Last Saturday, I was hanging out with one of my sons at my apartment’s pool. The pool was packed for the 4th of July. As we were standing at one end of the pool, an acquaintance approached us, and I quickly started on a wide-ranging conversation because I hadn’t previously talked to him this summer. Mostly we talked about his living arrangements (he and three mutual friends sometimes cohabit) and his job status (he is a recent college grad in kinesiology who does personal training, while his best friend has decided to go to chiro school).
I thought the conversation was interesting, but my son’s eyes seemed to glass over, even after I tried to shift the conversation to a series of injuries that my son had experienced while working out at his gym. After a while, my acquaintance moved on to another group, and I asked my son about his apparent disinterest. He confirmed that he was bored by the conversation, and just wasn’t interested in hearing other people’s stories.
My son’s comment caused me to remember that two of my brothers in North Dakota had recently commented that I seemed to ask an inordinate number of questions when I was visiting with friends and family in North Dakota last June. They thought that I was nosy.
Upon reflection, I have concluded that I used to be like my son and my brothers. I wasn’t interested in other people’s stories and I was horrible at making casual conversation with strangers. I remember talking to a similarly-minded female lawyer about cocktail parties (the ultimate experience in casual conversations), and she described cocktail parties as a laborious situation that she would avoid unless she had enough energy to shift mentally into her “A game.” She and I were kindred spirits.
Times have changed. I’m still not good at casual conversation, but I am interested in other people’s stories, and that often makes for even better than casual conversation. Some of this change in me is related to a philosophy I learned from some French guy who described our daily encounters with strangers, acquaintances, and friends along the way as some of the most satisfying things in life.
That made sense to me, and I have tried to develop that life skill. Like networking, I think it provides not only a superficial, pragmatic utility, but also a substantive, intrinsic reward.
And it reminds me of an important scene in Pride & Prejudice, in which Elizabeth scolds Darcy for being cold and aloof (prejudice) to her at a ball (an 1800s cocktail party).
- Darcy – I certainly have not the talent which some people possess of conversing easily with those I have never seen before. I cannot catch their tone of conversation, or appear interested in their concerns, as I often see done.”
- Elizabeth – [Me, too.] But then I have always supposed it to be my fault – because I would not take the trouble of practicing.”
Listen up, son.