A good joke can ease us into a gentle groan or propel us into laughing out loud. It can also subtly hit the nail on the head of both truth and tragedy. Take for example, this humorous yet exasperated account from a man searching for something to do one morning during a sudden power outage in his home:
"My Laptop, TV, DVD, iPad and my new surround sound music system were all shut down! Then I discovered that my iPhone battery was flat! To top it off, it was raining so I couldn't go for a walk, bike or run. The garage door opener needs electricity so I couldn't go anywhere in the car. I went into the kitchen to make coffee and then I remember that this also needed power, so I sat and talked with my wife for a few hours. She seems like a nice person."
This got me thinking about the art of conversation and how things are changing with how we talk with each other. I remembered the Great North American Power Outage of August 14, 2003. 50 million people were affected, and most made do, took care of each other and chatted by candlelight. For a few years that followed, people seemed to cozy up to the idea of celebrating the GNAPO anniversary by getting unplugged. It seemed that the outage had shed light on more than the need of improving standards for utility and power agencies. Out of the darkness, people had started talking again, they huddled together to play board games, and sang songs about spinning wheels by firelight. Just like the magical moment when the Grinch Who Stole Christmas grows a heart, everyone started having conversations, all the time...Oh wait, that didn't really happen - my mistake, must have been a scene from a Walton’s episode.
Which brings me to the point of this blog - as usual, I have more questions than answers. Are conversations still happening and how are they different from say, 20 years ago? Has the art of pleasant conversation been lost? Increasingly, we see people rushing through their day, with downward gaze, thumbs all a-twitter, in anticipation of the next text, instant message, email or tweet. Once the quintessential safe-havens for brief and pleasant conversation - the grocery store checkout line, bus stop, or park bench now routinely play host to hipsters in headphones, multitasking moms, and workaholics.
If faced with the risk (or is it opportunity) of talking to a stranger, it seems more likely someone will opt to "call a friend" or launch into a game of Angry Birds. Recently, I was surprised and delighted to hear a stranger in the produce department strike up a conversation about watermelon. When I turned to engage, I embarrassingly realized they were talking on their cell phone.
I wonder also about how our seniors, congenial cohort that they are, and especially elders with vision loss, feel about friendly conversation, or perhaps the lack there of. In wintertime, the isolation of being housebound due to advancing age and vision loss is especially difficult. Imagine what a difference a phone call could make. When arranging Vision Mate matches for our clients in long term care, I am always struck by the challenges they face when trying to make new friends, and the loneliness they endure when they cannot. Imagine what a difference an in-person visit can make.
Sometimes we convince ourselves that silence is golden in every situation. We may think that small talk is meaningless, and we find the prospect of it daunting. It does not have to be. Here are some tips on how to break the ice and cultivate a conversation with someone who may not be familiar with instant messaging, skype, or facetime.
Don't wait for a power outage. You can strike up a good conversation with anyone, anywhere, anytime. Who knows? You might meet some interesting people, and likewise for them.
Make the first move. Be genuine, take note of your tone, and warm up with the small stuff. Don’t be afraid to talk about things you see. An older lady with partial-sight, once told me that a fellow resident in her retirement community commented on the fact that it had started to snow and a major storm was on the way. She then apologized, "I'm sorry, I shouldn’t have said that because you can’t see it."
Relax. Just be yourself, a good listener, attentive and honest. Be receptive to conversation if someone initiates it.
Stay in the moment. Ask, "How are you?" and remember to wait for the reply. In your response to the same follow-up question, offer up some specifics so that you can chat about something you might both enjoy. For example, "I feel great and I am so excited today. I have been collecting Elvis memorabilia for years and just discovered that I have one of his original capes. Do you keep any collections?"
Ask about simple things you might have in common. Use open-ended questions like asking about the situation you are currently sharing, "How did you find out about this event?" If someone asks you a question, don't forget to ask them the same question in return.
Make a sincere compliment about something you appreciate or notice about the person. It can be as basic as saying, "That is a lovely sweater, did you knit it?"
Know when to end the conversation and do it gracefully. “It has been nice chatting with you...good luck on your project... the time just flew by... it was nice to meet you... have a good evening...”
What to avoid in a close encounter of the general kind:
Don't get too personal like asking someone if they are married or what religious affiliation they have.
Do not check your cell phone for the duration of the conversation - unless it is an emergency.
Be careful not to dwell on negative topics and resist the temptation to make it all about you.
Lastly, don't go overboard on telling bad knock-knock jokes!