The Art of Conversation
Courtesy & The WordBucket©
The following is yet another submission by my dear friend and colleague, Anne Thrope. If I myself do not contribute anything soon, she may supersede me as the primary writer of this Blogue, whereupon shall I become little less than a guest contributor on the grounds of my own proprietorship. Nevertheless, we humbly submit for your approval a discussion on The Art Of Conversation.
“…it was one of those conversations where you sort of wish you’d been paying attention from the beginning, but you never expected it to be interesting.” This was my boss speaking. We’re usually on the same page, which is why I didn’t feel too badly about missing the front end of this particular story. It did raise an interesting question, however. Namely, how does one deal with stories in which one is not particularly interested? One way, it seems, is to zone out and hope it never goes anywhere of consequence. A bit cynical, perhaps, but practical. I do this sometimes as well. Although, in so doing, I rely heavily on my WordBucket©. (( The WordBucket is a mental contraption that I’ve knocked together which allows me to subconsciously track the most recent portion of any conversation. Imagine a bucket with a hole in the bottom. As a person speaks, their words fall into the bucket. As the person continues to speak, the older words fall out through the hole and new words pile in on top, so that the most recent 20 or so words are always swirling around in there. The thing is, I have no idea what’s in the bucket until I reach in and grab them. It works like this. Somebody suspects I’m not paying attention (guilty-as-charged) and says “Are you even listening to me?,” loudly enough to jar me from my own more interesting thoughts. “Of course!,” I reply beïnjuredly. Whereupon do I stare into the distance and focus my mental powers as I reach into the word bucket, mindlessly reciting back the last 20 or so words this other party has said. Whereupon do they continue besatisfied.))
What it comes down to, friends, is Courtesy. Allow me to anticipate your objection. You might argue that Courtesy is not tricking your interlocutor into believing that you are paying attention when in fact you are doing quite the opposite, but that Courtesy is, contra-wise, actually paying attention. I shall parry this thrust by counter-suggesting that perhaps Courtesy means not telling frightfully dull stories. Or perhaps Courtesy is having the observational wherewithal to be able to deduce when your audience is being frightfully dullified on your account. I suggest, ever so humbly, that if you are going to tell a story, you have a responsibility not to be paint-dryingly, grass-growingly, Jane-Austenly boring. That, people, is what it means to be Courteous. If you should fail in this, well, you live me little choice but to reciprocate by not paying attention, WordBucket at the ready.
If this all seems a bit rude, take heart, for there is another way. At least, sometimes. The Zone-Out method would seem to work in almost any situation. However, I’ve found a peculiar way of dealing with boring conversations which I myself have accidentally initiated. Yes, accidentally initiated. You may fairly wonder at that. But be honest. We’ve all done it. We’ve all asked a question of someone and immediately regretted the asking of it. No sooner have the words escaped your ἕρκοϲ ὀδόντων (( Cf. the previous post “On Dumplings,” n.4)) than you exhale sharply, perhaps pinching the bridge of your nose, and realize you must now settle in for a long-winded answer about something you only care about, at best, peripherally. All because you asked a question to seem polite, out of “Courtesy.”
Well, friends, I’m here to tell you that it doesn’t have to be this way. I don’t know about you, but if I make a mistake, I’m big enough to own up to it. Suppose, for example, I’m talking to a successful attorney at a party. And suppose this attorney happens to be somewhat dull, but here I am stuck talking to her anyway. Suppose further, in realizing that she works for one of the major firms in the city, I say something stupid. Something like, “Oh, do you work on any interesting cases? I saw in the paper that your firm is representing Such-&-Such construction company in that major fraud case.” And she starts in with something like, “Well, actually, I don’t do litigation. I’m in Corporate. Mergers and Acquisitions. We work out the details of the contracts. It’s our job to make sure, blah, blah blah…”. At which point, I can’t. I mean, I just can’t. The Catonically ((Seriously, have you ever read Cato’s De Agri Cultura? There is nothing more boring.)) boring madness must be stopped. And since It’s my fault she got started on it in the first place, it’s my responsibility to end it. And that’s just what I do. “Excuse me,” I interrupt on-delicate-wise. “I’m terribly sorry. Don’t get me wrong, this is my fault. After all, I asked you. However, I’m realizing now that I don’t care. Like, at all. So please stop. I never should have asked in the first place. I was trying to be polite when I should rather have left well enough alone. Again, I’m sorry.” At which point, I’ve found it’s best not to give the poor girl a chance to respond, but instead to beat a hasty retreat. ((I think it was Douglas Adams who said, “if discretion is the better part of valour, than cowardice is the better part of discretion.” And if he didn’t, he certainly should have done.)) And possibly to mutter something about going to get another drink. ((If it should happen that my glass is not empty, I’ll down whatever I’ve got to make the drink-getting portion of the excuse more plausible. (Cf. Courtesy).))
No doubt certain people will find this approach charming. No, wait. Not charming. What’s the word? What did mother always say? “Anne, dear, you mustn’t be so…so…r-r-radiant?” No. “Anne, dear, you mustn’t be so…r-r-rascally?” No, that was Elmer-r-r…ude! “Anne, dear, you mustn’t be so RUDE!” Ah, yes. Mother dearest. Heart of gold, that woman, but not much of a sense of humor. In any case, no doubt certain people will find the above approach rude. But really, I’m just trying to do the right thing. I mean, I’m sure the (entirely) fictional attorney in the above scenario no more wants to bore me than I myself wish to be bored. After all, perhaps there is somebody at this party that would like to know just what it is she gets up to at work. And the sooner she is able to determine that that person is not me, the sooner she can go about finding this…curiosity. Likewise, the sooner I can go about finding more gin. Whereupon do we all continue about our own peculiar merriments. And if this be not Courtesy, I know not what is. ((I don’t. Or do I?))
Ms. Thrope is a frequent contributrix to dokeimoi.net. Her critique of Subway etiquette, entitled Let The People Out First! did not appear in the Atlantic Monthly. Additionally, she does not teach a class called How to Succeed in Polite Society at the 92nd St. Y. Ms. Thrope has red hair and lives in New York City. Alone.