Tuesday, May 24, 2005

We Don't Talk Anymore

It appears that one day this past February, Muley had a quite a bee buzzing around inside his capacious bonnet. Looking through an old journal where I tried to collect loose scraps of thought, I find that I sat down and wrote out this little essay all in one gulp, apparently early one morning. I wonder now what set me off.


Much of what passes for conversation these days is not dialogue, but monologues politely thrown back and forth like a game of backyard catch. The goal is not discovery, but declaration; not enlightenment, but empathy.

Everyone who engages in polite social conversation seems to be playing a game which, when I was an inexperienced and not especially effective television news interviewer, I called Ten Questions. In college journalism classes, wannabe reporters are taught never to go into an interview unprepared, if at all possible, and to have a list of questions ready, either written down or in their heads.

I always tried to have at least 10 questions ready, ordering them as we were taught in school -- simplest and least controversial questions first, more complex and prickly questions toward the end when the subject is hopefully more relaxed and less expectant of an ambush. When I did interviews using the Ten Questions (which I usually wrote down somewhere), I would dutifully start with No. 1 and work my way down.

If time was short and question No. 10 was the $25 jackpot I was trying to lead up to, I might leapfrog over a few queries to make No. 10 my closer, but I rarely asked questions out of the order I had written down on my neat yellow legal pad. The problem with this method -- and I know from talking with other journalists that it was a somewhat common complaint -- is that the interviewer can end up being so fixed on asking his 10 questions in order, with no deviations, that his mind is engaged almost exclusively with determining how to work each new query into the "conversation." The interviewer is actually barely listening to the responses he gets -- he is only tracking lip movement and waiting for his chance to ask the next question on his list.

You probably have seen this phenomenon being played out, say, on a television morning show, where the hosts must interact with a large number of guests, on topics ranging from military weaponry to abortion laws to the latest cinema to ways to use discarded household products in craft projects. There's simply too much going on for hosts to survive without some sort of help from a list of questions written beforehand.

The danger is that, in the middle of demonstrating how to convert an empty beer can into an attractive rain gauge, the guest will let slip that they know all about beer cans (chuckle) because in a former life they were a raging alcoholic who once frolicked naked atop the press box at a college football game in a drunken victory dance, and the only response the host has, his expression unchanged, is to ask "So, can you use 16-ounce cans for this as well, or is the 12-ounce size preferred?"

It's not that the interviewer doesn't have an interest in inebriated shows of school spirit, or thinks that he'll get in trouble for pursuing an embarrassing topic. This is TV, after all. The truth is, the host didn't even hear the provocative statement being made -- his mind was a driver in 5 o'clock traffic, eyeing the highway and waiting for that break in activity to allow him to hit the accelerator and gun his next question into the flow.

Asking questions without caring about the answers is bad enough, but it's been my experience that when it comes to polite conversation these days, the participants have gone a step further by morphing the Ten Questions into the Ten Statements. We have done away with the tactic of listening to the other guy only so we can insert another question. Now we listen just to sense when the other guy pauses to take a quick breath, so that we can jump in with a monologue of our own.

If the other guy mentions he just saw a wonderful martial arts movie, we don't wait to ask what was so wonderful about it. We wait to weigh in with the observation that no martial arts movie can ever touch Enter the Dragon, and then proceed to list all the reasons why Bruce Lee never will be eclipsed.

If the other guy mentions how dreadful his childhood family vacations were, we don't ask for examples or question why he was so displeased. We simply wait for an opening -- a cough, maybe -- to jump in and assert that no one's childhood vacations could have been worse than ours, and then proceed with rolling out our well-worn, rambling narrative of how our parents took us on a five-day tour of the Dakotas over Christmas break which concluded with getting snowed in at the Lawrence Welk Museum.

If the other guy mentions he tried a new Italian restaurant the other night, we don't ask what he ate or what about the ambience was appealing to him. We talk about how we are an authority on Italian cuisine, or how we have a cousin living in Naples, or how we once went to that restaurant and found a bag of $20 bills in the rest room, or anything whatsoever except a question which would release the reins back to our conversational competitor.

I don't know when we started doing this, or why we're all so seemingly uninterested in what other people have to say. Is it that we've lost the skill of listening, truly listening? In a nation where more and more people seem to be trying to race each other for the lowest common denominator, do we just find each other too darn familiar and boring? Or have we all become narcissists on a scale never known before?

If so, we are on our way to creating the ultimate one-way circuit, a national soliloquy where everyone talks, but no one listens.

(I'm sorry, were you saying something?)

Quote of the day:

"The opposite of talking isn't listening. The opposite of talking is waiting."

--Fran Leibowitz


Anonymous said...

Agreed. And do you notice how many times you are interrupted? Even at work, and I am a manager (but I am male working in a predominantly female environment and yes, that matters) I get interrupted all the time. I talking to my boss, and in pops someone and just starts talking. Still think the best response for that is to bite their heads off.

Ok, but I don't

Kate said...

This is, unfortunately, a very strong bit of family culture for me, and it has been a real struggle to attempt to overcome these bad conversational habits in myself. I love to talk, but if all my conversations are just excuses to rant on about whatever strikes my fancy, then I am not really communicating, am I? I try to remember to ask questions and then listen to the answers so that I actually learn something from every conversation I partake in.

Needless to say, this is pretty difficult. It has also made visiting my family a little painful, now that I am concious how rude this sort of conversation can be.

jenA said...

oh, i so appreciate your random phenomena. this is why i yell at AM network programs, particularly this morning's segment on new research into obesity deaths. You can just see the radiowaves bouncing off the anchorwoman's list of questions into her brain.