Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Conversation is a team sport

... 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.


love the girls said...

Regnum Christi is even worse than I imagined. That is really sickening how they unnaturally controlled the conversation not letting girls be girls.

I played a lot of organized team sports, I played a lot of sports in general, team and otherwise. But my favorite was football, I loved the violence, and I appreciated the kids who could take a hard hit, shake it off and keep on coming. Because while we turned every sport from skiing to croquet into brutal combat as best we could, some sports simply lend themselves better to warfare.

Conversations aren't warfare, but they can be rather brutal in their own way, and there's much to be said in favor of those who can take a hit. Just as there is much to be said in favor of going through something as brutal in its own way as Regnum Christi was without letting it be a crushing blow.

Enbrethiliel said...


Just fake it until you make it. You'll be all right. =)

Enbrethiliel said...


I was reminded of this post yesterday, while having brunch with about ten people--only three of whom I could identify by name. The dynamics were interesting in the light of what you've written here. (Before I left my short earlier comment, I had a much longer one explaining in detail why I think what you've described is less your particular problem than something everyone--except the most gifted conversationalists--experiences. I decided to err on the side of the soul of wit. =P)

We were all sitting down at a long "table" that was really three smaller tables pushed together to form a rectangle. It was the sort of arrangement that meant that people on the left end would be talking about something different from people on the right end. I guess the reason I had no problem with that was that I was on the end with the people I normally talk to, with total strangers on the other end. This was also probably the reason I felt a bit annoyed when someone on the opposite end suggested changing the arrangement of the tables so that we could all be closer to each other. But I put on my polite-big-girl pants and survived. The total strangers turned out to be interesting as well.

I didn't talk much--but I'm normally like that. A couple of weeks into my sophomore year of high school, the girl seated next to me asked, "Are you always this quiet?!" I just smiled and shook my head. She learned the truth later. =P (Incidentally, this is why I don't stress much about not having much speaking practice in German and absolutely no speaking practice in Italian. As the great language blogger Khatzumoto elegantly put it, language learning is like peeing and "L2 input" is like drinking: if you drink, you will pee. How I think this applies to conversation is, if you keep going back to the same group of people over and over again, you will have some very active back and forth. That it's awkward at the beginning is to be expected. I've read that even the greatest NBA players need a lot of extra practice when they're put together in an all-star team: every group of people is different and you won't have the same chemistry with others. This doesn't mean you're terrible at something--just that you and your dream team need to do more drills. Also worth considering: if you suck when playing this team sport, then everyone on your team is sucking just as badly. Not necessarily because of you. Michael Jordan would suck if he had to depend on me to pass him the ball.)

But I think the most interesting thing about that brunch was how much "parallel speaking" went on. Sometimes someone would be saying something interesting (Forgive my pronouns!) and another person would jump in immediately with a relevant side comment. ("Oh, yeah, that's like the time I was on holiday and . . .") But the first person wouldn't stop; he'd just keep going. And they'd both be talking at the same time . . . and the rest of us would be listening to both of them with no problem. For sure, it helped that the topics were related and complementary--and that the parallel speaking never lasted for more than a few seconds at a time. Sometimes the first speaker would stop, because he also wanted to listen to the second; sometimes the second speaker would be at peace after throwing in his two cents. Or should I say . . . centavos?

It might be a Filipino thing. (We have no "manners.") I really don't know whether this would work in America. I do recall that whenever I interrupted someone in New Zealand, she would just stop talking. As if only one person could talk at a time. Then there was that time I knew the one holding court wouldn't stop and I deliberately tried to speak in parallel . . . and one of the people actually told me to wait my turn. LOL! How rude! ;-)

Sheila said...

Oh, I HATE parallel talking! I simply can't hear anyone if there's more than one person talking. It sometimes happens in my family -- that is, my *current* family, where there are all these younger siblings I didn't grow up with -- and it makes me want to go hide in another room. It requires a level of sensory processing that I just can't do.

However, when there's a huge conversation group, and one person is holding forth, I don't mind making *side* comments to the person next to me. But then I'm still only having one conversation, I'm having a side conversation. Though that is sometimes still kind of rude.

But it doesn't surprise me that it's okay where you are, because Hispanics are kind of famous for it. John's family is like that sometimes, especially when his maternal cousins get together. Again -- I can't handle it; I shut down or leave the room.

But yes, for the most part practice does make perfect .... I only wish I got a little more practice! These days I get together with ONE friend at a time fairly often, but big get-togethers might be once a month or less. Of course our little family is up to five now, but conversing with my kids is easy -- if I want a turn to talk, I can tell them to hush up and listen!

The Sojourner said...

My favorite conversation unit size is 3.

If I am talking to one person, there are far too many awkward pauses and I feel an obligation to pay rapt attention to that person at all times so that I can keep the conversation going. It's exhausting.

With three or more people other than myself, they get going in their little mingle group(s) and I can't break in and I end up playing patty-cake with my toddler and feeling awkward. (Though, admittedly, less awkward than before I had a toddler and had to just hang out at the snack table awkwardly stuffing my face with cookies.)

With two people other than myself, though, the conversation is slow enough that I can break in if I want to, but since there are two of them, I can let my mind wander for a second while they dialogue and nobody is sitting around awkwardly wondering why I didn't hear their question.

The Sojourner said...

Enbrethiliel, my husband and his whole big nominally Italian family are like that. They just keep talking merrily away regardless of whether anyone is listening or talking or not. My husband doesn't care at all if I talk over him in order to have a dialogue rather than a monologue, but it drives me nuts! :)

Enbrethiliel said...


Sojourner -- I agree with you about three being an ideal group size. I have two good friends whom I love very much but who exhaust me in conversation. And I have found that when the three of us are together, I can withdraw into silence for a while, to recharge my batteries, while the two of them keep chattering on happily, not thinking that I am suddenly being "rude." =)

Sheila -- I know you've said you're not an introvert, but it's worth considering that everything you feel self-conscious about is part of the introvert experience. And if you know any introverts who are proud of the label, they don't want "to fix" themselves as much as they would like the rest of the world to be more understanding of their enhanced sensitivity. (I have a vague memory of an old post of yours about being an HSP . . .) Which is not to say that you'll always suck, but that suckiness is kind of part of the game. Too bad for all of us--including the parallel talkers!

Also, I'm wondering about why you think having a side conversation is a little rude. Unless you're whispering or drawing it out for so long that you should probably get your own corner, it's almost like parallel talking and is shared with the rest of the group in a way. Is this just your culture and my culture not understanding each other?

Sheila said...

Hm, I am not sure if everyone considers it rude. I think it depends on the context. My parents certainly told me not to do it.

As for introversion -- I can never seem to pin myself down one way or the other. I've become more and more introverted in recent years, so I mostly say I am these days. At the same time there are introvert things I don't do, so it's possible that I'm somewhere in between. *shrug*

Enbrethiliel said...


Introversion vs. extraversion is just one possible map for reality--and not necessarily the best one. It just seemed relevant to the topic, because you seem to feel that your unsatisfying experiences with group conversation are due to a defect in you. Well, what if it's not a defect that's behind them? What if it's part of your "design"? A design that is shared with such a big segment of the population that it can't be said to be a deviation from the norm?

Sheila said...

I do find it comforting that I'm not the only one. But I know introverts can sometimes handle big conversations, because John's a whiz at it. I guess that's something you learn in a family of ten.

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