It seems that the fine art of conversation, complete with possible conflict and rife with potential controversy, has died a horrible death and left in its wake only a hollow and meaningless stepchild, small talk. Or, perhaps it’s just that I’m somehow lacking in my execution of it that leaves me thinking so. Maybe people don’t care to talk about topics that interest me (science, history, religion, politics, etc) or is that our society has grown so contentious over these issues that everyone is afraid to start a conversation for fear of offending someone and so to avoid conflict we constrain ourselves to inane topics such as the weather, the ‘big game’ and last nights television programming?
I’ve often that thought that under the surface, most people really WANT to talk about interesting things. That if you could just dig down, under the veneer of defensive meaningless gibber that every one of us is seething with ideas that would just offend the pants off our neighbors if only they were allowed to escape, a verbal Pandora’s box. It’s occurred to me that small talk may be the vehicle by which humans ‘feel out’ each other to determine if their ideas are compatible enough to continue into more interesting conversations.
Since I admittedly suck at small talk the humans I interact with simply subconsciously register a negative response in the ‘Rob’ column and go look for someone else to talk to. This is an understandable response but it does leave one wondering what epiphanies are hiding behind the protective conversational shell of ones neighbors.
Alternatively, it’s possible that people frankly don’t care nearly as much as I do about most of the topics in my conversational top ten. In order for that to be the case, however, most of the people I know would have to care about precious little except for sports and television. I cannot recall, in fact, the last time I overheard a conversation in the office about anything outside the realm of everyday experience: company gossip, entertainment and what to have for lunch. Where are the philosophers? Did all the mathematicians at heart go on to actually become mathematicians and leave me behind? Surely not; surely there’s more to the average person than the surface experiences of everyday life.
In defense of the common man, I haven’t exactly gone out of my way to plumb the depths of anyone within my daily contact but I haven’t gotten any real glimmers either that swifter waters are running under the surface either. We all have our outward obsessions, hobbies, religions, etc but what about the real mechanics of the psyche? Perhaps this is too much to expect to see. Some currents run too deep to show themselves at all.
Most sad of all is the possibility that we just don’t talk to each other because we’re afraid to. This country has become so polarized: black/white, liberal/conservative, man/woman, different/not different that you can’t really say much of anything without offending someone. It seems tragic that we can’t explore these differences and learn from each other rather than being afraid of being attacked or sued. Despite my opinion on the subject, I am completely fascinated by people of a religious nature. I enjoy hearing their ideas about how the world works, what God means to them and how it impacts their daily lives. The lives, feelings, beliefs of the people who are NOT like me are of unbounded interest because they represent the rest of the human story that I think all of us want to figure out. Unfortunately, the old ‘never discuss religion or politics’ rule rears its head and we have to mum up on the topics of real interest because we’re afraid we’ll offend someone.
While the state of conversation is clearly in disarray, there is yet hope for the social animal that is man. At this point, I’ll site a few rare counter examples to the trends noted above. First and foremost I must point out my own wife. She will talk happily, spiritedly and intelligently on any one of hundreds of topics from Genetic Engineering to Abortion Rights with anyone and everyone. She’s never afraid to speak her mind and drives her points home like a mathematics professor with a rigor that’s obvious to anyone with an open mind to start with. If not for her, I’d be a blubbering mass looking for some form of social outlet. Her audience may not always like what she says but that’s hardly the point. She adds to the total knowledge of the world and is a teacher and leader in every sense. If every human on the planet conversed as well as she does then we would live in a much better informed and no doubt much happier society.
My own father, not surprisingly, is also good for a conversation in the realm of music, psychology, philosophy or human behavior. His viewpoint on the world is as unique as my own; I sincerely wish he had the time to sit down and write some of it out.
The only other person with whom I can say I’ve had a really interesting conversation in the past ten years is my associate from 3 jobs ago, Charlie (See Art and Its Appreciation). Whereas my wife is primarily anchored in the concrete, Charlie is more an aficionado of the artistic, historical and dare I say religious realms. Though softer spoken than my wife, Charlie is not afraid to talk about the ‘forbidden’ topics that other people shy away from and is always good for a real and truly interesting conversation devoid of any reference to the weather, sports and 99% of TV shows.
Logic assures me that these are not the only people on the planet who want to have a real meaty conversation with some real content. The chances are infinitesimal that there aren’t at least another ten people like them in my immediate vicinity. The problem, of course, is identifying them and getting through to their true intellect without the usual requisite hours of inane babbling about sports that most people go through. This assumes that even after all the small talk people find their way into real and relevant conversations. Perhaps they just don’t and I’m wishing on a star that has long since ceased to shine.