What’s the most memorable line from a conversation you’ve had within the last 10 or 20 years? How about the last five minutes?
We forget most of what we hear and most of what we say. It’s hard to pay attention when people are talking, even if we’re the ones doing it.
As my friends and I age, we rely increasingly on set pieces or, as the English refer to them, stories upon which we are known to “dine out.” We encourage one another to recite these familiar tales the way that Bruce Springsteen fans insist he sing “Born in the USA” and, I presume, Ian McKellen’s admirers insist he do the storm scene from “King Lear” when he’s the guest of honor at a gala.
“Tell the one about the fountain pen, the faulty GPS and the herd of miniature ponies!” cry your pals, and when you’re done, you’ve earned your seat at the table. Less conversational gambit than rehearsed monologue, such performances invite praise but don’t exactly open up discussion.
The best that’ll happen is that everybody will be delighted and entertained; the worst that’ll happen is that unknowing others will become competitive and say, “That was nothing! Why, when we went skydiving last year … ” and then the evening will be lost to a pointless game of “can you top this?”
Of course, there’s also the possibility, once the miniature ponies are introduced, that the trajectory of the discussion will turn toward dressage, the use of ribbons as tributes, how ribbons became decorations for gifts, and how cats eat gift wrapping and get sick. At some point, as the third story about sick cats gets brought up, somebody will ask, “How did we get onto this topic anyway?” Participants will then try to trace their collective conversation steps back to the original subject. This is why, as we age, conversations take an increasingly forensic turn: “What was the original occurrence precipitating this?” we ask, as if testifying before the court.
Some people use words as a way to ward off thought rather than to explore it. They’re rendered effectively deaf by the relentless sound of their own voices. Unable to sit with their own thoughts but equally unable to bear the burden of paying attention to someone else, their words can drill through the stable surfaces provided by the most gracious of hosts as relentlessly and monotonously as a jackhammer.
Others remain silent for fear of saying the wrong thing. That’s not always a mistake, because inadvertent damage caused by words can cause irrevocable harm: Saying something awful and seeing the pain you’ve caused is like feeling a sharp stick drawn across the bottom of your bare foot.
And hearing a truth uttered in casual conversation about something you hadn’t allowed yourself to accept is an equal blow to the system. It’s like the sizzle and fizz of acid on metal.
No wonder some stay quiet.
But others, such as young people who are heartbroken, don’t know how to stop talking. Initially sympathetic because of their inexperience, they quickly become tiresome because they never know when enough is more than enough.
I was one of those tediously heartbroken young people.
My unfailingly supportive father, who had been burdened with single parenthood by my mother’s early death, was the recipient of weekly weepy monologues. Long-distance phone calls in those days were expensive and had to be made from public payphones fed by coins.
The caller had the option of reversing the charges and calling collect, which meant you didn’t have to keep pouring quarters into the slot, but it made the call far more expensive.
During one particularly low point, I started calling my dad collect to tell him I was sad and using a lot of words to explain why. After three or four evenings of 20-minute calls, my father — a man of few words and scant funds — blurted out, “Gina, willya please go out with some friends already? I can’t afford to be the only one you’re talking to.”
Forty years later, I not only remember his words but understand the rough wisdom in them: conversation is a gift, a responsibility and a delight, just like life.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and author. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com.