The Art of Conversation: Talking To vs. Talking At
Human conversation is an artform. It relies on a synchronous engagement between two individuals who often integrate their perspectives and make an attempt to to interpret and empathize with the viewpoints of one another. That is a vast simplification of an overly complex subject, but it will suffice for now. I would like to highlight one key point though. Within a true conversation, there lies a genuine attempt--from both individuals--to inquire about the opposing person’s realm of consciousness.
Today I talked to someone, an older adult, and experienced the polar opposite.
I was talked at--instead of talked to.
The opposing figure struck a pose straight out of the chicken-dance sequence:
“I don't wanna be a chicken.
I don't wanna be a duck.
So I shake my butt.na na na na na na na na na na na na”
From top to bottom she had her head thrust forward, her shoulders cocked back, the vertices of her inverted wrists resting on her hips, and both knees bent at an angle that implied she was bound to spring through the air at any moment. I’ll be honest, I felt like I was being stalked by a jungle predator.
My sympathetic nervous system was pinging like a jailbroken pinball machine.
I experienced a prickly feeling across the surface of my body and found myself teetering on the edge of my seat. The balls of my feet were planted firmly on the ground, as if I was the crack of the gun to begin the 100m dash.
It wasn’t a comfortable feeling.
The woman of discussion, the number two needed for tango, was abrasive, angry, and absolutely indifferent to anything that I had to say. Any of my verbal contributions were met with a violent outburst of pent up frustration at a relatively irrelevant topic that she found particularly cataclysmic. It did not, in any way, pertain to the current circumstance, shared interests, or even anything above the first tier of my valence scale. That’s code for:
She spewed out a whole lot of fumes about a whole lot of nothing, and didn’t care even a bit about what I had to say.
How did it feel?
Well, in the moment, I was agitated for sure. Certainly a bit frustrated. But in the hours afterwards I was interested.
What makes someone behave like that?
What makes them oblivious to the opinions of others?
What makes them forget about the whole other world that exists right outside of their retinal window frames, and why can’t they just spare a glance outside? Forget about taking a step outside.
I attribute it to the perpetual revaluation of themselves that takes place in their own minds. This selfish manifestation of the “id”--in Freudian terms--leaves them to prioritize their own thoughts, feelings, and opinions above all others. As long as they stay in this cycle, they remain incapable of carrying out a true conversation. They lack the simple curiosity required to so much as ask about what’s on the other side of that gnarly barbed-wire fence that surrounds their mind.
Connection is predicated by mutual inquiry. Our mental stratospheres are at the same time infinitely complicated and infinitely valuable. So I posit the question: why not strap into the brain of the other person in a conversation? At the very least it’s certain to reveal something you’ve never before considered, or at least not in the way they have.
Engage with others, connect with others, listen to others, and watch the world around you open up as a result.