potter (review coming soon to a blog post near you). After we ordered I asked, "How did your meeting go today?" Twenty minutes later I finally interrupted him. "Did you notice that you've been talking about work since we got here?" He felt sheepish, but also, confused. Then he said something strange.

"Well, I was just waiting for you to talk about yourself. It's called a conversation."

I told Sal about my earlier chat that day and he agreed in some ways. He also said it might not be isolated to California. Having grown up in Brooklyn, he asserted that New Yorkers often talk the same way.

A hypothesis is brewing.

Perhaps this style of conversing is regional, but not because it is tied to any one specific region. Rather, these differences arise on the type of region: urban, as opposed to suburban or rural. Though, I have run into people who speak like this in the suburbs, but I usually end up not speaking to them that often because it feels one-sided. I label them self-involved. But they aren't the norm. What if, in this new environment, speaking freely about oneself without being prompted, is the norm? What does that make me? Maybe I just like listening because I think it makes me likable? What if I become so self-involved that I can't talk to my friends and family back home? My entire world view is falling apart!!!

Don't get me wrong. I'm not trying to paint myself as a conversational martyr. I enjoy talking about myself as much as the next person. But a good conversation is a balance, a dance. Give and take. You scratch mine, I'll scratch yours. An eye for an eye. [Insert reciprocity-related proverb/metaphor here.] But after a while, talking only about myself gets exhausting. I bore myself. I forget what I've already told certain people. Listening is fun because I gain new insight, stories and perspectives. But there is part of me that expects the same thing in return. At least, eventually. And I am really afraid of becoming one of "those people" that only talk about themselves. One of "those people" who write long, rambling blog posts about how damn good they are at X or Z.

Oh dear.


Unknown said...

Coming up in the Hampton Roads area of VA, I encounter people from all over the country and they are mostly all self-absorbed, it just manifests in different ways. It's been helpful in teaching me how to switch up my methods of interaction quickly.

Big issue I run into is I get bored / distracted so easily and I have a tendency to go off-roading without realizing it. Donning the trite-ass archetypal narrative of "poet" has allowed me to catch less weird for it than I do in circumstances where that isn't present, but it throws people off. Best as I can figure, it's 'cause people mostly want to establish their subjective existence as worthwhile and unique, and serious critical thought is just too difficult with so much energy working to continuously validate "self."

Deconstruction makes people really uncomfortable, so it's easier to let 'em ramble on... though it can be perceived as weakness, all that knowledge about people that don't know shit about you is a great source of strength, to get all Taoish about it.

Carol Berg said...

The very popular linguist Deborah Tannen has some really interesting insights into how people have such different styles of communication, if you'd like to check out some of her books. It is a fascinating topic.

Laura the Poet said...

Max - I think you idea of "switching methods of interaction" is key. I'm really good at discerning these nuances of communication, but it's tough because sometimes I just want to be myself and not play games. I guess that's just life.

As someone who is very self-aware, I find that people who need constant validation like that are often not self aware. Plus, sometimes we just get so wrapped up in our little heads because we spend so much time alone as writers, when we come out of hiding it's tough to remember how to converse.

Carol - Thanks for the recommendation! I definitely will check it out. Seems like it could be helpful to know in a lot of areas of life.

Kathleen said...

I loved this! (And I have read some Deborah Tannen, too--very good info!)

I have gone through the same kind of thing, hoping for reciprocity and balance. Sometimes I talk in spurts, answering questions but forgetting to ask them. Sometimes I only listen and offer nothing (and am asked nothing!). I, too, would like to dance!

Laura the Poet said...

Kathleen - I love "the dance," as you call it. That's exactly what it is. I don't have perfect conversations all the time, but my favorite ones are when two people manage to engage one another completely. It's magical.

Carol said...

The very popular linguist Deborah Tannen has some really interesting insights into how people have such different styles of communication, if you'd like to check out some of her books. It is a fascinating topic.