Saturday, January 23, 2010

Pillars of Meaningful Conversation

Have you ever been stuck in a conversation with someone (co-worker, relative, significant other, stranger you just met at a bar and now regret walking over to, etc.) and been so disinterested that you'd consider trading places with this guy just to get to hell out of there? I feel like I have been on the receiving end of entirely too many of these exchanges in recent years. Here are a few pitfalls that can make people sound like a cross between a vacuum cleaner and a yipping 9-lb terrier dog.

1. Understand if you are not interesting -- There is nothing wrong with being on the plain or boring side when it comes to personality. There really isn't. But if you can not recognize that you will not exactly be having Dos Equis commercials made about you anytime soon, then you are now committing a punishable social offense. There are a few interesting things about myself, and otherwise I'm not that exciting of a person. I can live with that. But does it get much worse than people who feel obligated to tell you, without being asked, about their trip to Florida last week, or how they cooked the crab legs they had for dinner the other night, or what time they get up in the morning? Oh wow, so you went on vacation to Florida and it was really warm, huh? You had martinis while lounging under a palm tree? Phenomenal! That is so great you brought that up, because 24 years of life and 16 years spent in school somehow earned me the ability to infer that it's warm in Florida and that makes for an enjoyable time more often than not. Now, if you met Jack Nicholson while you were on vacation, or you swam with dolphins, that is actually interesting. What you had for breakfast, however, is not interesting. Please learn that difference.

2. Talking about people you don't know -- You get this a lot with relatives telling you about their grandkids, who are your 5th cousins or whatever, and in that case you just have to feign interest and deal with it. Oh, so my 2nd cousin once removed whom I've met once and who lives 2000 miles away got a B in high school chemistry? Oh wow, I wonder what the going rates are for billboards, I gotta announce that shit to the world. This happens a lot on holidays and whatnot and usually there's some beer around and something on tv, so you can get through it.

When non-relatives do this, it is 20 times worse. You get this a lot with the self-important career types. I've never met your boss or these 9 co-workers you are talking about, so what significance does this rambling hold for me, your audience? Am I just supposed to be impressed because you had a conference call this morning with these faceless names about cc'ing people on emails? I have an ex-girlfriend (and if you're reading this, which I doubt, well, I don't care anyway) that once cornered John I for half an hour on this rant about how her parents loved her sister more than they loved her, blah blah blah blah blah, while John (who did not know any of the people she was bitching about) and I were trying to watch a baseball game. It got so bad I had to apologize to John afterward for subjecting him to such drivel. Even if he had known any of the people she were talking about, what could he possibly do about the situation? There was no meaning behind that 30 minutes' worth of hot air other than casting a lure for sympathy.

3. Complaining about everyday things -- We all have to deal with traffic. We all have to deal with the cold in the winter. When it rains, it rains on all of us. We all pay more than we'd like to for gas. None of us particularly like getting up for work in the morning or working long hours. We've all waited in a long airport line or had a train get delayed. SUCK IT UP. There are few larger turnoffs than a person who acts as if any sort of transgression or inconvenience that goes against them is the biggest catastrophe in the world. Just because the traffic light turned red on you does not mean that the transit authority has a vendetta against you. On the other hand, maybe they do, if they've ever heard you talk.

4. Overuse of superlatives -- I did not major in English, nor would I consider myself anything resembling a linguist. But what I do know is that the words in our language have stand-alone meanings intended for the efficiency of communication. For example, ever hear someone, often times a newscaster or other dim-wit, exclaim they are "absolutely amazed!" The word "amaze" and all its forms are superlatives - they stand alone. There are no separate levels or degrees of amazement, there is just amazement itself. Saying another word in front of it is a waste of time and of breath. There are other examples - "that was a very key play in this game," "I was totally shocked," "this pizza is so awesome!" "what an incredibly perfect throw!". Those who overuse superlatives or try to further pump up powerful words are often compensating for and/or navigating attention away from the fact that the rest of what they have to say is garbage.

So, until next time, just remember that just because something happened to YOU, does not necessarily make it engaging subject matter for other people.

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