Crossing the Conversational Rubicon

Previously, I have mentioned that one of the most memorable things my dad ever said to me was, “Make the wallflowers bloom.” By that, he meant that I was to walk into a situation, seek out somebody who was staring at his feet or some other misery index criteria, and chat ‘em up. This missive has served me well over the years, but then there’s the other side to this argument: knowing when to shut up and let silence reign.

Most of us have been socialized to smooth over awkward social situations—usually by talking, or at least a sympathetic smile. Touching is now taboo, so let’s take that off the table of approved practices. However, these techniques can get to be overused or ill received and yet, because we don’t know what else to do, we keep talking and talking, sounding more and more like an idiot to ourselves and our hapless companions. This is where the science of conversation comes into play. You need a formula: ask yourself, am I saying too much? Am I getting any response whatsoever from my companion? Is this effort an example of the law of diminishing returns?

I remember one night when I was working a rubber chicken dinner at a political event in Santa Paula, California. I was there to “represent” so to speak, and was seated at one of twenty tables squished into a former gymnasium. The room was hot and the dinner cold. Enthusiastically, I went about my mission to chat up my dinner cohorts but to no avail. In hindsight, it was really quite funny. The earnest, young politico eagerly connecting with the gathered constituents, few of whom have any idea who she is or why the hell she’s wasting their time.

In the darkness of that Santa Paula gymnasium, I nervously burbled on at the table–knowing full well how stupid I sounded–the specter of silence loomed terrifyingly large. But it was at that moment that I embraced my fears: I crossed the conversational Rubicon. As awkward as the silence might be, it was worse to feel like a nattering idiot. And so, I stopped talking. Full stop.

I’d liken the next few minutes to the free fall one feels after jumping out of a plane, but I kept my lips sealed and stared at my chicken. Nobody seemed to notice, or if they did, they weren’t saying. A million thoughts rushed through my head—should I resume my blather? Should I excuse myself from the table? What in God’s name do I do now? And, at last, it hit me: if nobody else felt an urge to rescue this situation, then neither should I. We could all sit there silently, chewing.

As ridiculous as this story sounds, it actually has a useful point. As individuals, we are not solely responsible for maintaining or rescuing an ungainly encounter. Knowing how to talk to reluctant others has great advantages and can result in marvelous exchanges, but knowing when to hold your tongue and let things ride can be powerful in its own right. Keep that in mind when you’re panicking about what to say next.

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4 Responses to “Crossing the Conversational Rubicon”

  1. helenga Says:

    As usual I love your stories! You make a good point to keep in mind for those of us who feel responsible for conversations. Thanks!

    • dignitarysretreat Says:

      It’s so hard when to know that you can’t bail out a sinking ship (of conversation) or if saying more is making it all sink faster! At the end of the day, I figure that most of the time, whoever it is I’m speaking to is 50% responsible for the conversation, so I try to remind myself to shut up when there’s no conversational energy happening. You know?

  2. abitravel Says:

    I like this post a lot. It hangs together well and has a point to it. Yes, it takes at least two to converse, so no need to be hard on yourself if you’ve done your share and the other(s) isn’t pitching in.

  3. grasshopper Says:

    lol. this literally made me laugh out loud. that’s all i have to say. what a hilarious anecdote!

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