Sunday, December 13, 2009


Seeing as how it's the holiday season, it's probably a good time of year to review the rules behind making good conversation. It's currently the D-Day of the conversation wars--you are being dropped in behind enemy lines and put through a series of work parties, school parties, family parties, neighborhood parties, people who claim to be family parties, and church parties. You need to hone your conversation skills, lest you find yourself stuck in a group of people talking about modern art with nothing to contribute1.

A good friend of mine has a book called the Art of Mingling. Obviously the author doesn't know what she's talking about, because mingling isn't an art, it's a science, with a series of laws and rules. Like all sciences, respectable scientists have reached a consensus on these laws, and spend their time emailing each other the best ways to suppress contradictory evidence or disguise data.

Without further ado, the keys to good conversations:

Begin with an insult

It's a good idea, when you're in the get-to-know-you phase, to show you are capable of insulting anyone just to make yourself look better. For example, after learning your interlocutor's home state, you could speak about how you lived in there once, and refer to that state's residents as "poor, sheltered people"2. This is sure to win you friends. This will not, under any circumstances, produce a very awkward silence, wherein there are no polite words that can be said in return.

Seek to maximize the nice to other words ratio

That isn't referring to your ratio: it refers to the other person's. When you're engaged in speaking, get them to use as few words as possible. When you notice them repeating one word over and over again at random intervals, you know you've got them eating out of your hand. The fact that the dude across from you just keeps saying nice and nodding his head doesn't mean that his mind is desperately pulling out all stops, trying to keep him from dropping comatose on the floor, driven to catatonic peace by your purely inane babble. It probably means that he thinks what you're talking about (the few words he can catch, that is, because it's noisy in there) is just really nice. Nice. Nice. Nice.

Talk about movies they've never seen

Suppose you have a quote from a movie or a T.V. show they've never seen, and you make a passing reference to it, which isn't understood. Don't let them go without explaining the whole quote, scene, plot, and your reactions to it. Tell them how much they have to see the movie they now know everything about. In fact, go out of your way to make references to these obscure media items, just so you can explain them. People love learning. It's not like they intentionally avoided seeing that movie because it looked like the kind of thing only half-eaten drunken snails would appreciate. Enlighten them.

Ask if they know people you know

If they went to Penn, ask them if they knew people living in Philadelphia. Ask by name. Ask people from New York if they knew someone who lived there in the summer of 2005. Keep asking. Don't give up until you find a common connection. There is no limit to the number of unsuccessful 'do you know' questions you can ask3.

Make references to inside jokes

This is best done when the person you are speaking to isn't in on the inside joke. When you ascertain this fact, you then have a free ticket to explain, over the course of the next ten minutes, said inside joke. When your partner starts slobbering and even a pace maker won't keep his/her heart beating, remove any blame from yourself by stating, "I guess you had to be there"4.

Speak about your illnesses

This is especially true while eating. If you don't have illnesses, maybe you could speak about other people's problems. If you're a doctor, you've got all sorts of material to cover during the main course. For example, if you just returned from a three hundred mile bike ride, you could explain, in detail, the puss-oozing rash you were consulted on during the ride.

Talk about controversial issues like everyone in the group agrees

There are a number of topics you could broach with this, but some common ones would be gay marriage, global warming, who you voted for, income redistribution, and the uselessness of all pets5. The least awkward conversations out there occur when someone takes a very strong stance on an issue, then implies everyone else agrees.

Don't say these things

Now that I've run out of pros, let's just do a quick listing of the cons. That is, things you probably shouldn't say:

  • Your newborn looks like a gremlin
  • Are you planning on going to the fireside or crossing the plains in that dress?6
  • What color are their hands now?7

I wish you luck in the wilds of the conversation hinterland. May your lips be loquacious, and your discussions divine.

1. Yeah, the dangling modifier was intentional. Apologies to anyone who thinks modern art has something to contribute. If you disagree with me, and are also female, single and attractive, I am, of course, joking. I love modern art. It's wonderful stuff. Hanging a urinal upside down DEFINITELY qualifies as art.
2. To the girl who just did that: though I didn't want to talk to you after that, I was in awe of your pluck.
3. The limit is one. In this particular conversation, I think the dude asked about ten separate people. The answer was always no. To that dude: I never want you to hear you ask a 'do you know' question ever again, but I have to admire your unflappability. Since world war one has nobody been so determined to expend resources uselessly.
4. When you say this, you have failed as a conversationalist. This, apparently, isn't common knowledge. To be sure, I say it myself all the time, but I am aware of the implications, and I then get to stop talking.
5. Okay, so that's the one I always mess up on. I'm sorry. I'm not a bad person, even if I wouldn't shed a tear if every noisy dog on the planet died. And I'm not a bad person if I've thought of schemes to that effect. And I'm not a bad person if I've impleme...errr, thought about implementing said schemes. Yeah.
6. In my defense, she had been rude to me, I was tired, and the dress was supremely flowery. She never spoke to me again.
7. The avid muppets fan will recognize this as a response to the statement, "we'll catch them red handed!" Though funny when spoken by a puppet, it loses some of the hilarity when voiced by an awkward sixth grader in class. This can only result in a very marked loss in any sort of coolness that might have been held, as the inordinately silent class listens to a stern teacher give a stinging rebuke, focused on maturity. I have never forgiven that teacher.


Jess said...

"Okay, so that's the one I always mess up on. I'm sorry. I'm not a bad person, even if I wouldn't shed a tear if every noisy dog on the planet died. And I'm not a bad person if I've thought of schemes to that effect. And I'm not a bad person if I've impleme...errr, thought about implementing said schemes. Yeah."

I always find a way to bring up in conversation that in Idaho for fun we run over coyotes with snowmobiles. It is in those conversations I meet the most PETA members! So happy to know you understand the side that all people stand on re: pets.

Genius post!

Nettie said...

OK, for recipes.

Not that that has anything to do with your post.

Lucy said...

What color are their hands now?

Bruce said...

"Your newborn looks like a gremlin"

I like that one! I usually just say "newborns look like aliens", but I kind of like the ring of "gremlin". I think I'll add it to my repertoire.

Aloha Angel said...

As a video game producer - at a company with 171 men, and 8 women, I can vouch for quite a lot of your nerd talk.

Quite well done, sir.