Most of what I know about the art of conversation I learned from my father, who learned from his father. The Irish are very good at it– gift of gab and all. It must be kissing the Blarney Stone, or kissing the Irish urine that is all over the Blarney Stone, which I wish I had known about before I puckered up and smooched Gaelic piss.
Anyway, it took me a while to realize that not everybody likes conversing with others, mostly because they don’t know how, or, if you’re like my mother, just have no interest in it. But I’m about to let the secret out: it’s all about questions. It’s the simplest thing, but it works. Just ask questions. It catapults the conversation forward, and makes whoever you are talking to feel all warm inside. People like talking about themselves, and they like knowing that other people are interested in them. That’s one of the most valuable lessons that I’ve gleaned from my father and grandfather. When you look a person in the eye and ask them a question, they feel special. Whenever I’m visiting my grandparents, they’re all: how’s Phil, how’s work, how’s your writing, how’s your apartment, how’s your sleep schedule, how’s that mole you need removed? And I feel like a rock star.
But, as with anything, there are times when this strategy goes awry, because you might unknowingly ask questions that have uncomfortable answers. Here are a couple of awkward instances in which I’ve found myself:
Man at the Winery: I love D.C. My daughter lives there and, when we retire, my wife and I are going to move to Maryland or Virginia to be near her.
Me: Oh, that’s nice. Do you have other children?
MatW: Yes, a son.
Me: And where does he live?
MatW: Riverhead Penitentiary.
MatW: Yeah. Drug dealer and drug addict.
Me: I’m so sorry.
MatW: So are we. So is he. It’s a rough prison.
This is when I take a mouthful of Merlot.
Me: So, are you looking forward to Thanksgiving?
Woman at Starbucks: Yes, my son is coming home…. which should be interesting.
Me: Interesting? How so.
WaS: Well he lives in the city and his credit card bill says he spends an awful lot of time and money at a drag bar. When I confronted him about it, he said we should have a conversation over Thanksgiving. I think he might be gay. Do you think he’s gay?
This is when I take a mouthful of burning java.
Me: Sooo, did you have a very romantic Valentines Day weekend with your girlfriend?
Phil 7 years ago: Actually, we broke up.
That one was so awkward I had to marry him just to make him feel better 😉
Despite the occasional snags that I have to tap dance around, I still believe in continuing the art of conversation. After all, nothing was forcing these people to open their hearts and answer so honestly. They could have spouted out a good ol’ fashioned lie. A simple “My son lives in Long Island but he won’t miss us too much” or “Yes, I love Thanksgiving. Aren’t cornucopias the best?” would have sufficed. Maybe they wanted to bare all, see another person’s eyes widen and face fall, to make a human connection by hearing the sympathetic, “I’m so sorry.” Or, maybe I’m completely wrong. Maybe I caught them off guard– confessing their problems was the last thing they wanted to do in a public place to a stranger– and they walk out of the winery or coffee shop thinking, “Nosy b****.”