Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Art of Conversation

Recently, I talked to a couple that has been married since 1951. That's a long time. The woman talked a lot. Our conversation was more like me saying one sentence and her giving a five-minute lecture on my statement. As she talked I noticed the husband checking a few times to see if I was getting bored.

After our conversation, I thought, "That poor guy has been living with this for 56 years."

I know a few other people who can talk about themselves for 45 minutes, no exaggeration, and if I put two sentences together in the conversation they get restless and bored. Then they remember all the other things they must do and have no time to continue talking.

I knew a woman once who, if you complained about anything, no matter what it was, would respond with, "You think that's bad? Listen to what happened to me..." I mean, if you had an accident and were in a coma for months, she would come up with something to one-up you in the misery contest. I realize now that I should have said to her, "I know a dreary woman who responds to any complaint with a story of even greater misery." Would she have gotten the message? Or would she have told me about another woman who was even worse?

How do these people fit into the Objectivist ethics, in which selfishness is a virtue? They are self-obsessed and can talk only about themselves. They have no interest in anyone else. Aren't they selfish?

It's hard to generalize because all the people in the examples above have their own personality and psychological problems. It's not a moral failing to want to talk about your day. Some people do it more than others. Some are self-aware enough to know they love talking about themselves and they make an effort to show an interest in others -- in order to buy time for them to talk more about themselves.

This might sound like a contradiction of Objectivism at first, but I think it is in one's self-interest to understand that the universe does not revolve around you. Objectivism is not narcissism. A sign of maturity is understanding that the facts of your daily life are not as fascinating to anyone else as they are to you. It takes a special talent and charm to make a story about doing laundry and getting the kids to school interesting.

One thing I had to learn as I grew up -- and I'm still learning it at times -- is that nobody cares about me as much as I do. Nobody cares. Why should they? Even people who love you will not care about your stubbed toe as much as you do because they don't feel it.

Real self-interest means understanding reality and evaluating it properly. Those who do this well would, I believe, be more interesting conversationalists. They have a heirarchy of values of which they have given some thought. They know that giving a laundry list of what they did that day is not important and therefore not interesting. They give these things some thought maybe before they speak.

Conversation is an art that involves give and take. It is in one's self-interest to be an interesting conversationalist -- if one values conversation at all. Those who bore people with monologues about their petty lives are not interesting conversationalists; they end up driving people away from them, which is not in their long-term self-interest. (Some gifted people can talk for half an hour and never cease to be fascinating. More power to them.)

Those are my thoughts. Tell me yours in the comments. Let's have a conversation.


Anonymous said...

Yes, I think the key is being entertaining. And, as with fiction, that often requires a good beginning, middle, and end, including a strong climax. No mundane, irrelevant details. Stream of consciousness usually doesn't work. If not then they should let the other person speak.

-SM (Your friend from the festival, Cyrano, and the Grove) :)

Myrhaf said...

SM, my fellow actor, you're one of my favorite people to talk to, so you must be doing something right. I think stream of consciousness is fine for short statements. Otherwise you might censor everything you say. You bring up the elements of fiction, which is good if you're telling a story, unless it is labored. It would be better if it seems spontaneous -- same with acting!

david said...

I understand what you're saying, and it has bounced around in my head for a long time, too.

I think the key here is sensitivity to other people's reactions -- taking non-verbal cues when engaged in conversation so that you can understand when you have crossed a line into "boring" or "socially retarded."

The virtue of selfishness is always correct -- but must not be misinterpreted to mean "selfish AT THE EXPENSE of others." And in the case of non-stop jabberers who blabber on about themselves, they are being selfish -- but at the expense of others (in terms of time, civility, etc).

Good post.

Joseph Kellard said...

Hello Myrhaf,

This is my first time posting on your site. This issue you raise has long been, and will continue to be, a "pet peeve" of mine.

I find that coworkers are those who are guilty of this the most. I've had a few that would go on and on about their daily experiences, and never think, when they are finally done exhaling, to ask you: "So how was your weekend?" And some of them, when you do talk, take little to no interest in what you are saying.

When I notice this in people, I talk less and less to them on a social level, some to the point that I stop talking to them completely.

