Wednesday, January 2, 2013
Years ago, my wife opened my eyes to a fascinating social phenomenon. We’ve come to refer to it as the “And you? factor.” It’s something that happens whenever people get together, whether they’re relating experiences, catching up on news or just engaging in small talk. It’s our measure of one person’s ability to show an interest in another, and to share, rather than monopolize, a conversation.
Like so many observations, once you witness the And you? factor for the first time, you become sensitized to it, and from that moment on you can’t miss it. In fact, as my wife and I sometimes do, you might wish you’d never noticed it in the first place. Let’s just say it will change the way you look at people and conversation.
Did so-and-so ask you anything about you?
When we leave a meeting, a party or even some family events, one of us usually will ask the other, “Did so-and-so ask you anything about you?” At least 90 percent of the time the answer is no, so-and-so talked only about herself. “What’s more,” the account continues, “if I did manage to interject a word or two of my experiences or ideas, she simply snatched the conversation back to her own agenda.”
MANNERS OF SPEAKING
Here’s a typical example. On a recent trip to Mexico, I spent two weeks at a Spanish language school with a group of people from all over the U.S. Most of us didn’t spend time together during the day, but one night we all went out for dinner together. I sat next to a 40-something man (I’ll call him Bill) and enjoyed a warm, spirited conversation along with the fine dinner.
Turns out Bill’s a pretty interesting guy. But on the ride home from the restaurant I asked myself (since my wife wasn’t there) about that conversation, and whether Bill had scored any “And you?s” Sure enough, I could tell you all about Bill’s family, his work, his home, his hobbies and where he’d traveled. For God’s sake, I even knew what his wife’s work and hobbies were!
If he knew more than my first name, it would
have to have been through some kind of ESP.
So, after our couple of hours together, what did Bill know of me and my life? If it was more than my first name, it would have to have been through some kind of ESP.
Like Bill, many of these people are bright, well educated and from families in which one would presume they’d learned all the basic social graces. It utterly baffles me how this one courtesy—this simplest device of stopping one’s own monologue once in a while to ask “And you?...”, listen for a while and then perhaps ask a question or two—could have escaped nine out of ten people I’ve ever met.
What all of this leads me to is that people, like most things in Nature, hold many wonders to be discovered with a minimal investment of attention, curiosity and patience. Here, too, there are layers to be looked under, details to be appreciated, dim recesses to be illuminated. And, now and then, you might find some delightful surprises.
People—even those who go on and on about their accomplishments, social connections, travels and pet peeves—rarely reveal much of substance about themselves. At least not voluntarily. While I can’t pretend to be very good at drawing people out, my wife surely is. What I’m able to do with discovery in the natural world, she does with people.
If you aren’t curious about the person you’re talking with, you’re not giving them the chance
to surprise or delight you.
She observes keenly, looks for an opening and then, skillfully (almost always tactfully), tries to peel back the loose layers of a person’s modesty or embarrassment, and often finds a core of real interest or passion. Part of her success stems from her ability to see herself in the other person’s shoes: “If I were she, what would I enjoy talking about?” My wife, generous person that she is, knows how to let other people shine their light.
I’m taking lessons from the master, though I must admit I still enjoy talking about myself a bit too much. And, to be perfectly honest, sometimes I’m just not interested in the other person. But I’ve found that, when I do make the effort to draw someone out, it’s nearly always rewarding for both of us.
They get to share their essence with me and, more often than not, their passion will kindle mine. The point is—just as with discoveries about places and things—if you aren’t curious about the person you’re talking with, you’re not giving them the chance to surprise or delight you.
GIVE AND TAKE
Now, I suppose one could say that my wife’s and my failure to get in a word edgewise in these “conversations” is just that, our failure. After all, when we opt to ask more than tell, aren’t we choosing not to share our story when we have the chance? The key word here is “chance.”
Wouldn’t anyone rather share something they care about because they were asked? Is having to interrupt the other person's lecture really the way you want to express yourself? Are my wife and I the only ones to have been raised with the understanding that boasting—not to mention monopolizing a conversation—is rude?
Might people actually think of their self-absorbed monologs as acts of generosity, as giving something of themselves?
Perhaps part of the problem lies in perceptions. Could it be that people actually think of their self-absorbed monologs as acts of generosity, as giving something of themselves? Maybe. But I beg to differ. I see it as taking, for in any conversation there are just three resources in play: time, attention and energy.
When you ask someone about their world, their life, you’re giving them your share of those assets. When you talk just about yourself, you take theirs. At the end of the day, it takes neither an expert on manners nor a psychologist to know that conversation works best when there’s give and take.
<-> <-> <->
Might the And you? factor be yet one more symptom of the plague of narcissism, competitiveness and loss of civility our culture has so clearly suffered over the past few decades? It’s worth pondering. If so, it worries and saddens me. I think we can do better. 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