Listen for follow-up questions, because when those dry up, that means your companion’s interest usually has, too.
Essentially, “So…” is the universal shorthand for, “I’ve given this a lot more thought than you have and will now proceed to refocus the conversation in a way that interests me and highlights my personal file card on this particular topic.”
Exchanging small talk with people we’ve just met may be an unfortunate necessity, but with people we already know, it seems to suggest that they’re people to whom we have nothing to say. And yet if small talk is just talk that’s idle, insignificant and without stated purpose, then surely a substantial portion of the chatter that goes on between couples, friends and (or especially) families must count as small. Banality, however, need not always be insignificant. There’s nothing earth-shattering, usually, about missing the bus, what you ate for lunch or the new dress you just bought, but these are just the mundane tidbits that make up so much of the talk between intimates. In fact, such conversations about trivialities can arguably happen only with those close to us—only the members of our inner circle do we presume to burden with the minutiae of our lives.
Some of my best, most mind-expanding conversations have occurred with good friends who agree with me on almost everything––but not quite everything. Bottom Line: Want to learn and get smarter by talking to people? Seek out those who agree with you on 99.9% of things, and then push, push, push at the niche-y, hyper-specific areas of disagreement. It’s not about groupthink; it’s not about confirmation bias. It’s about learning on the margin.
Cf. William Deresiewicz.
Introspection means talking to yourself, and one of the best ways of talking to yourself is by talking to another person.
Puberty was a bag of cement lashed to my ankle. At least conversationally. Everything I thought and said now had this burning undercurrent of “How’s this going to get me laid?” And wit can’t have an agenda.
Intellectual conversations, as a woman I briefly dated once admonished me, are like public displays of affection—fun to be in, but mortifying to observe, and in a museum you know you’re being observed. But refusing to answer your friend’s questions is no solution either. You’re paralyzed. And you’re not even sure what you’re afraid of. You’re not sure whether your replies will make you look like a philistine or a snob. Which would be worse? Which are you more qualified to be?
Hyperbole and a Half: The Four Levels of Social Entrapment. “There is a special kind of awkwardness between two people who don’t know each other well enough to interact effectively, but are familiar enough that ignoring each other’s presence isn’t really an option.”
[Published on the announcement of FaceTime, the video-calling feature that’s part of iPhone 4.]
“It turned out that there was something terribly stressful about visual telephone interfaces that hadn’t been stressful at all about voice-only interfaces. Videophone consumers seemed suddenly to realize that they’d been subject to an insidious but wholly marvelous delusion about conventional voice-only telephony. They’d never noticed it before, the delusion — it’s like it was so emotionally complex that it could be countenanced only in the context of its loss. Good old traditional audio-only phone conversations allowed you to presume the person on the other end was paying complete attention to you while also permitting you not to have to pay anything even close to complete attention to her. A traditional aural-only conversation — utilizing a hand-held phone whose earpeice contained only 6 little pinholes but whose mouthpiece (rather significantly, it later seemed) contained […] 36 little pinholes — let you enter a kind of highway-hypnotic semi-attentive fugue: while conversing, you could look around the room, doodle, fine-groom, peel tiny bits of dead skin away from your cuticles, compose phone-pad haiku, stir things on the stove; you could even carry on a whole separate additional sign-language-and- exaggerated-facial expression type of conversation with people right there in the room with you, all while seeming to be right there attending closely to the voice on the phone. And yet — and this was the retrospectively marvelous part — even as you were dividing your attention between the phone call and all sorts of other idle little fuguelike activities, you were somehow never haunted by the suspicion that the person on the other end’s attention might be similarly divided. During a traditional call, e.g., as you let’s say performed a close tactile blemish-scan of your chin, you were in no way oppressed by the thought that your phonemate was perhaps also devoting a good percentage of her attention to a close tactile blemish-scan. It was an illusion, and the illusion was aural and aurally supported: the phone-line’s other end’s voice was dense, tightly compressed, and vectored right into your ear, enabling you to imagine that the voice’s owner’s attention was similarly compressed and focused … even though your own attention was *not*, was the thing. This bilateral illusion of unilateral attention was almost infinitely gratifying from an emotional standpoint: you got to believe you were receiving somebody’s complete attention without having to return it. Regarded with the objectivity of hindsight, the illusion appears arational, almost literally fantastic; it would be like being able both to lie and to trust other people at the same time.
Video telephony rendered the fantasy insupportable. Callers found they had to compose the same sort of earnest, slightly overintense listener’s expression they had to compose for in-person exchanges. Those callers who out of unconscious habit succumbed to fuguelike doodling or pants-crease-adjustment now came off looking rude, absentminded, or childishly self-absorbed. Callers who even more unconsciously blemish-scanned or nostril-explored looked up to find horrified expressions on the video-faces at the other end. All of which resulted in videophonic stress.
Even worse, of course, was the traumatic expulsion-from-Eden feeling of looking up from tracing your thumb’s outline on the Reminder Pad or adjusting the old Unit’s angle of repose in your shorts and actually seeing your videophonic interface idly strip a shoelace of its gumlet as she talked to you, and suddenly realizing your whole infantile fantasy of commanding your partner’s attention while you yourself got to fugue-doodle and make little genital-adjustments was deluded and insupportable and that you were actually commanding not one bit more attention than you were paying, here. The whole attention business was monstrously stressful, video callers found.”
—Just one of several brilliant “videophony” passages from David Foster Wallace’s 1996 masterpiece, Infinite Jest. It only gets better from there (complete with “high-def mask-entrepreneurs” and more).