Tuesday, December 21, 2010

SHOW & TELL – The Lost Art of Conversation

Remember Show & Tell from grade school? What a great way to give a kid the chance to be an expert at something. Apparently some people enjoyed it so much that it forever shaped their notion of social intercourse.

With all the get-togethers of the holiday season, you won't have to look far to find them. They're the ones still showing and telling, to the exclusion of looking and listening. It's easy to spot their "conversations;" just look for the asymmetrical body language: the talker fully engaged, perhaps leaning slightly into the effort; the "listener" turned slightly away, avoiding eye contact, inching ever-so-slightly backward. Notice the furtive glances, the barely believable excuses to get away.

Want to say something? Fine, as long as it's about me!

My wife and I refer to this as the "And You?" caper. Its perpetrators, many of whom, for their education and upbringing, should know better, seem to assume they're so interesting that no one else could possibly have anything to say. If not for curiosity, at least out of common courtesy, is it so hard to summon those two simple, gracious words of transition: "And you?"

Apparently it is, since, as we've found, this condition is extremely widespread. As long as you keep showing an interest in them, they'll keep showing and telling. And, though a few might occasionally let you interject an experience or opinion of your own, most are deft at swinging the focus right back around to where they
want it.

     I like to see if it might dawn on them that 
     I know all about them and they don't even 
     know where I'm from.

I feel sorry for the show-and-tellers of this world. The whole time they're wracking their brains for more of themselves to bestow on me, they're unable to take anything in. They miss what's going on around them. They miss the possibility that they might learn something from me, that we might share an interest or even become friends.

Some might say these folks are just being honest, that they're indeed simply not interested in me or anything I do. They don't have to be. But come on, don't take me prisoner! Maybe I'm not that interested in them either, but at least I'm giving them the chance to engage me. If they can't reciprocate, I wish they'd come up with their own lame excuse not to talk, instead of forcing me to do so.

      Oh, I'm sorry; I've been going on and on.

I'll admit it's condescending, but I've devised a couple of defenses against the more aggressive show-and-tellers. The first—surely the more compassionate—is to turn from enabler to observer. If they insist on showing and telling, by God I insist on looking and listening. I keep responding curtly, but I study their face, looking for those little cracks that reveal their insecurity.

I note the way they take a quick breath at the end of a sentence so I won't have time to interrupt their train of self-promoting thought. Then, after they've gotten used to the rhythm of my asking and their telling, I'll just stop priming the pump.

I just stand there in silence, sometimes for ten or fifteen seconds. I like to see if it might dawn on them that I know all about them and they don't even know where I'm from. It rarely does.

My other tactic is far more direct—perhaps more honest. I resort to it only when all else fails and I have nothing to lose. I feel bad afterward, but the satisfaction far outweighs the guilt. I wait for the slightest sign of interest in me. Nothing. I execute the pregnant pause technique; still they're unfazed. I try every dialect of body language.

If they're still pontificating I simply break in and say, "You don't have the slightest interest in me, do you?" Usually—and I take this as the ultimate confirmation of my assessment— the person walks away indignantly. After all, the only other option for a polite, caring person would be to ask me what I mean. And that, apparently, is not allowed in Show & Tell.

Oh, gosh, look at me; here I've been going on and on. What do you think?

"But enough about me. Let’s talk about you; what do you think about me?"FROM THE 1988 FILM, BEACHES – ADAPTED FROM THE NOVEL OF THE SAME NAME BY IRIS RAINER DART 


El Perseguidor said...

I love it! How true! I never thought of it from this perspective.

Jeffrey Willius said...

Once you notice the "And you?" phenomenon, it's hard not to see it everywhere. Some folks are modest and don't like to brag about things they're proud of or confide things that might seem a bit personal. But when they're invited to share such things, it lets them shine their light. My wife's really good at doing this; I try to follow her example.

Vishnu said...

Interesting and true. I spend a lot of time in advocacy work so have to mix with our elected officials and other policy wonks who love to talk about themselves. It is difficult because they don't seem to care about anyone else in the conversation and are creative about keeping the conversation always on them or related to them. I usually leave with, "excuse me but I have to....x,y,z..." The last from the movie is brilliant.

Jeffrey Willius said...

I'm glad you've noticed this too, Vishnu. Like so many of life's little wonders, once you do, you simply can't miss it.
Glad you like that quote from "Beaches." One of the best and funniest I've ever heard.

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