Has any Supreme Authority written a book listing the proper and improper ways for us to talk with one another? If so, I’ve missed it. Of course, many books exist that teach us how to become a better conversationalist. I’m not referring to that skill.
What concerns me is the absence of any rulebook that defines when, in a civilized conversation, a person should speak and when to shut the hell up. Have you noticed that today there are very few listeners? These are people who, perhaps in childhood or in a finishing school, were taught to remain silent while the other guy was speaking. If and when silence finally occurred, then it was your turn.
No more, or rarely, does conversation work that way. Today, closely observe talkers you know, especially if they’re appearing on a TV or radio program. You’ll find few polite listeners. If and when you do identify such persons, they’ll be the ones in the corner who everyone ignores.
In modern conversation, you’d better learn to be an interrupter, and a forceful one. If you’re not prepared to cut off the current speaker’s flow in mid-thought, you might as well just leave. You’re a nobody, a cipher, an odd duck who just sat there.
Occasionally I encounter a monologuist (I hope that’s a real word). He or she is someone who began chattering at birth and has never really stopped except during sleep or surgery. They don’t know how, or why they should listen to another person’s thoughts. In such cases, I sometimes carry a kitchen timer or just look at my watch. I make a bet with myself about how long Chatty Kathy or Voluble Vince will blabber on before they run out of air. I sit there confounded that so many words can issue in an unbroken stream from one person’s alleged brain.
Some folks see nothing wrong with being interrupted in mid-sentence. “That’s how real people talk with each other, Driver. Conversation isn’t a chess game or a college debate. It’s give and take.” Maybe so. But most people would rather give than take. Some wit once said, “The opposite of talking isn’t listening – it’s waiting.”
I must confess my views on conversation are shaped by how quickly I bore people when it’s my turn to talk. I’m adept at quips, but my narratives plod. I could be giving an eyewitness account of a terrorist attack on the White House, and my listeners would quickly nod off or beg, “Bob, please shut up.” People interrupt me just to shut me up.
It’s on the typical TV panel discussion that you see the worst manners and the most interruptions. Example: Five days a week, Whoopi Goldberg and several other celebrity women sit down for a chatterfest known as “The View.” For the next half-hour or so they proceed to babble on about all sorts of topics, none of which become clear to the viewing audience because none of the panelists is permitted to express a complete thought without being cut off in mid-sentence. This is conversation? Or is it the way show-biz people (male and female) are supposed to talk?
A similar gabbing contest can be seen on Fox News each afternoon, on a program called “The Five.” Several men and women sit around a table to exchange opinions on current events. But what we see and hear is mostly rapid-fire wisecracks and punchlines, and very little solid information on what’s happening in the real world. The panelists seem to be on a quota system, with the prize going to whoever can score the most interruptions.
I find relief by watching any of several instructive interview programs, such as those hosted by Bill Moyers, Charlie Rose and Tavis Smiley. Although these guys will occasionally break in with a noteworthy point, they usually grant their guests the dignity of letting them speak freely.
A major victory for civilized conversational restraint was scored recently when CNN fired its prissy, tiresome and often ill-mannered commentator Piers Morgan. Although his lengthy news background fully qualified him to hold his job, Morgan’s obstreperous interviewing style made me want to flip my TV switch to the Weather Channel or a Jerry Seinfeld re-run.
As I write this, rumors say that veteran interviewer Larry King would like to replace Morgan. Millions would welcome that move, I’d guess. King was sometimes mocked for his many marriages and pedestrian intellect, but he usually asked interesting common-man questions. Best of all, he allowed his guests to respond. He conducted a genuine talk show, not a fencing match.