If a person cares about another person, they will listen to them when they talk, and they should expect that this person, who has a self-interest in having a good relationship with the person (coworker, friend, lover, etc.) would do well to learn to listen to the person. When people don't listen back, when they show no interest in asking you how your day or life is going, then they are people who have no fundamental self-interest in you. Instead, your at best, esp. if you're a good listener, a convenient sound board for them, a warm body who generously lends an ear and perhaps gives good advice.

The blabbers who hardly or never listen to others are not selfish, they’re self-consumed, not realizing that rational, healthy relationships on any level are give-and-take, and if the person who always finds himself listening and never listened to, then if they have a sense of justice and self-respect, they’ll increasingly shun this person on a personal level.

That’s my off-the-cuff response.

Joseph Kellard

Myrhaf said...

David, thanks.

Joseph Kellard, thanks for commenting.

I agree with both of you.

Writing about politics get tedious sometimes, especially when the candidates are power-lusting statists. I like to find other things to write about in this blog. This topic would come under ethics, or perhaps etiquette. (Or is etiquette a category of ethics?)

johnnycwest said...

I am becoming more selfish in my conversations - I speak less and listen more. I learn more and I have better conversations. I try to remember Will Rogers who said:"Never pass up an opportunity to shut up". I have ceased to always counter someone's funny or interesting anecdote with one of my own. Well, most times...

Thanks for the post and for the reminder - I am going to shut up and listen now.

Myrhaf said...

Johnny, I don't mean to imply that one can never talk about oneself -- I do it all the time. The people who irk me are the ones who love to hear themselves talk but never listen in return.

johnnycwest said...

Myrhaf - no worries - I understand what you are saying - conversation is an exchange. We trade information and comments - its like capitalism!. My comment refers to me. I am learning to say less about me and listen more.

I referred to the major change I had made in my conversational style and that is to allow someone to tell a story or relate an anecdote without feeling I had to match it (or top it - as you referred to). This is more important when I am speaking to someone who has a different conversational style than I do - less aggressive.

Like most Objectivists, ideas are very important to me so I am only too happy to add my 2 cents in conversations. I have learned to show some restraint.

As the boss at work, it is easy for me to be overbearing and that conversational style can spill over to non-work.

A very helpful book for me has been What Got You Here Won't Get You There: How Successful People Become Even More Successful by Marshall Goldsmith. The book discusses a number of potential errors and annoyances we make when dealing with co-workers. It can be blunt in portraying our styles and I am learning from it.

Thank you again for an excellent post. I appreciate Objectivist perspectives for non-political situations. Politics is such a swamp, that it is a breath of fresh air to leave it.

Anonymous said...

Ah, the infamous "open-loop" personality ("open-loop" is an engineering term referring to a control system with no feedback; it lacks a connection to its own effects). I was one of those myself, due in part to ADHD; with a short term memory like quicksand, I tend to want very badly to say something before I forget it. I've learned to control it the hard way -- by experience.

People like this do it for a variety of reasons. Many of them are like LA drivers; "it's all about them". It seems as if they live in a state of perpetual surprise that there are other people in the world, and that they also have places to go and something to say. They are not unlike young children in that respect -- except that children eventually wise up to the fact of others, if they are raised right.

BetsySpeicher said...

Myrhaf asked:

"This topic would come under ethics, or perhaps etiquette. (Or is etiquette a category of ethics?)"

My friend, philosophy professor Allan G., once told me that Ayn Rand called etiquette "Rationality applied to human relationships." That makes sense and indicates what is wrong with non-stop talker/non-listeners.

Rational human relationships are built on the Trader Principle, and the kind of "conversation" you describe certainly provides little or no value to the listener. The talker takes your time and attention and gives you damn little in return.


Myrhaf said...

Jim and Betsy, thanks for both of your interesting comments. From open loop personalities to the Trader Principle!

EdMcGon said...

Let's see...I got laid off this week, and a friend of mine died...but enough about me. So Myrhaf, how's your week going?

Myrhaf said...

My week, Ed, is going better than yours, I must admit.

Monica said...

Hilarious. I laughed all the way through this. Boy, do I know someone like that -- a coworker. I guess we all do. At first, I tried to be patient with her. Then I thought I'd take the opposite tack, interrupting her as much as she interrupted me. It didn't faze her. Since I've determined that I just can't carry on a pleasant conversation with this woman, I've stopped trying. I avoid her as much as I can.