The Art of Conversation

:::Dusting off the blog:::

:::cough, cough:::

Phew… I’m back.

Well, no promises except for the oft repeated early new year’s resolution “I shall update this blog more often”.

Anywaaay… the musings in my head have been swirling around causing a slight headache. It’s good, though, that means I still have the desire to write.

Topic? The art of conversation.

In an era where people mostly do their communication through email, Yahoo Messenger, Google Talk, texting, and more recently, the addictive Blackberry, having a normal, face-to-face conversation seems so… what, dated?

I mean, sure the hangout places in Jakarta abound, but I noticed more and more people who hang out at places like Citos or Fx crowd around a laptop or hold their phones in their hands. Their talking is most likely to be interrupted by the ping of an text message, or someone buzzing them on messenger.

Which brings me to the question, have we lost the art of conversation? A friend recently confessed to me “I don’t have anything to talk about”.

What’s that? Say again? So, said friend was recently in a situation where she had to entertain a group of people which included someone very close to her. What happened was, during the entire time they were together, there was a lot ‘dead air’ between her and the other person. There were prolonged gaps in the conversation which could not filled. In short she felt like the most uncool, “kurang gaul” person on the face of the earth. Well maybe not the face of the earth (to my friend, if you’re reading, please don’t feel exposed).

Well, this friend is an extreme case. At the other extreme, I have chatterbox friends who can’t seem to stop talking even when I don’t feel like talking to them.

I have been blessed with the gift of having little fear of public speaking. In Indonesia, I’m probably one of those thick-skinned “kulit badak” people who don’t care when they have to stand up in front and blabber about a topic for a period of time (after all, I have to do that with students. Although teacher blabber is now frowned upon since we want the students to be more active, but that’s for another post).

For me, I just try to pluck a topic from things lodged in my brain due to excessive reading.  I read almost anything on print, from Alan Greenspan’s biography to supermarket tabloids (they’re like a car accident, you can’t help but stop and watch). I consider myself like a sponge, absorbing anything from the current economic crisis (I look at my Citbank account and wonder what’s going to happen with what’s little I that have), to microbiology (still in awe of those little creatures we call “bugs”) to TV shows (I can talk for hours about Friends, 24), to the weather, to intl celebrities (George Clooney! Brad Pitt! David Duchovny!). I have to admit, Indonesian celebrities just make me scratch my head with their “I want my privacy” crap. They complain, but when the cameras are off, they do something just for the sake on being on camera again. Sheesh, talk about staying past your 15 minutes of fame.

My point is, when trying to maintain conversations, you need to have a handful of topics on hand. When it’s with somebody you know and care about, it should be easier, since you know the person.

What about if you just met the person? You need what’s called icebreakers. Here’s an amusing example I had with someone, during introductions:

Mr. A, reading my namecard: “So…Sitaresmi?”

Me: “Call me Sita”

Mr. A: “Oooh, like the….loyal wife of Rama?”

Me (in a  fake annoyed tone): “Yessss, the loyal wife of Rama, who set herself on fire when Rama doubted her loyalty…”

B and C (who were listening): “she set herself on fire?????”

And then we went on talking about the legend of Ramayana for about a few minutes, including Mr. A’s story about a current interpretation of Ramayana in which Sita didn’t feel kidnapped by Rahwana, but actually showed interest in Rahwana 🙂

Anyway, the above example just shows that it’s important to have topics like culture on hand. I mean, who knew that my name could be an ice breaker???

But, to be fair, the characteristics of a person also determine how the conversation will go. Again, I feel so blessed to have met people from different parts of the world. The way you talk to a Japanese person is different from talking to a German or American. Then there are Indonesians, who still sometimes confuse me eventhough I’m Indonesian myself :-).

So here are my general rules for maintaining the art of conversation:

1. Establish eye contact.

2. Always try to speak clearly with measured tones. Don’t be too loud or too soft.

3. Here are some good icebreakers: the weather (especially useful in 4 season countries), the traffic (useful in SE Asia), local food and culture (can be applied anywhere).

4. I usually stay away from topics like politics (but the American election this year has been enlightening), the economy (unless it deals with shopping :-)), sex (fun topic for some Indonesian men, unfortunately, yuck).

5. Be a good listener. This way, you can pick up topics from your conversation partner!

Of course, there is always an “X factor”. With some people, there’s immediate chemistry & you can talk and talk until Starbucks closes, while other people you just think “Ohmigod, I wanna go home” after 5 minutes. Unfortunately, you can’t predict that upfront.

For some, like my friend, having conversations  will take more “practice”, need more interactions with people. But I am sure that there is a hidden chatterbox in all of us somewhere.

This post is dedicated to my long time friend who I have known for 30 years. Do not despair or beat up yourself, just be you and let go!