As children we would play in the evening, often starting by one of us landing up in another’s house. We would chatter a bit while the friend’s mother made sure they had their milk and evening snacks (no, they did not call it tea in India – for dinner was to come later after nightfall) before we were allowed to leave. Gathering a quorum we would step out to play in the green till nightfall. In the garden we were a large group – the real friends were the ones who dropped in to each other’s houses unplanned, ate food cooked by all the mommies and spoke of things from everywhere and nowhere. It flowed, almost organically.
It was only later that I realised it was not so for everybody. One year I had this friend who – I think – had never had any friends before. She was a lovely person – warm, intelligent, talented, well read, very aware of the world. Like clockwork she would come home at exactly the same time, often waking me up from my afternoon (power) nap. And her first question invariably would be – “What shall we talk about today?”
Everyday, and even now as I remember this, the mind still boggles. That is not how conversations work. They are expected to flow freely, meandering from the mundane to to the meaningful finding their own highs and lows. Sometimes one takes away something good from them, sometimes just a comfort from casual companionship. Some are more, some less and that is the nature of the beast. Every conversation cannot be a seminar, every conversation does not have to be about something specific.
Nor do conversations ever need to follow a specific pattern. Papers have a pattern, speeches do, as do corporate presentations. Conversations must be allowed to have their spontaneous flow. They are journeys that we take – into friendships, into relationships, into learning and indeed into ourselves. They have lives of their own, individual personalities. Some you remember, others are easily forgotten. Some are like the awkward youth who showed you the way in unknown neighbourhoods, some like the graceful diva who sat next to you at the state dinner. Some just the everyday corner shop boy, and some the comfort of a cousin’s embrace. Some stutter themselves into silence and others just seem to find their voice just as one had given up on them.
Do you know what keeps them going long enough to find themselves and lend meaning to those around them? The doldrums of small talk. Small talk terrifies many of us because it is no man’s land. Like all spaces that belongs to none it is dry, arid, threatened, threatening. It is the brave person that sets foot on it without protocols, because it is these protocols that keep you safe. Those who do negotiate no man’s land everyday do so with ceremony and precision – a slip and you may be gone. So too with small talk. There are protocols to it, a sequence – and this is not real conversation. Why talk about the weather, and how it changed, and then about football (oh yes, it is as trivial as the next thing) or something that happened on the way over to this place you find yourself?
Why bother? Because it leads to some beautiful places.
Small talk is just the first stage of a conversation. It starts by reassuring. By exploring and defining no-go territories. By fine tuning itself as it goes along it finds common ground. The safe lands, the ones with no minefields. A path onto the next stage – which again sounds like chitter chatter to the untrained conversationalist. There is a line here that seems to meander meaninglessly. But it is not as languid as it looks. It is a vital, thriving beast that seeks segues to branch off the main mundane trunk. The trunk reassures them it is always there, steady and waiting if that exploration does not work out. Go, play a bit, it says. I am here. The conversation snakes into these side paths, rapidly working out probabilities and cost benefit numbers almost subconsciously. We call it comfort. Some are effortlessly successful, others less so. Good conversationalists are good because they can sniff these out at the nodes, avoiding the branches where they would struggle and moving on rapidly to exploring easier ones.
Does easy mean simple? Not necessarily.
What makes for an easy conversation? Consideration. And collaboration. Conversations only work if those engaged in it collaborate, gently negotiating their way through a protocol that they create with great delicacy and some nimbleness as they go along. Delicacy? That sounds difficult does it not? Not really – it is only the small matte of good manners – consideration for the other people there in the space. There can never be a single protocol for every conversation – no, leave that to the minefield, the no man’s land of small talk. Good conversation creates its own music as it evolves. It may use a grammar that is familiar, maybe parts of it have a grammar that makes for familiar patterns but only a bore would create music with just one pattern each time they talk. In fact, do try an unusual grammar every once in a while, an unsung music. You never know, it might lead to an unexpected dance. Or a chase down rabbit holes. Quests that become the stuff of lore.
But before I leave, a word for those stuck with a bore, one who insists on doing things just so. Only their way of talking will work, and they will not budge from the way they want to do things. Yes, one does feel sorry for their – ahem – unique world view. Unique because it is the only one they can see. The world has been charted for them in straight lines and grids, and they can at best play snakes and ladders within that grid. And that is the good ones. What does one do with those? Do tell me if you have ways of shaking them out of their plane, but I resort to good old grease – chitter chatter. Refuse to give up on them, it is time to call the conversational snake to duty again. Work the trunk, explore the branches, sniff one’s way around conversational nodes. It is hard work, but who knows – there may be a node that becomes a branch where a thousand flowers bloom. It is hard work, but by the grace of chitter chatter, one may even find one’s way to a beautiful meaningful conversation to remember.
Speaking of Chitter Chatter, may I share a poem? http://thepointofatangent.wordpress.com/2013/11/29/chitter-chatter/