Help for the Conversationally Challenged

Is it really that hard to have a two-way, face-to-face, conversation nowadays, you ask? 

Yes, dear, it is.

There are things abroad in the land, sneaky, subversive things. They go by various names such as, but not limited to: “I’m Not Really Interested in What You are Saying Unless It’s About Me,” “I Have a Lot to Say About Me, So Please Don’t Interrupt,” and the dreaded, “Story-topping.”

I’m finding the whole thing exhausting. So before I decide to stop talking to people altogether, or at least drastically narrow the field, I shall, in my quest to be Helpful in the World, make some suggestions.

Really listen when someone is talking to you. People used to do this, but it happens less frequently now. Maintain eye contact, nod your head appropriately. Be interested. But also be prepared. When it is your turn to contribute to the conversation, it is possible that:

1) the person’s eyes will shift to something over your shoulder.

2) they will start checking purse or pants pocket for their phone.

Do not be one of those people.

Some years ago, I was having a pleasant conversation with a woman at a conference. Someone came up and said something like, “You are needed elsewhere.”  She turned and walked away. Gone. I was left stunned, mid-word, with my mouth hanging open. Rather than making me, well, resentful, it made me more determined than ever not to be one of those people.

Consider “How are you?” to be an actual question. 

  • If you are asking, look the person in the eye, smile, and wait expectantly for an actual answer. This includes all those people working in department stores, grocery stores, and restaurants.
  • If you are asked, refrain from a simple, “fine, thanks.” Instead try, “I’m doing well, today, thank you. And how (maintaining eye contact – see above) are you today?” You might be pleasantly surprised at their pleasant surprise at your apparent interest.

At Target one afternoon, a young guy scanning my stuff told me, after I asked how he was, that he was a guitarist in a band and they were playing in San Francisco and someone had approached them about making them famous. Or something. Anyway, the next time I saw him, I asked about the amazing music thing. He was pleasantly surprised (see, I told you). Sadly, there was no Big Break. But I think my interest brightened his Targety day.

Ask follow-up questions. This fundamental element of good conversation has almost disappeared. If you are listening, as you ought to be, and if you are making eye contact and tracking what is being said, ask a follow-up question. Really, how hard can it be? On the other hand, when you are speaking, your conversation pal may already be thinking about how they are going to respond. It will likely be with something that makes what you just said irrelevant. This is called:

Story-topping. This is where things get serious. Story-topping is epidemic. It has several virulent forms, but symptoms are obvious:

1) While you are speaking, there is a slight glazing of the eyes which are not, by the way, looking at you.

2) You can sense their wheels turning: How can I respond with a better story about something that happened to me?

3) Absolutely no reference is made to what you just said.

Story-toppers suffer from a veiled form of narcissism. Do not let the conversation wander too far from attention on me. If possible, conversations with story-toppers should be avoided.

Unless they ask for prayer.

While having a conversation with a live human being, do not text, check email, or tweet on your cell phone. Janet Sternberg, a professor of communication and media studies at Fordham University in New York, notes that students no longer look her in the eye and have trouble with the basics of direct conversation. She attributes this to the prevalence of texting.

Yes, the culture is in technological transition and the rules are being written as we go. No matter. It will always be rude. You may say, “I am expecting a call and will probably have to excuse myself at some point.” This gives the other person fair warning. But to just stand or sit there with the phone in your hand is – Did you catch it the first time? – rude.

Eye contact. Excellent follow-up question.

So, there you have it. If you think you might be a Conversation Offender, simply follow my suggestions and improvement is guaranteed. People love to talk about themselves. The key is to find interesting people.

Be one and they will come.

Do you think the nature of conversation is shifting?  If so, how?


7 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Erin on June 12, 2012 at 10:40 am

    So true Sister Debra. It is just like you to approach a problem of epidemic proportion with grace and love. You rock;)


  2. Great post! It is becoming common to have to repeat yourself two or even three times when speaking to someone due to their distraction with electronic gadgets. Young people are becoming adept at texting and posting…but lack real life communication skills and will actually sit next to a friend, texting them rather than talking! Another common occurrence, even among adults, is to be having lunch/dinner with friends and one or more are consistently on their phones via media or texting…rarely making eye contact. The signal, whether they mean to or not, is that the “REAL” friends they are sitting with AT THE MOMENT are less important than the ‘VIRTUAL” friends elsewhere. They LET you feel the “responsibility” of keeping the conversation going… even if you have to repeat yourself time and time again! Pretty soon you just give up and either sit in silence until it “gets awkward” or you grab your phone to update your status because it might give them a “hint”…. (doesn’t usually work though! ha). All that said… Yes, I do think that the nature of conversation is shifting.


  3. Posted by Erin on June 13, 2012 at 5:27 am

    🙂 yes.. And firm;)


  4. Posted by Marina V on June 22, 2012 at 10:07 pm

    I love the post aunty Debra, I agree these days it is hard to have a 2 way, face to face conversation with people. Technology is a big factor in all this distracftion. For instance I have just recently joined face book. People know every thing about me and vice versa, you don’t even have to talk face to face. I can be at a cafe with a friend having a conversation and their mobile phone by their side (Like it’s ok, any one can interupt us with a text or call). For young people today it’s a way of life to text and post to communicate. I’m not saying it’s bad. But, through this there is a lack of communication skills. So true, the nature of conversation is shifting.


  5. Thanks for the post! A few years back, I was at a family gathering, talking with my twenty-something niece. I confided how no one really listens when I talk, and that I feared I lacked authority in my voice. Right in the middle of my comment, her eyes glazed over and she turned away to speak with someone else. I knew at that moment I wasn’t being paranoid. 🙂 I’m even weird enough to think the timing was funny.


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