Sunday, March 22, 2009

You are an Egg. Get a Timer: A Research Project

Good conversation engages both mind and heart. I realize I'm generalizing here, but as is often the case when I generalize, I don’t care. An article in the Times mentioned that a vital ingredient of convivial talk is that nobody pops off for longer than three minutes at a clip. After three minutes, it’s not a conversation, it’s a lecture.

I have been surreptitiously timing certain parties engaged in a lengthy yada-yada. Including myself, although I solemnly vow that it won’t happen again, because I’m now championing a three-minute smackdown rule.

A good conversation purveys an exchange of ideas, camaraderie… a connection to other human beings. My hopes for the evening shatter when it becomes clear I’ve unwittingly conscripted myself into a live studio hostage situation for somebody’s All about Me amateur hour. So-called Conversation Vampires suck the life out of a pleasant evening. You can pick them out by the glazed look that comes over them when discussion wanders away from themselves.

Here’s something else that I’ve uncovered in my research, from the standpoint of an avid and frequent listener who occasionally even takes notes. A good story is about the story, not about the star(s) of the story. Unless you’re Brangelina. Of course.

I mean, it’s a conversation, not Masterpiece Theatre. In conversational talk, the plot is more important than the character development; I’ve come to understand. You’ll see what I mean when somebody starts narrating a dramatic encounter with people you have never met. The plot may be salacious enough or could have the potential to be funny. Or something. Except it is sandwiched inside twenty minutes of biographical information and in-depth character studies. Don’t forget the characters under discussion are normally people for whom crazy means breaking out a holiday-themed tie. How long can you take listening to a dictation of their resumé, favorite food groups and most famous quotable quotes? I’m writing a letter to the CIA because I have a good alternative to waterboarding.

I also think a good story needs to be about something other people, namely me, enjoy hearing about. For example, you need to be a really high-level advanced chatmaster to take on the challenge of a work story. I’m not your manager, so unless you’re going to pay me a consulting slash psychoanalysis fee or you are willing to subsequently endure MY equally impressive tales of woe, for the love of god keep a lid on your unruly customer and your slacker employee. I suspect that myself, like practically everybody else including even the most radically OCD Type A's, leave work everyday hoping to leave work.

"It's all right to hold a conversation, but you should let go of it now and then."
Richard Willard Armour (1906-89)

"It was impossible to get a conversation going, everybody was talking too much."
Yogi Berra

"A good quartet is like a good conversation among friends interacting to each other's ideas."
Stan Getz

"True over-worders are not looking for your feedback. Short of you falling on the floor and gagging or something, I doubt they'd even notice if you threw in a comment about a rubber hand."
Fred Richter
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