I’ve been thinking a lot this week about conversation. In particular, I’ve been thinking about how woeful we are at it, and how perhaps the best thing I could do in service to the world would be to open my mouth one last time in order to swear an oath of silence.
My epiphany was triggered by a friend who sometimes drives me crazy with conversational surplus. It’s as if conversation is territory and (s)he’s determined to take over the world. Then I find myself getting into the battle, thinking that I have a right to some of this territory too, and first thing, there we are in World War II but with steely smiles and glasses of wine rather than guns and helmets. Each of us is determined to stake a claim on this bit of conversation and will fight to the death for it. On a global scale, it’s the Putin approach (though I admit I have a very superficial understanding of this current “crisis”, so it might not stand up as a metaphor).
One thing about being prohibited from entering a conversation is that you have a lot of time to pass judgement and to plan revenge. You also have a lot of time to observe the strategies that are being used to dominate the conversation. In my case, I discovered to my horror that I have a decent command of these techniques as well.
Let me pass on to you some of my observations, which might be useful to you in your own quest for domination:
The tank approach. Tanks pretty much go where they want and trample anything in their way. Roll! Lumber! Swivel! Knock that house down! A loud voice and sheer determination will stamp out other would-be conversational participants. When someone else makes a foray into the conversation, they don’t stand a chance under the treads.
Take no pauses. Here’s where you can use your knowledge of conjunctions to excellent effect. If you string all your ideas together with “and” or “but” or “uh” or “you know”, other people have a lot more trouble getting in. They’re used to entering a conversation on full stops or exclamation marks, and are generally too polite to blatantly interrupt.
Stay focused on YOU. People give polite little coughs, lean forward and wiggle their fingers to signal that they’d like to say something. Don’t let these hints distract you.
Ask only rhetorical questions. If you ask real ones, you’re going to have to stop while someone answers. Otherwise your dominator’s game becomes too obvious and a UN force will be called in.
Imitate the juvenile magpie. The mature magpie (the Australia version, at least) has one of the most melodic warbles on the face of the earth. But the young ones?—you’d never believe they’d have a hope of turning out. “Screek, screek, screek, screek…” –non-stop, ad infinitum, monotonic. You’d think the parents would gently put them to permanent sleep. Not my favourite aspect of country living, tolerated only because experience says that in two or three months they’ll be trilling Beethoven like their parents do.
I digress, but you might take my point. Keep to a relentless monotone and you’ll wear them all down in short order.
Drown ’em in detail. “I looked it up online and it was $42.99 at Bunnings but only $38.75 at Masters, but I decided to get it at Bunnings anyway because it’s 4.3 kilometres closer…and…uh… with the price we’re paying for petrol, my last fill up was…” Experts at this approach never ask if the topic is of interest. They’re good at ignoring body language, knowing that it’s dangerous to check for glazed eyes or that special tense-jaw look which could signal stifling a yawn.
…And these strategies only skim the surface, I’m afraid.
So for a few days this week I thought my choice was to head into seclusion or to master domination myself. I raised the issue with Rick, and, man-style, he immediately invented a fix. “There should be an app,” he said gleefully. “You set it on the table and it measures the duration of every voice it hears. After an hour it rings a bell and tells you the result: ‘Sam, 58 minutes. Silence, 30 seconds. Everyone else, 1 minute 30 seconds.’”
That depressed me because (a) we don’t have this app, and (b) I could picture the social chaos that would result if we used it.
It was in this space of resignation that I went yesterday as a guest to our Shedders guys’ Men’s Group meeting. And here a miracle occurred.
The men, and their guests, sat around for three hours together. Everyone spoke from their hearts about what was important in their lives; everyone listened closely, not once interrupting, asking questions if the speaker invited feedback.
As I listened, I thought, this is real conversation. This is why we’re on the face of the earth and why we seek relationships.
At the end of the evening, I felt deeply connected to the other people in the room and more ready to dive back into my day-to-day life. And it all happened through peaceful conversation! No warfare, no strategies, no domination—just people wanting to contribute and be in relationship.
So I won’t be heading into verbal seclusion. There’s still too much work to be done.
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P.S. I’m reminded of a post Eve wrote on her blog, many months ago. Check it out here.