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 V.16 No.14 | April 5 - 11, 2007 

Commentary

The Artlessness of Competitive Conversation

Oppressive talkers might consider shutting up every now and then

Jessica Cassyle Carr

Imagine this: You're surrounded by people you barely know. The conversation turns to a subject to which you can contribute. You're a shy person, and mustering the courage to speak around unfamiliar people involves a considerable amount of anxiety. There's a break in the banter, you finally begin to speak, but in the midst of what you're saying some dolt interrupts you, keeps talking and makes no amends for the discourtesy he or she has created. You feel humiliated and annoyed.1

For the shy2 and outgoing alike, being interrupted, ignored or having your story hijacked is a goddamned insult. Some people just refuse to embrace egalitarianism in communication or, moreover, the art of conversation in general. The results of improperly functioning discourse are the troubling subtexts of particular group dynamics and personal problems. By way of the stunted yackings of others we can observe flaws, insecurities, ire, compensation and hierarchy, which seems juicy, but is an intimacy to which we should not want to be privy. Mournfully, there's really no remedy that doesn't counter this rudeness with rudeness.

Conversational ineptitudes might be part of the general extraction of manners from our culture. Some even perceive following etiquette to somehow make you prudish, cavalier or old-fashioned. On the contrary, manners are only courtesies invented to make others feel comfortable.3 Moreover, etiquette changes with the time, and stodgy old customs tend to disappear with the stodgy old times. So how do we rectify bad conversational techniques and escape the tyranny of pointless monologues? Ladies and gentlemen, I say, let's all evaluate ourselves.

Three things to ask yourself during conversation:

1. Am I listening, or am I just waiting for my turn to speak?

Ernest Hemingway once said, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal from listening carefully. Most people never listen.” How can you possibly have an artful conversation if you don't know what the person you're talking to just said? If you just want to talk, you just want to steal someone's time.

2. Have I been talking for a long time?

Here's a good time to remember ol' Polonius' affirmation, "Brevity is the soul of wit." Being around people who relentlessly talk at you is excruciating, and it would seem that they don't care about your company and, whether consciously or unconsciously, see you as a conduit for their oral effluvium. Do you reckon others care to hear a mundane story about your health problems, for example?4

3. Am I interrupting?

There are two possible explanations for chronic interrupters: They don't realize they are interrupting or they are selfish people. Do you think you might have a problem with interruption? If so, consider David Hume's thoughts on the matter: "Among well-bred people a mutual deference is affected, contempt for others is disguised; authority concealed; attention given to each in his turn; and an easy stream of conversation maintained without vehemence, without interruption, without eagerness."

Footnotes:

1. It is this moment that you decide to abandon society and become a shut-in, emerging only every few decades to seek revenge on the careless fools who smote you.

2. Whose nature is often mistaken as snobbery. In a more logical world we would see that the snobs aren't the quiet ones; they're the people who never shut up--the people who talk, interrupt and talk some more, in effect saying, "What you have to say is unimportant; what I have to say is important."

3. Not following etiquette is what makes you cavalier. It gives a message along the lines of "I am so special that I am exempt from being courteous."

4. I was recently thrust into an awkward living situation with a girl I'd never met. She was very nice, but from the moment we met, all she talked about were her health problems and personal tragedies. We'd discuss something like the dishes and she would toss in a "when I broke my leg" or "after I lost the baby" or "during the divorce." Obviously she wanted me to ask her, "When did you break your leg?" so she could tell me all about it. Putting people in the situation where you demand them to take interest in your personal life is just uncomfortable. Take heed when launching into personal stories. One Alibi editor uses an excellent tactic when dealing with this situation, asking, "Can I tell you a story about myself?"

 

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