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Friendly Chatter

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Sometimes it's hard to remember that the point of conversation isn't the information being exchanged but the implicit message conveyed by the act itself, a friendly acknowledgment of another person.

As a general rule, I like living in a city. Even though there are plenty of idiots to be found and the fact is that I would be quite content being generally isolated from (most) other people, I don't believe it follows that it's better to be left completely alone. The ability to interact with other people is extremely valuable and indeed necessary to accomplish pretty much anything non-trivial. Walking down the street, riding the bus, going to restaurants, and so many of the other things that we do every day provide opportunity to meet new people and, of course, the more people one knows, the more likely one is going to find people worth knowing.

In the process of talking to people, we're going to have occasion to engage in conversations that are completely pointless. On one hand, we can refuse to participate on the grounds that it's absurd to talk about nothing. On the other hand, we can recognize that sometimes there is inherent value simply in being friendly, which will mean an exchange that might well be content-free.

This basic problem has confronted people for a long time. It's not so much that we're now a nation full of ignorant buffoons incapable of intelligent speech by comparison to the widespread erudition of decades past. Some of the most pointless conversations of all remind me of something over eighty-five years old.

“What ho!” I said.
“What ho!” Said Motty.
“What ho! What ho!”
“What ho! What ho! What ho!”
After that it seemed rather difficult to go on with the conversation.
   —P.G. Wodehouse, My Man Jeeves (1919)

(Interestingly, the same conversational structure happens a lot online. Replace “What ho!” with “w00t!” and you've just brought something of a classic into the digital age.)

I was recently standing at a bus stop on a route that I ride only irregularly, when I need to go to a part of town that I don't have occasion to visit more than once in a month or two. As I stood there, I read the schedule that I had in my bag and wondered if the “Effective September 2005” meant that it was the new schedule or whether there was some other, newer, schedule that I didn't know about.

As I compared various timepieces to one another and to the schedule (as if “thinking hard” about it is going to make the bus arrive any sooner), I noticed that someone joined me at the bus stop. She was a redhead, overweight by a good fifty pounds. I smiled and put away my schedules, switching instead to a novel that I was reading.

“I wonder how long they've been doing that,” she commented, apparently out of the blue. I looked up from my book and saw that she was observing a Home Depot rental truck with a built-in billboard for, of all things, Home Depot's truck rental service.

“No idea,” I replied as my eyes dropped back to the printed page before me.

“Man, this year, I have got to get a vehicle. I've got too many kids, too many places to be, to wait around for the bus! I've got it all figured out. I want a truck. A truck with a back seat...”

I smiled and nodded, not really sure what else I might do. I had nothing charming, clever, or even remotely worthwhile to say in response. (What could I say that would not be inane?) Before long, she walked away, apparently heading into the Giant Eagle grocery store nearby.

After a hiatus of five minutes, she returned to the bus stop. “Still hasn't come?”

“Not yet.”

Happily, the obvious (sarcastic) response did not tempt me. By this time I had come to accept that we simply would not have a real conversation. Nor would we be able to enjoy a bit of silence together. Words would be coming my way and it was going to be up to me to return the volleys; what the words actually meant would be irrelevant: either I returned them (and was friendly) or I didn't say anything back and was rude.

Being friendly wouldn't hurt me any, so I thought I'd be friendly. On later reflection, I determined that my responses were about as minimal as could be. I guess that between the mention of the truck that captured her interest and the kids that apparently necessitated the sort of schedule that requires a truck to support I should have been able to come up with a comment or question that would engage her or at the very least invite her to talk about something that would interest her. With my mind being well in the book I was reading, I was a bit slow in response and consequently turned out to be not much better than a typical INTP in an unexpected social context. A quiet smile and occasional nod of assent won't always fit the bill.

If indeed her world is ruled by children, she could probably stand to have a bit of adult conversation. Probably she'd rather not be inane (who wants to be boring?) but she might not know how to start a more substantive conversation with a stranger—maybe especially strange men. (“And as strange men go,” I hear the reader reply, “you're the top.”)

I have long been of the opinion that if one wishes not to be bored, one should take care not to be boring. The most interesting people seem to be able to pick up a conversation on essentially any topic, usually by virtue of wide experience that allows them easily to establish common ground with people of essentially any station. There's a lesson in that, but I hope that it isn't that I need to buy a truck with a back seat.

Created by cmcurtin
Last modified 2006-05-10 10:37 AM

Good point.

Posted by grethteager at 2007-04-03 11:17 PM
I know exactly what sort of situation you mean. I have a tendancy to use the same minimalist responses when confronted with 'polite conversation' or 'friendly chatter' (as I think they're really the same thing), though I must say the best solution I have is to ask questions. Even silly or inane ones will do, as even the hint of engagement will engage a willful player (there's my background with tabletop RP sneaking in, but it's terribly true).

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