Monday, January 24, 2011

Is Anybody In There?

It's been far too cold, not to mention navigating the frozen waves of ice and snow, to walk to town for morning coffee. In a few months, it will be a fine 20 minutes while the birds hop in the branches of the trees in full green and the sun plays with the shade. Even when the counter is busy, there's always a free table at the bakery at or near the windows. They've stopped carrying the two free local entertainment tabloids in favor of senior citizen and religious ones, so I bring the newspaper along. I get one of their various mugs (sometimes the really big one, if I'm lucky) instead of a paper cup, and while looking for something vaguely interesting in the paper, the ambient sounds swirl. You can't help hearing the nearest or the loudest of the conversations.
Soon I concentrate on the sense of smell -- coffee and tempting treats -- because in all the times I've been there, I haven't heard an interesting or intelligent thing said. And I wonder about that.
Of course, people talk about friends or relatives, and there might be an intriguing or funny story there, but I haven't heard one yet. (Our buddy Pat has an inexhaustible store of hilarious family stories.) Younger women seem only to talk about weddings or clothes. Recently the female half of an older couple at the next table talked nonstop for forty-five minutes, her numb husband silent, seemingly in a high-functioning coma. I don't wonder why.
Looking at the profile of New Cumberland on, you'll notice what I see in the bakery: the population is old, and Catholic. I've heard more than I need to know about organizations related to the local church. If you were at an event with this bunch, if you couldn't talk about the church or their grandchildren, you might as well concentrate on the cookies.
Try a different demographic 3000 miles away, at my beloved Java Station on Hollister Street between Santa Barbara and Goleta, California. Working people and and some old dudes with long beards who obviously haven't worked in quite a while hang out at the table outside, under a patient tree. They are usually engaged in a lively conversation, although with the fast Spanish and missing dentures, who knows what it's about. Inside, the ones who drove up in BMW's and Volvos are involved with their laptops or baby carriages, silent. There are several alternative local publications always available, the Kona coffee urn is hot and full, and the breeze drifts in and out of the multiple open doors. I keep hoping one of these brilliant entrepreneurs, writers, grad students, or world-travelled millionaires will tell a story or say something the imagination can have some fun with, but no. Isolated islands in the sun.
At a reunion for RPI/VCU in the 90s, I went to a reception featuring the president, Dr. Triani. I heard him discussing his numerous trips to Russia and his acquaintance with Mr. Gorbachev. This sounded good, so I sidled over and showed my interest. The good Dr. turned to me, and instead of continuing with that topic, asked me what I did for a living. When I replied that I headed the exhibits department at a science museum, he lost interest and turned away. In a half-second I realized that this event, and the conversation animating it, was solely about identifying donors. Too old to be that naive.
Which reminds me of another "fail." Once we were at a group table in a Japanese restaurant in Orlando, seated with a nice-looking (and of course very polite) British family. Despite wanting to develop a good conversation with interesting people we would normally never run in to, I torpedoed it immediately by asking the same question Dr. Triani did. The air chilled. You do not, I found out later, ask that of a British gentleman; it is seen as a crude way of finding out someone's social/economic status, which is none of your business. I'd rather not learn these things the hard way.
There are some pre-conditions to meet for a dialogue to be satisfying. You must like what you know about the person(s), be equal, and not be looking for something. Things must be already understood; the easy way to do this is what many do: socialize almost exclusively with family. You can't pick the membership, however, and it may include some who are mentally off, those with unbalanced political/religious agendas, or are at the extreme end of a personality type. It's funny on The Office when you see Michael's lack of a filter or boundaries in action, but not in reality. If one of these is in your office or family, you will need every defensive move in conversation you can come up with.
E-mail conversation is so much easier, since it gives you time to think and removes the complexities of body language, which we are not all equally adept at "reading." And should we even get into how women hear words, tones and implications very differently than we do? It would be hard to write a sitcom script if this were not true, at the least.
It's a lot easier to find a good cheap wine than it is to find an emotionally and intellectually satisfying conversation. It's there with a few very good friends (and they could be family!) you may not talk to in months or years, and a significant other with whom you share a trove of silly private jokes: those with whom the shields are down. A treasure, by definition, is not something that is common and found everywhere.


  1. It's very hard to find good conversation anywhere. It's probably best when there are three to six couples over at someone's house, but more than that is a party where no one will be able to talk. I have a guy in my extended family who is ultra-right and, of course, never wrong, and he tries to hold court whenever we get together, bullying people with semantics and insults. Most of us ignore him, because to do otherwise would start a family argument. (I'm in the middle of a family feud with the son of a bitch because I wouldn't put up with his crap any more.) But family is never a good source for conversation. Stick with the cheap wine. Maybe a bunch of us ought to start up a chatroom so we can all have decent talks.

  2. Intelligent cordial conversation can take place, with or without the excuse of ale. One of my favorite recollection is entering a room full of strangers at a conference. Years before I would have stuck to the wall, but now I mingle until finding good conversation (usually joined with laughter). To this day, that newspaper publisher and I are good friends. We never judged each other over the fondness of casual conversation.

  3. Oh, and you need to stop ease dropping on others table talk, unless you want to butt in and join the fray.