Do you feel tongue-tied when you have to chat with people? Do you fear socializing with strangers? Do words and ideas desert you at the very moment you need to connect with members of the human race?
If so, please read these few brief suggestions on how you can become a confident conversationalist.
FIND SOMEONE TO TALK TO. Most conversations require at least two persons. Some people talk to themselves, or God, or their dog, but that’s really not conversation, is it? What you need is another human, preferably someone who is awake, not drunk and who speaks the same language as you.
INTRODUCE YOURSELF. Once you have obtained a suitable “other” to talk with, you should identify yourself, in this fashion: “I am Clyde Moreau, a lung-tissue analyst from Omaha. I would like to converse with you. And your name is?” That should get the ball rolling, or at least ease the other person’s suspicion that you might be a mugger or a life insurance salesman.
ASK QUESTIONS. But make sure they’re not too personal. Don’t ask, “Are you washed in the blood of the lamb?” or “Are those dumplings really yours, or have you had some reconstruction work done?” Instead, try to draw the other person out with questions about current events or popular culture. Examples: “Do you think Hillary will run in 2016? Have you heard about George Zimmerman’s plan to become president of the National Rifle Association?”
FIND COMMON GROUND. No matter how varied our personal histories, most of us share certain interests. Restaurants, for example. “Have you tried the steak tartare at the Pinellas Park Wendy’s?” “No, but I’ve discovered this wonderful Greek place beneath the Sunshine Skyway bridge.” And so on. A related topic is dieting. A recent survey showed that 94 percent of adult Americans are either on a diet or thinking about one. Another useful fall-back topic is dogs. Or cats. Or children. “Do you have a dog?” “Oh, my, yes. I came home one day last week and found my rat terrier chewing on my 2-year-old’s foot. He’s so cute.” “Your child?” “No, the terrier.” And there you go, two people exchanging unforgettable anecdotes.
SEEK HELP. No stranger can resist responding to a person who needs assistance or advice. “Sir, can you tell me whether Comcast tells more lies than Verizon, or vice versa?” “Ma’am, do you know the way to San Jose?” “Brother, can you spare a dime?”
TELL A FUNNY STORY. People like to laugh. When the conversation slows down, dredge up a joke. “Did you hear about the Buddhist who refused Novocain when he went to the dentist because he wanted to transcend dental medication?” A few knee-slappers like that will keep the chatter going every time.
COMPARE CELL PHONES AND COMPUTERS. If all other attempts fail to find a common ground to discuss, simply say, “May I tell you about my new telephone, or my wonderful computer?” That should get the conversational ball rolling at warp speed. Today’s conversations are oriented not toward feelings, goals, and shared problems, but toward gadgets. “Does your phone let you talk to people on Mars?” “No, but it allows me access to every document in the Library of Congress. Here, let me show you.” At that point, instant friendships can take place.
REMEMBER TO NOD AND SAY “HMMMM. IS THAT SO?” Conversation, ideally, is a two-way street. But in real life it’s often a monologue – one speaker, one listener. If you’re talking with a woman you hope to charm, or an executive you hope will hire you, it’s important to show that you’re paying attention – even if you’re not. So be responsive, at least in a minimal manner. Nod your head every few seconds, and say “Really? Is that so? My goodness. Hmmm.” As long as the other person is doing all the talking, you don’t have to worry about being a skilled conversationalist. As the Roman orator Cicero put it, “Silence is one of the great elements of conversation.”
DON’T BE AFRAID TO INTERRUPT. On the other hand, you should not hesitate to insert your own important (you hope) viewpoint into the conversation, even when the other guy is speaking. In today’s world, interruptions are mandatory and rarely noticed. If you don’t agree with that statement, try listening to any of TV’s chatter shows or roundtables. On most of them, no one is allowed to complete a sentence. Of course, these gabfests should not be confused with actual conversation, whose highest forms usually involve a civilized give-and-take.
Bob Driver is a former columnist with the Clearwater Sun. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.