This week-end I attended an event and went on a hideous talking spree cramming six months of talking into 2-1/2 hours. I broke all of my talking rules and and went home with a talker's hangover, talker's remorse, talker’s “aftermath enlightment” (this is where your psyche serves up soul crushing insights about your need to be liked.) When I fessed up on Twitter and Facebook, there were so many "me too" responses I decided to repost my two blogs about talking.
Meredith F. Small, an anthropologist, says our “social intelligence” is what has made humans such a successful species." We recognize and keep track of hundreds of relationships, and we easily distinguish between enemies and friends.” We run our lives by social calculation and most of it revolves around talking.
I used to think talking was just opening your mouth and letting sounds come out. There are unintended consequences to this type of lazy talking and now I take it seriously. I found that I had to segregate the things I talk about with different people.
Here are a couple of examples: My friend Meg validates that I am a regular person because I act and talk regular around her. I have my Meg package: I can talk about trouble but I keep it light. I park the irony at the door.
The only things I can say to Hannah are: Do you have a good plumber? or How is your new “on demand” water heater working? I stopped telling Hannah anything when I realized that her reaction was going to be out of all proportion to what I was telling her. If I said I got some freelance work she would scream (yes, scream) what? What kind of work? And then pepper me with about fifty questions that I didn’t have the answer to and then question my decision.
I try not to tell my children anything about my life that doesn’t end with: “it’s great.”
It’s easier to wrap your mind around talking that works if you separate it into five main categories:
Pleasantries: (best kept to a sentence or two) Nice day. Nice lawn. How's the wife. Cute kid. If you go beyond the second sentence, you will be embroiled in a pointless conversation that will be hard to end.
Informational talk: “Mrs. McNaughton you'd better sit down for this. We hear seven distinct heartbeats.” When you are receiving information, don’t be tempted to interject irony or humor or even sarcasm. Just say, “I see.”
Self-serving talk. “I had no knowledge of any dummy corporations being set up at Enron to divert money.” Don’t refute the speaker even if what he/she is saying is blatantly false. If it is something that alters your finances, just take it to a lawyer.
Inquisitorial talk: “Jeffrey, what do you mean when you say you like to cut up people?” If there’s nothing else you learn about talking, learn to answer what is asked with no elaboration. If someone asks, “Did you eat the last piece of pie?” a yes or no will suffice.
Confidential talk: If you are hell bent on confiding, become a Catholic and go to confession or talk to your mirror. This will spare you confessional remorse.
How I learned to Talk, Part Two
Part One addressed the pitfalls of lazy talking. Part Two will itemize some helpful rules to point you in a good direction.
Rule One: Knowing when to be silent. The upper hand can be had in any encounter if you wait to the count of ten before answering a question. The other person will become nervous and begin chattering at about number six. My middle child hardly ever answered a question and I was afraid of him. Occasionally, when I realized I was his mother, I became indignant. If you can master the “count to ten” response, it never disappoints.
Rule Two: Adapt your language for the recipient: My neighbor is a retired schoolteacher named Margaret. Her husband is named Tom. Margaret and Tom Smith. How do you talk to a solid English teacher like Margaret Smith? Be conscious of words and syntax . Thankfully, I just read a book titled “Woe is I” and finally know when to use “which” and when to use “that”. In case you want to know: “what” is used when it’s important; “which” is used for extraneous clauses that you could leave out. With Margaret Smith, I drag out words like “impervious” and “obsequious” and guess what? She wants me to come over and see her new compost bin. She says, “Just walk right in.” I’m telling you, it’s the “impervious” that invites that kind of hospitality.
Rule Three: Preparation. You can do this in front of a mirror or in your head. Before I go to a dinner party, I plan some conversational sequence meant to entertain. My hosts are feeding me carefully prepared, expensive food. I have a responsibility to contribute to the ambiance. When I was going to meet a very modest Englishman who held a high position in the British government, I prepared
the following opening remark: “If you were a Sheridan play, it would be called “A modest man of great importance.” He walked away with a bemused grin but I caught him looking at me later.
Rule Four: The third party effect: When I used to change my infant grandson and knew he might choose that moment to relieve himself, I always said: “Don’t taze me bro,” a phrase I borrowed from a videotaped police confrontation on the evening news. The baby didn’t care what I say, but I knew it would make his father smile and that’s always rewarding.
Rule Five: Squelch anything colorful at the bank and at the hospital:
When you’re asking for a loan and the nameplate on the desk says, Ms. Du Bois, don’t blurt out Blanche DuBois’ famous line in Streetcar Named Desire, “I have to depend on the kindness of strangers.” Say: “It’s so hot outside but very pleasant in here.” And the loan officer will say: ”How much of a loan did you want?”
Rule Six:. You can use sarcasm and irony to test the acuity of someone you are vetting for a job or marriage or power of attorney. These verbal skills are part of our human toolbox and we are wired to respond to them. Dr. Margaret Rankin, a neuropsychologist, goes further to legitimize sarcasm. If you don’t recognize it, it’s because of some damage to your parahippocampal gyrus which is located in the right brain.. People with dementia, or head injuries in that area, often lose the ability to pick up on sarcasm. This is known as the Forest Gump response. No, it’s not, I’m just kidding.
The sixth rule of talking (and this is the last but most important rule): Let’s take all of the talk content you will have in life. You have a chunk of information, a chunk of ideas, a chunk of whining, and a chunk of aimless non-consecutive thoughts to divide between your family and friends and whomever crosses your path. To avoid senseless time wasting maneuvers like back pedaling, apologizing, rifts and perhaps murder, you tell some people some things and you tell others other things. Be vigilant and don’t falter.