Forgetting how to have a conversation

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February 14, 2013

10:16 PM

David Coleman, head of the College Board, has some strong words about which types of writing should and should not be taught in schools:

“The only problem with [personal] writing is as you grow up in this world you realize people really don’t give a shit about what you feel or what you think. What they instead care about is can you make an argument with evidence, is there something verifiable behind what you’re saying or what you think or feel that you can demonstrate to me.”

For the most part, I agree with his statement. I know what you’re thinking — and the irony of writing an editorial about the benefits of expressing facts over opinions is not lost on me. But it seems to me that you can express your thoughts and feelings in an appealing way, as long as it’s not in the form of a monologue to which the audience can’t relate.

For example, if you spend 10 minutes telling me in detail about your dream from last night, I will either fall asleep or kick you in the shins. I have zero ways of relating to that. But if you strike up a conversation about the possible reasons for which we have nightmares, I’m happy to partake. See the difference?

We humans like ourselves, so we tend to enjoy anything we read or listen to in which we can see ourselves.

At my high school, every senior was required to give a senior speech on a topic of his or her choice. Finding an appropriate topic that would hold the attention of 500 high school students for five minutes is no easy task. An oddly large number chose to talk about family vacations or pets (what?). The good ones pulled the audience in by making their topic relatable: talking about why high school is awkward or roasting a well-known teacher. One guy told each person in the senior class what he admired about them, quite literally drawing them into his speech.

The point is, it’s only boring if it’s one-way.

Look at conversations. The best conversations go back and forth. The two parties listen to each other before answering. This sounds simple enough, but it’s an ability that seems to be fading lately.

This won’t be another long rant about technology, but there’s no way to talk about disintegrating conversation skills without mentioning the internet and cell phones. It would be a big #elephantintheroom. I still don’t understand hashtags.

Think about our interactions. We post pictures to Instagram while skimming quickly through those posted by others. We send each other funny Youtube videos and cute animal pictures. These are all one-way outreaches that don’t invite much response besides a ‘like.’

With all of these one-sided interactions, it’s no wonder we’re losing our ability (let alone our habit) of listening to and challenging each other, of making a point that is thought provoking, and elicits a response that may require us to defend our opinions.

Whenever I meet someone who wants to sit down and have a focused, interesting conversation, it catches me a little off guard. I’ve grown so used to being able to say whatever I want without being challenged — the cell phones and laptops tend to emerge about two words into the sentence — that I can feel my speaking skills slipping.

Our generation (myself included) has so many distractions that we’re becoming complacent in our conversations. Nobody listens, so nobody says anything real. Yes, I know that this is a gross over-simplification, and no, I don’t hate my generation. Besides the technological distractions, we’re busy growing up while trying not to think about it. Sometimes you’re tired, or the people around you are boring, so you don’t want to listen to them. But start by asking a question, and then take the time to listen and respond to the answer. See where it goes.

Email Emily Kelley at [email protected]

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