... And, like all team sports, I stink at it.
A good conversation is like a good basketball game -- everyone's passing the ball around like lightning. The conversation moves fast but stays more or less on topic. There aren't any long, awkward pauses but there are chances for everyone to get a word in if they want to.
See, I know what it looks like. It's just that, exactly like in basketball, it always seems to move just a beat faster than I can follow. If I ever get the ball, it's hard enough to remember to dribble it, much less simultaneously look out for an open teammate. If you're not following the metaphor, what I mean is that I seem to have only two settings: talking and listening. If I'm listening, I can't seem to speak up. If I'm talking, I struggle to shut up. I get on a topic and just go, while everyone's eyes glaze over.
I first noticed this in boarding school -- which was the first time in my life I spent large amounts of time in group conversations rather than one-on-one. (As the youngest, I didn't talk that much at family dinners, and in school I was more listening to the conversation of the cool people.) I would get very excited about the conversation topic and talk too much. I didn't really notice until one of the consecrated pointed it out to me. She said I should imagine I was above the table, looking down on myself and the others, and see if I noticed anything. I think her point was to call my mind to one specific socially-awkward thing I was doing, but once I got in the habit of trying to imagine what I might look like on the outside, I got very embarrassed. It didn't make me smooth, but I did talk less.
Boarding-school conversations were very controlled: whether at break or at mealtime, there were always 3-5 girls and a consecrated. Topics were pretty slim: pretty much just talking about our families or sharing anecdotes. We couldn't talk about anything personal, because that should be shared with our spiritual directors; or about our health, because that's rude; or anything negative, because that's complaining. I liked to talk about what we were learning in school, but most people didn't like that either. And the consecrated usually did the directing of the conversation to make sure no one dominated it or talked about something they weren't supposed to. It wasn't exactly good training in conversation-having, because it was a type of conversation never seen elsewhere.
For years after boarding school, I stressed out over how much I talked. I figured it was a sign of selfishness that I tended to dominate the conversation, and yet once I got into a conversation I couldn't seem to focus very clearly. Walking away from a conversation, I'd always think, "There I go again, being selfish." You see, to my mind, talking is a selfish thing to do and listening is selfish, because everyone enjoys talking and listening is hard. It was a huge relief to me to find out that some people would rather listen.
Still, in a conversation with a lot of people, I struggle. If it's a bunch of extroverts, I can never manage to participate at all. I wait for an opening, open my mouth, and boom, someone else is talking. Or I come up with something clever to say on the topic that was just under discussion, but by the time I get a chance to say it, we've moved on through three more topics. The pace is too much and eventually I either tune out or wind up in a side conversation. If it's a bunch of introverts, the pauses seem way too long and awkward so I jump in with something I think will be interesting ... but no one joins in so after awhile it's just me monologuing. Which I don't even enjoy, and then I realize I'm doing it and get super embarrassed. So I stop, and then silence falls, so I feel awkward, and off I go again!
With two people it's so much easier. Sure, I still talk a lot, but as long as the person I'm talking with is willing to interrupt and redirect, I don't totally dominate the conversation. Even if they're not, with constant practice I am getting better at remembering the sort of questions I should ask, like "How have you been?" and "What about you, what's your favorite Christmas carol?" And having the nerve to let a pause stretch past when it feels awkward for me, which seems to be how long I have to leave to let other people marshal their thoughts. I guess my awkward-pause timer is miscalibrated. It helps that I have a few good friends to practice with.
But you can kind of see why I spend so much time on the internet. Here, posting is considered the generous thing to do, and reading is more of a selfish thing because it requires less effort. When you take the time to write a long, thoughtful comment on something, people don't say, "Hey, give other people a chance," because the beauty of the internet is that everyone has a chance. My talking doesn't stop anyone else from talking. It's a service, providing content for people to read -- or even not read, if they'd rather not! Unlike in-person conversation, people can just skip straight past what bores them and I don't have to worry about trying to interest everyone. I can just interest a few people, and everyone else doesn't have to read it if they don't want to.
I don't know why conversation is so hard for me. Maybe it's because I was brought up in a small family where most conversations were dialogues. Maybe it's because there's something funky with my brain that makes focusing on that many things hard. But the more I talk with people about it, the more people have said, "Me too. I find group conversation hard, too." Some of them clam up. Some run their mouths like me. Some people seem perfectly suave and then beat themselves up when they get home. So maybe it's just that trying to talk to a bunch of people at once is hard, it's a learned skill, and we're all getting the hang of it. It's okay and we don't all have to sound like the cast of Big Bang Theory, taking turns firing off witty repartee. We can just talk, share stuff, enjoy each other's company.
If people interrupt me because they find me boring, I don't mind a bit; and if they monologue for awhile about a topic no one else knows about, I really don't mind, because I'm interested in everything. So maybe people don't find me such a bore as I worry they do. Maybe they, like me, are much too busy worrying about how they're doing at it. If you know me in person, let's make a pact: I'll try to make it a good conversation for you, you do the same for me, and let's not think the less of each other when we don't always succeed. Talking is hard.