I recently had a conversation with Hugh Silver about why people might be terrible at conversation. The following list isn’t comprehensive, and I don’t know how many apply to you. (I won’t say how many apply to me or to Hugh.) Be forewarned, we brainstormed this in the manor’s conservatory at two in the morning, when we were both exhausted and a bit creeped out by the shadows of the plants in the moonlight. Here goes…
If conversation is an art, some people can fill a canvas with delicate chiaroscuro and angels clothed in lapis lazuli. Others can fill a piece of construction paper with elbow macaroni, glitter and nosebleed drippings.
Even if conversation isn’t an art, or you think that bloody macaroni-covered construction paper can be art (Capillary Red # 4 at the Merriwether A. Rackett Modern Art Museum), maybe this list will give you some insights and directions to consider if you want to improve your conversational skills. Or maybe you don’t want to improve anything, and you will grunt if you need to get your point across to anyone.
1) You had a socially isolated and/or dysfunctional childhood
Not a popular kid? That’s putting it mildly. Not really a part of your peer group? As for the adults in your life… adults maybe kept asking you questions they immediately answered (“Did you like the movie, so did I. What do you want to do next, get an MMR vaccine, great idea.”) They responded to what you said with derision, interruptions, and increasing the volume on the TV. They frequently told you what to think and feel. Maybe they demanded that you listen quietly as they delivered monologues about their frustrated hopes, including the fact that they wanted a child more like their friend’s smarter, cuter, more articulate child (the one with the vivacious personality and above-average athletic ability who got better grades than you). It’s possible you became really self-conscious and doubtful that you could say anything worthwhile. Maybe you spent a lonely childhood trying to be super-careful about what you said so as not to disturb volatile adults.
2) You find people boring
They’ll tell you that the weather sure is bad, and we can expect more bad weather, maybe. Or good weather, possibly, we can only hope. Or they’ll let you know their pizza’s here, look, and they used a coupon for it, the one their friend’s boyfriend’s friend the middle-aged Dartmouth-educated mid-level manager emailed them. (10% off with your choice of toppings except for pepperoni, anchovies, and maybe bellpeppers or was it olives?) The middle-aged manager from Dartmouth is always emailing them things like pizza coupons. Here’s a list of the awesome things he emails his friends…
3) They find you boring
You and your interminable pizza coupon monologues.
4) You aren’t cool enough for geeks
There are people talking about astrophysics or ‘90s TV shows or Sherlock fanfiction, and you say, “My goal is to read all the Oxford books of short stories, too bad the local library doesn’t have The Oxford Book of Australian Ghost Stories” or “I just spent half an hour on YouTube trying to find every Eleanor Powell tap dance routine ever filmed, she was awesome, but the image quality from the Rosalie clip where she’s in military uniform is too grainy, where are you going?” So you just have to keep looking for geeks who get you (I tell myself, as I put in an order for The Oxford Book of Caribbean Short Stories).
5) You spend a lot of time in a dissociated state
People are talking to you, and you are wielding a staff in a distant realm. They are telling you about their Fort Lauderdale vacation, and you are sprinting across a rooftop after ninjas. Maybe these daydreams are short and get you through the pizza coupon ramblings. But maybe you spend most of your life mentally inhabiting another body and place. Possibly this is good for you? Or maybe you don’t like yourself or your life?
6) You don’t converse, you hold forth
If people to want to suck up to you and/or absorb your brilliant insights, you might get away with this sometimes. (Pausing only to savor the dying reverberations of your voice before you start talking again.)
7) You misapply conversation advice
Advised to ask questions, you don’t know when to stop. When advised to make eye contact, you stare deeply into their eyes, through their eyeballs, until you can see their amygdala twitching with their mounting fear of you. Or you’re like Creed from The Office, and when Michael asks for suggestions for small talk, you suggest peas and ball bearings.
8) There’s a failure to connect at some level
There are all these vibes and non-verbal cues during conversation, and they fly past you. Culturally or psychologically, you may be so very different from most people around you such that they don’t want to understand you (and vice versa). Or they’re using conversation to manipulate you (for real, not only as a false paranoid assumption). And sometimes it’s a basic human disconnection. Have you ever been at a dinner party, and looked around and thought, who are these aliens? Their mandibles are moving. Why are they doing what they do, and why am I here with them?