Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Auntie Seraphic and Long Pause

Dear Auntie Seraphic,

I like to talk as well. Fortunately, I've learned to step back and listen, and I've learned this well. I now find myself facing the opposite problem: when a lull falls over the conversation, I seem to be utterly incapable of enlivening the conversation or introducing something new. Might you perhaps address how to be a good conversationalist in such a case?

Long Pause

Dear Long Pause,

It all depends on the context.

If you are mingling at a party or after a lecture, the best way to handle the lull is to smile and say, "Well, marvellous to see you. I'm going to say hello to Such-and-such." If you can manage to introduce your interlocutor to a new conversationalist before you go, so much the better.

Sometimes a conversation has just come to its natural end. Tremendously long small talk is not appropriate for such gatherings anyway. If you have found a conversational soulmate, and you both fall deep into an intellectual discussion about Nietzche or Personalism, you're unusually lucky.

If you are on a dinner or coffee date, or visiting an elderly person in a home, you can't do that, of course. What you might do beforehand is memorize a list of top 5 questions for your interlocutor, should you need a new topic. These should be open questions, of course. Such questions might include: What do you like about this town (this parish, your job, your studies)? What do you think of the local paper (the local government, the recent plane bombing)? What was the weather (the town) like when you were a child? What was the maddest date you were even on? What was your senior prom like?

In general, people like talking about themselves, so a "you"-directed question is usually a good gambit.

At a dinner party, you take turns talking to the person on your left and the person on your right. I was at a party for Christmas dinner, and I remember asking the chap on my left how his political campaign was going, and saying to the lady on my right that I always get worked up about Historical House conservation. (She does too.) I later mentioned to the lady on my right that I was in love with her shoes, which was true, and so we had a nice chat about how and where she found her shoes.

If you discover yourself utterly ignored by one or both of your neighbours, take comfort in the fact that this has happened to people for centuries. Catch the eye of someone in a similar situation and exchange wry smiles.

If you are sitting with an old friend, you don't have to talk at all. For almost twenty years my BFF has fallen into abstracted silences, and so I still quietly until something comes into my head. With old friends, you just don't have to say anything. You just have to BE with them, and I enjoy that. Companionable silence is highly underrated.

Etiquette books of yore encourage women to read the newspapers and the latest IT-books (e.g. the latest Booker Prize winner), so as always to have a ready store of conversational topics to draw upon. And I suppose it doesn't hurt us to remember that women-in-general talk more about people than things and that men-in-general talk more about things than people, so whereas Mrs. X may respond to an conversational gambit about Brangelina, Mr. X is almost guaranteed to think it all nonsense.

I haven't discussed celebrities for some time, but Deborah, Duchess of Devonshire (pictured above) was on the radio last night and she was quite enthusiastic about Elvis, so you never know. Potentional Question for Duchesses: Do you consider yourself a music fan?

Hope this is helpful!

Grace and Peace,


Dominic Mary said...

More splendid advice (except, perhaps, for asking about someone's Senior Prom - in the UK that will probably just get you a blank look !). I think perhaps you ought to consider taking over from Miss Manners, and writing an Etiquette Guide for Singles.

The idea of Her Grace being enthusiastic about Elvis is delightful; but perhaps she's had to develop a repertoire of such topics to avoid getting into discussions about her family !

Anonymous said...

Actually I've been reading a collection of the Mitford sisters' letters and she's been quite the Elvis fan since the 60s.

some guy on the street said...

mmm... Devonshire... cream...

Sorry, I got a bit distracted, there!

Seraphic said...

Anonymous (who needs a name!), I have that book, too!

Francesca said...

Oops, sorry!

(And I learned from that book that Jessica lived, literally, around the corner from where I live now. I walked over to have a look.)
--Janet (who needs to change her Google name)