Friday, January 23, 2009

Conversational strategies

I just finished reading Catherine Blyth's book, The Art of Conversation, a snappy guide for the typical reader (inarticulate boob that he is), who needs to be tutored in communicating with his fellow humans. Ms. Blyth, an exasperatingly clever British woman, has done her homework or at least has given her search engine a thorough workout. She peppers her text with quotes from antiquity, from literature, from Hollywood, from science, from politics, and from chat-show hosts. One of the more pretentious examples, from Cardinal Richelieu:

Obscure Sciences and great Affairs must have a less share in their discourses than agreeableness and diversion.

Designed as a handbook, the book devotes chapters to various kinds of talk: small talk, funny talk, pillow talk, shop talk, lies, and flattery. Each chapter sets the rules to observe in achieving conversational mastery. Lists of rules seem bracing at first, but one eventually grows weary of this paint-by-numbers structure. (Are there still hobbyists that paint pictures by the numbers? I labored over my last one in the early 1960s - a clown with a disturbing complexion problem.) Hopes of conversational mastery dissipated as I found myself skimming the later chapters; and by the time I laid Ms. Blyth's tome back among the books piled beside my couch, all her rules had leaked from my memory except for one.

Here is the leak-resistant rule from her Chapter 6: Into the Groove - Steering Controls:

-> Rule three: Exercise editorial rights in your reactions.

Ms. Blyth explains that a listener, through careful responses, can cause the conversation to spin in a new direction by adding new material to be developed (green light), continue on the same topic (amber light), or sputter to a halt (red light). Her example responses:

Green: "Fred, eh? Fearless for his height."
Amber: "Poor Fred."
Red: Yawn. "Uh-huh."

This was illuminating to me, a longtime practitioner of the amber response. (My favorites: "Wow." "Really?" "Why's that?" "No kidding.") As an amber conversationalist, I am continually in demand as a pliant audience for monologists and other windbags. (However, my offspring might attest that I occasionally succumb to windbaggery myself.) But, according to Ms. Blyth, I can green up my conversational skills by giving longer, more thoughtful responses. Wow.

A second technique she endorses is to actively select topics by responding to what interests you. Say that your conversational partner is going on about the fine gas mileage of his new hybrid car. He might say: "I drove to Cheyenne and back last weekend and got 52 miles per gallon. This is about the best I've done. The dealer told me to expect between 44 and 46 miles per gallon. But I've always done better than that. Even when I went to the mountains I averaged nearly 48 miles per gallon."

You can divert this flow of blather at a number of points. If you think that Cheyenne might be more interesting than gas mileage, you can pull the ripcord immediately by interjecting "Why Cheyenne?" If discussing faulty dealer predictions seems less tedious than gas mileage, you can offer a skeptical comment on the credibility of car dealers. Or, if you decide to take your chances on hearing stories of mountain vacations, you can ask "Where in the mountains?" This is verbal judo. You can throw the conversation onto a more pleasing course by deftly pivoting on a passing topic.

Fortified by Ms. Blyth's advice, I am now ready for invitations to cocktail parties or salons.