catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 6, Num 12 :: 2007.06.15 — 2007.06.29


Don’t talk to me about...anything

I was talking with our landlady the other day—I would guess she’s in her mid to late fifties—and she relayed how she had gone to a local coffee shop hoping to find some impromptu conversation, only to find all of the patrons engrossed in their laptops.  There were plenty of people, but there was no conversation to be had that day at one of the neighborhood’s most popular public gathering places.

Now, I can’t demonize technology as the evil crowbar that has wedged us all apart from one another against our wills.  Indeed, my own personal experience and my work with *culture is not optional has shown that people are making meaningful connections through technology.  I interact with my sister a lot more now that she has e-mail.  I’ve made dear friends through our online magazine whom I’ve never met in person.  Through blogs, I’ll maintain a connection with neighborhood friends who are taking a journey around the world on the way to their new overseas home.  However, one of the side effects of these virtual connections may be my generation’s disturbingly anemic skills for face-to-face conversation.

I suspect that one of the causes is that our culture tends to be both over-sexualized and afraid of talking about sex.  Comedian Eddie Izzard, who’s quite known for his ‘objectionable subject matter’ (he’s intelligently hilarious, but don’t listen to him too loudly with your windows open, you know?), makes the observation in his Dress to Kill routine that even an invitation to have a cup of coffee can contain sexual innuendo:

…when we become more mature, we have that line, where if you're talking to someone, getting on well, you can say that great line, "Do you want a cup of coffee?" And if they go, "Ah… yeah, okay," then sex is on, yeah? That's the unwritten rule.

Of course, he’s exaggerating for the sake of comedy, but if you walk into a coffee shop or a bar alone and strike up a conversation with a stranger of the opposite sex (or even of the same sex), the question hovers in the air: “What does this person want with me?”  Even if the assumption isn’t related to sex or a romantic relationship, we still might instinctively wonder if it’s some form of interpersonal spam.  I remember being disappointed when the first unexpected knock on the door of our new home turned out to be a door-to-door sales call.  I actually greeted the person as if he were a neighbor coming over to introduce himself, but that experience taught me to check that kind of ridiculous hope.  Being in public places self-consciously engrossed in a book or a computer distances us, for better or worse, from disappointment and embarrassment.  In so many ways, striking up a conversation with a stranger is just too risky.

And so we find a need to ‘program’ our lives more and more to make up for what we’ve lost in the way of conversation.  Book clubs, discussion groups, salons, adult education classes, group therapy—these things all have their benefits, but how much do they substitute for that which used to occur naturally in pubs, post offices, parks, busses, local groceries and coffee shops?

On both sides of my family, it’s always been a bit of an inside joke that going anywhere with a patriarch will see you waiting in the car while he chats up a waitress or a clerk or the person behind him in line.   Whether it was in Walgreens or on his golf cart shuttling elderly patients from the parking lot to the hospital, my Grandpa Hank could find something to talk about with everyone.  Likewise, Grandpa Duke was often the last one out of church on Sunday due to his voracious appetite for talking and he has initiated conversations with interesting strangers from Hawaii to Holland.  Though we all find this quality endearing in the end, it remains a joke—and I wonder if that is so out of our discomfort, because we’re somewhat frightened that we younger generations have suffered a permanent, alienating loss.

In an age of increasing diversity and stronger calls for tolerance, we are further and further from knowing the stories of the people with whom our paths cross only once in a lifetime or daily.  Instead, we converse more and more only with those with whom we share particular interests, becoming pot bound as our roots circle in on themselves.  Even online, we search the vastness for someone who, from what we can tell from his or her Facebook profile or site membership or blog, has something in common with ourselves.  It is natural to seek out kindred spirits, but it seems that such seeking should be balanced with a vulnerability to chance encounters, to mystery, and yes, even to embarrassment and disappointment.

Perhaps the path back to the art of conversation will feel artificial, but I believe that we as individuals and as communities have much to gain by taking small steps toward that achievement.  My landlady said that one of her characteristic conversations starters if she’s met a couple is, “How did you two meet?”  I like to use, “So how did you end up here?”

Listening attentively to the story of a stranger and sharing our own experiences has the potential to create surprising connections, challenge our assumptions and heal loneliness.  We might hear life from a perspective we didn’t know existed or from an angle we had all boxed up into a too-neat package.  We might find that we have a skill that can help solve a problem or an unearthed passion that’s been patiently waiting to be discovered.  We might see God. 

And perhaps in learning to be genuinely curious and boldly polite in our conversations with strangers, we will cultivate skill to approach important subjects with those we love—to express concern for a grandmother’s health, to let a brother know we love him too much to watch drinking cloud his judgment, to ask a married friend about a friendship that seems to be supplanting her primary relationship, to learn from a mother how to pass through a spouse’s mid-life crisis with grace and commitment.  We can glean from those around us the things that otherwise are limited to an online discussion board or a magazine article.  It is promised that when we knock, the door will open, but what’s on the other side, we can only imagine until we make the first move.

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