Talking Tricks and the Art of Conversation

I caught an episode of Monk while I was getting ready for work this weekend. If you’ve never seen it, it’s a really fun mystery series about a brilliant detective with the worst case of OCD you’ve ever seen. If that wasn’t enough, he’s got so many phobias, some of them are probably in existence because of him. Despite his afflictions, and because of them, he solves case after case, no matter how tough.

Part of the episode I watched involved a woman showing romantic interest in Monk. Needless to say, he freaked out not knowing what to do. His psychiatrist suggested calling her. He doesn’t have to date her, just have a conversation. In preparation, Monk worked out every conversational possibility and had them written out on index cards before making the call.

What an ingenious idea. If only there was a travel edition.

From time to time I find myself in social situations where I don’t know anyone in the room. And like any shy person, I run to the nearest corner where I blend in to the wall until it’s safe to go home. Being one with the wall gives you a surprising amount of time to think and observe the people around you.

The most obvious thing is that no one has a problem starting a conversation with a person they don’t know. It really looks like a magic trick to me. It does help that New Person has Person They Know to introduce him to Person They Know’s friend, but after that, New Person has to engage and talk. As my long list of failures can attest, not as easy as it looks.

My main problem is my inability to make small talk. All those basic “get to know you” questions never cross my mind. Just let the other guy ask the questions? Well, you probably didn’t know that I excel at one word or brief answers designed to lead a conversation into the grave. It seems like unless the person I’m talking to has an intense interest in something I’m intensely interested in, I have no conversational ideas.

The other problem is the group setting. I do far better one on one. It’s a struggle, but at least I’ve got a fighting chance. In a group, the majority of the people know each other and I can never figure out how to jump in to what they’re talking about. I’ve tried, but not too long after I have their attention, I lose it and they’re back to talking to each other.

At this point my narcissistic paranoia sets in.

I start thinking the group would be better off without me elbowing my way into their conversation. And as it’s going on in my head, I know that it’s not the truth. The group is actually a nice bunch of people who would be more than happy to talk with me if I HAD SOMETHING TO SAY. But since I don’t, it’s my way to justify my escape.

My wife is the total opposite. She can talk to anyone and when we’re out in social settings, she does most of the talking. I jump with some “yeahs” and a few “uh huhs” just to switch it up. But I overall suck at talking to new people.

Am I in similar company here or does anyone have some talking tricks to share?

2 comments on “Talking Tricks and the Art of Conversation

  1. “We are each of an unsocial, taciturn disposition, unwilling to speak, unless we expect to say something that will amaze the whole room, and be handed down to posterity with all the éclat of a proverb.”

    You know me, and if you forget me, just look in the mirror, Man-Twin. Here’s another facet: This weekend I participated in booth selling at a fair. I’ve spent a lot of years in retail and I know how to be friendly with people I don’t know. It doesn’t scare me at all because I understand my function and the relationship and there’s really nothing to feel awkward about. Even though my recent experience has been limited to girl scout cookie booths, I’ve also done craft fairs and trade shows in the past, and I know from being an observer of humanity and analyzer of all things, that to make it worth the time and money to do them one needs to be outgoing and friendly, to be a good hostess and excited about what you’ve come to offer.

    I know this stuff, I’ve done it before, and yet, over the weekend, flanked by two confident people for whom this is their natural state, I found it all too easy to fade to a seat at the back of the booth. I feel pretty certain that if I’d been there on my own, I could have risen to the occasion and taken care of business, but with them I felt unnecessary and it was all too easy to revert to lameness. I guess it’s related to that phenomenon where you and I can only carry on normal conversation in person when our chattier peeps are sleeping and don’t carry it for us.

  2. I’m one of those people who seem extroverted on the outside, but am really introverted on the inside. I’m really good at talking to customers at my job. Or salespeople. Or vendors. But put me in a crowded room with a bunch of people holding drinks and chatting with each other, and I want to blend in the corner you mentioned. If someone approaches me and starts talking, I’m usually fine. But if it’s up to me to do the approaching, I have no idea what to say.

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