Why you should care
Your conversation skills are suffering — and so is humankind. Fear not: Authors of the witty and wise new book What to Talk About come to the rescue.
Parties are the worst. You just stand around like an owl. A dumb owl with a smartphone.
But it’s not just cocktails and canapés that leave us mute. We seize up in all kinds of social situations: the train, the company retreat, Arby’s, marriage. Striking up conversation is hard. Human beings have been at a loss for words ever since the first Paleolithic stud took his date to the Lascaux cave paintings and then stood there, racking his brain for something interesting to say about horse art. (They broke up later that night.)
Lately, our deep-rooted inarticulateness has been compounded by the easy escape of our phones, which we scan with laser focus while waiting for our lattes, pretending we are busy when, really, we just have nothing to say. We tweet and text and take photos of our feet. Families spend entire meals in silence, playing Anal Zombie (a video game about the fastidious undead).
Let’s be realistic. If this trend continues, will we really regress into some kind of lizard people, losing spoken language altogether and just hissing at each other? Probably. But it’s not too late to reverse our fate. Let’s start talking, people. Here’s how…
Going Beyond “How Are You?”
1. Be bold (and willing to fail).
“How are you doing?” is too milquetoast for this light-speed age. All you ever get is a dead-end, one-word response, anyway. Instead, offer an opening volley that provokes, probes or invites real thought:
- Would you rather go caffeine-free or gluten-free for the rest of your life?
- How are you most misunderstood by the world?
- Would you scratch a kid’s arm for a free pair of Armani sunglasses?
You’ll know you’re doing this right if at least one person walks away. Reel it back a hair and press on…
2. Be curious.
So obvious, but so rare. Conversation is not about you. Try this at your next business thing: “What’d you have for breakfast this morning?” You’ll always get a story, and that story will soon lead to a more interesting story, and so on, until you pass peacefully into the next life.
3. Be prepared.
Come to a conversational situation with something in your back pocket, a go-to topic in case everyone ends up just standing around , blinking. (Write it down on an index card if you have to.) Here’s something to get you going: those cave paintings that stymied our ancestor. They are 17,000 years old, for starters! Try putting the paintings in perspective with your own life. Who will one day study the camel you drew this morning on the condensation of your gym’s shower stall?