The Lost Art of Conversation

I was on my second chocolate martini with a shot of espresso; they were still at it. I'm going to have to say something, I thought. How can I do this without being rude? I had already tried my standard silent recourses -- reciting state capitals, counting various objects in the room and gauging each total's divisibility by three, and rehearsing what I would say if I were to meet Tom Robbins. I can't take this anymore. "Can we talk about something else?"

"What do you mean?" Ellen asked. For a moment I felt selfish.

"Well, it's like..." think before you speak . "I can't participate in this conversation. Haven't you noticed? I've just been sitting here. I have no idea what you guys are talking about," I complained. It was part lie -- I would have had to have been in an isolation tank for the past five years to truly have no idea. But though I had figured out they were not talking about dear friends for the last hour but had actually been fretting and speculating over strangers who star on reality TV shows, I only recognized two of 20 names and one of half a dozen program titles mentioned.

"You told me you saw American Idol ," said Ellen, a hint of accusation in her tone.

"You're right. I did see the final episode this season," I confirmed. "But that doesn't mean I care about it, certainly not enough to let it dominate a conversation among friends." Point made, point taken. The conversation carried on. As the odd fifth in a group of four people intent on discussing whether or not what's-his-face deserved to win the public-rat-race-of-the-moment, I retreated to my inner dialogue with Tom.

"Your last book was alright," I said in my head. "But I much preferred the main character Switters in Fierce Invalids Home From Hot Climates to that freaky, bestiality-inducing Tanuki from Villa Incognito ."

"Whatever," my imaginary Tom answered. My creativity was stunted by alcohol and desperation set in.

"Tell me about your house, Scott!" I interrupted him in the middle of his Survivor synopsis. Caught off guard, but delighted to redirect his words toward something he cared about more than a bunch of fame-hungry people trying to vote each other off the island, Scott launched into a description of his new home.

If I sense that a subject is significant to someone, I will shut my mouth and pay attention. I'll even care. But when people are yapping away, verbally masturbating about something for the lack of anything better to discuss, my eyes glaze over. I don't judge people who get emotionally invested in the lives of celebrities, nor do I condemn those who spend hours talking about sports. But when I am around them I can't help myself from drifting off, allowing their voices to blend into a background drone similar to the WAH WAH sound teachers and parents make in Charlie Brown's world.

I don't consider myself a self-centered bitch, but I am finding lately that I am less and less inclined to actively participate in discussions that are uninteresting to me. On the other hand, there are subjects I find fascinating but pointless to talk about with certain people, like religion and politics.

I had a coworker once try to save my soul on the way to a training seminar out of town. Despite my scholastic interest in theology, rituals, cultural diversity, and personal values and beliefs, I would have rather been forced to walk to L.A. in 6-inch platforms than ride to Irvine with this woman who felt it was critical to control my opinion before we reached our exit. While I'm sure she truly believed she was doing God's work (bless her heart), my coworker's insensitivity to my own beliefs and her desperate need to ensure me a place in heaven only served to grant me a day in hell.

I'm always curious about people's values, but I only inquire when I am comfortable in the knowledge that a debate won't ensue. I don't want to spend energy trying to alter anyone's faith in their deity of choice, and I bristle at anyone who tries to change mine. Thus this is a subject best avoided, especially in the workplace, as any good human resources rep will tell you.

I also avoid topics of conversation that could lead to heated exchanges over government policy, especially between two people who haven't bothered to get involved and try to change anything. You hate Bush? Great. Got a thing against liberals? Fine. Don't sit around blowing hot air in my face, join a select few of my friends and do something about it. You will never hear me bring up the subject of politics in conversation. My opinion is just that -- the opinion of someone who does not have all of the information and who has no intention to do more than engage in casual banter over a glass of wine with friends.

Though my social abilities allow me to conversationally cross-pollinate, my ideal subject matter lies somewhere between the "superficial" (television shows, hairstyles, and other people's appearances) and the "serious" (state-of-the-world, politics, and religion). People who spend the majority of their time talking about superficial matters are too flighty and shallow for me to connect with, and those who lean toward serious topics, with the weight of the world on their shoulders, are simply no fun to be around.

Miss Manners would be relieved to learn that the subjects I enjoy discussing in social situations fall right in line with proper etiquette. As a social bird, it's important to me that no one (me included) is left out of a conversation. What I talk about depends on who and how many I am hanging out with and their interests. I wouldn't talk to Holly Homebody about traveling, just as I wouldn't strike up a conversation about my favorite lip-gloss with most of my male friends.

The purpose of conversation in polite society is to entertain and stimulate the mind. Truly, it is an art. I recently saw a guy rambling on and on at a party to three people who were obviously not interested in what he had to say. Their faces were drawn, their eyes were wide with boredom, they looked trapped . One by one, they found excuses to step away from the speaker, who was oblivious of their plight.

This guy's mistake was that he was speaking for himself and not for his audience. In the days before television the ability to be witty, clever, and thus entertaining while speaking was a highly prized characteristic (think Oscar Wilde and Dorothy Parker). Sometimes I wish I were a child of that time, when people actually thought about what they said and whom they were saying it to.

Until we have some kind of conversational revolution, I think I might write the president of whichever network Survivor is on and suggest that in the next season castaways compete for the conch by summarizing Wilde's Importance of Being Ernest in 200 words or less. If the network adopts my idea, I'll be the one bringing up reality TV at dinner.

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