The Power of Conversation

quote2First I direct your attention to a recent blog post entitled “It’s so typical of me to talk about myself, I’m sorry.

Full disclosure: this is my daughter’s blog and she works as a children’s librarian in a community just south of Albuquerque. She raises some interesting points and voices some frustration with the current state of social conversation.

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Conversation is a lost art…lost long ago…and it is becoming a lost personal skill. Human evolution on the mega time scale and personal development of individuals in a micro scale, from the cradle to the grave, depends on meaningful human interaction. We have to be able to carry on a rational conversation with our doctor when we are sick or having a check-up. That is just one example but we have maybe a dozen events during a typical  day when we have to speak with and listen to another person and communicate in a rational manner.

I recently went to a meet-up — one of those scheduled social get-togethers where strangers introduce themselves and converse over drinks or a meal or maybe engage in a common activity, like photography or dominoes or whatever. There were twenty people there and several were attending for the first time — like me. Some were familiar with each other and they fell into a friendly and joking evening of conversation. I was sitting next to and across from people who were not familiar with the group so we just talked among ourselves. The young guy next to me was a zookeeper at the city zoo. He was a bird man but at other zoos where he worked he had different assignments with different animals. The retired woman across the table recently returned to the US from a thirty year career abroad, mostly in Germany. She was a civilian employee of the military. Our conversation, over about two hours covered travel in Europe and specific countries (Portugal in particular), various foods, zoo operations in different cities, zoo emergencies and emergency preparations.

It turned out that the zookeeper was the guy on call to drop a rogue or escaped animal before it attacked too many visitors. Too many, he said…it seems to be a given that someone is likely to get hurt before the situation is under control. This was, to me, a very peculiar aspect of zoo management…one I had never considered. He said that the chimpanzees might be the most dangerous of animals if they escaped. Most animals would try to run away and not intentionally hurt anyone but the chimpanzees can become very aggressive. They apparently have a plan at the zoo as to what caliber bullet will take down what animal. This was news to me and this fellow was very serious.

The lady across the table was very fond of Portugal but not very complementary regarding Italy. To her way of thinking, the Italians are too ego-centric and can’t see beyond their borders. If something wasn’t Italian it was unworthy. I was surprised at that perception because it didn’t agree with my own experience. On the other hand, she was very impressed with the little towns and villages of Bavaria where she spent several years on assignment. Never having been to Bavaria or Portugal, I was interested in her experiences.

I personally didn’t have much to contribute to the conversation other than to ask questions  and follow along. The zookeeper wasn’t much interested in Europe and the retired woman wasn’t much interested in the zoo or animals escaping. Somehow, I became the glue that held the conversation together by asking questions and giving an account of a few experiences I had in Italy or at the zoo. We had a fairly enjoyable evening.

Another night this week I went to my local brew pub. This is something of a regular Tuesday night event with me and a friend spending a couple hours mostly talking about music or our past careers…we are both retired but had very different jobs. I was a little late this week but when I got there my friend was engaged in a conversation with another patron, I’ll call him Al, who we see from time to time at the brew pub. Al is a force of nature as far as conversation goes. He has the broadest range of interests and is fairly knowledgeable  on all sorts of topics. He is a retired mechanical engineer. He can talk for hours but he has a special skill in drawing others into the conversation. You can’t sit on the sidelines. I knew when I walked in it was going to be a wild ride.

The topic, when I arrived, was the various pros and cons of brewery and brew pub business plans. This morphed  into how the craft brewing industry seemed to be falling into several different categories and how some were “selling out” to big brewing conglomerates while others were intentionally staying small and flying under the radar.

Before we were finished that evening the topics went from the initial subject to the Theory of Relativity, E = mc 2, and string theory; laser technology in several forms; Machu Picchu and the Nazca Lines; the future of Chinese economics and consumerism; my home brewing prowess and home brewing in general;  gravity and mag-lev technology; migratory bird perception and sensing of the earth’s magnetic field; variations of time on different planets and in space travel in general; the Doppler Effect and the properties of sound under different atmospheric conditions; and a half dozen other topics I don’t even recall now. Granted that this was a brew pub but we were so engaged in conversation that not a great deal of beer was consumed. This was about a three hour conversation and we were exhausted when Al left but energized at the same time. He has a way of stretching your engagement and keeping your interest. My friend and I have had these types of conversations with Al a few times before and sometimes we try to go off on a parallel or tangent topic and he will go along for a minute or two but then circles back to the course that we were on.  I haven’t had conversations like this since graduate school and only a few back then came close or equaled our discussion that night.

quote1I have had similar long conversations with fellow passengers on Amtrak travelling cross-country although the topics usually were not so wide ranging. Actual face-to-face prolonged conversation is invigorating. There are some topics that can get people enflamed and angry but over these two recent evenings and about five hours of talk we never touched on politics or religion or immigration or anything that normally gets people enraged.  I will go to a popular chat forum about once a day and just look at the topics and some of the comments. People are very willing to stick their thumb in your eye in a verbal sense on these forums. Civility is the first victim in many of these forum conversations because the parties are anonymous and feel they can say anything and not suffer the consequences. In real live conversations that isn’t the case and people measure and filter their words and their topics seem to keep some civility if not cordiality.

Social interaction doesn’t have to be prolonged or deep. Two people talking about the weather at a bus stop could turn out to be the bright spot of your day. I have become somewhat chatty over the last few years and people will usually be happy to talk. I can recall only one occasion in the last year where someone refused to be at least cordial and respond to a simple verbal encounter.

So, your assignment is to go out there and talk to strangers or engage your friends in a substantial conversation. Report back on how it went.

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