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Making Conversation

by Dear Jon
January 22, 2008

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ACTUAL LETTER TO DEAR JON:

Dear Jon,
Do you have any advice about learning how to make small talk?

Thank you,
At a Loss for a Subject

Dear Loss,

Okay...It is primary season for a federal election which features a black man, a woman, a Mormon and the 9/11 mayor of New York with legitimate shots at the White House; the Super Bowl features an undefeated team; it is dangerously cold all over the country; and you are at a loss for small talk?

Your problem is not what you put in your signature, "loss for a subject." There is no shortage of subjects for conversation. You might have rephrased the question to set your personal context for asking. I can think of two contexts which are conceivable.

1. As I am painfully shy, do you have any advice about learning how to make small talk?

2. As I am in a coma, I don't know if there are any subjects to engage as conversation starters. Any clues?

My guess is you fit number one, and that right now you are feeling embarrassed and mortified that Dear Jon has set you up to whack your tender psyche black and blue. I'm done with that now. That was to slap you awake to an inherent contradiction: As a painfully shy person you honestly feel like you have nothing to talk about, when actually, as I have pointed out, there are a million things to talk about. So chalk my sarcasm up to reality therapy.

There are four steps to making small talk.

Number One: Get the news; get it online, subscribe to a newspaper, watch it on an evening basis, whatever works best for you. The news will give you a sense of what people are actually talking about.

Number Two: As you apprise yourself of events around the world, the nation, and the community, form opinions. Hold your opinions with confidence. I am going to let you in on a big secret:

The vast majority of people who hold strong opinions about everything from national politics to micro-brewery preferences, hold these opinions based on the same information as everyone else. In other words, the person who holds forth confidently regarding Obama's experience or Romney's electability, holds forth because they catch a few head-lines here and there, just like you.

The difference between you and them is not their expertise—they don't have any. People are laughing right now not because what I am saying is satire or exaggerated, but because it is the naked truth. The only difference between you and people who talk all the time about sports or politics or soap operas is that they have self-confidence, while you don't think you have a right to your own opinion because you feel like a clueless dork even after reading the newspaper. You have to absorb this in your psyche right now, and even chant it as a mantra: "Most people who talk don't know more than I do. Most people who talk don't know more than I do...." So, decide that you have opinions and stick to them.

Number Three: Choose someone who impresses you as a intelligent, articulate, informed conversationalist. Note here that "informed" is not a synonym for "expert." Informed means they have daily contact with major news sources. It is important that you choose wisely because step number four is to open a conversation with questions.

If you choose someone who is an unmedicated schizophrenic, your foray into conversation will take surreal turns. If you choose someone who is merely borderline, you will learn all kinds of things you never knew about a Shadow Government and a Media Conspiracy and the Mark of the Beast. If you choose someone who is also painfully shy, your overtures will be met by monosyllabic responses, which is how you have responded to conversational overtures because you felt no entitlement to an opinion as a clueless dork, which is why you have written asking for my advice. So, find someone who likes to talk, who ALSO has struck you as being socially skilled and reasonably normal.

Number Four: Having found that person, ask that person questions, listen, and then ask more questions. If that person asks you questions, answer them. If that person disagrees with you and lets you know, that is not a signal to you that you are an uninformed clueless dork, nor does it confirm your private suspicions (normal for shy people) that you need to crawl into a hole and never come out. What is happening is that the other person is a human being with another perspective, and so are you, and what you are engaging is an actual conversation.

Here are some do's and don'ts for conversation-starting questions.

Don't: "Sure is cold in Laramie, isn't it?"
Do: "Wow. My car barely turned over this morning. How are you coping in this weather?"

Don't: "What's the big deal about this ‘Super Bowl' anyway?"
Do: "Would you bet against the spread or do the Patriots just have too many weapons?"

Don't: "I don't have much of an opinion about Iraq. How do you like the salsa?"
Do: "It seems to me that a lot more is going on in Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Israel—the whole region—than even the press can figure out. Do any of the front-runners strike you as having a realistic handle on the middle east and an exit strategy for our troops?

Don't: I'm not sure who Tom Hanks is. Was he the guy who made that movie about the crucifixion?
Do: Have you seen any of the best picture nominees? Do you recommend any of them? Which one do you think is the best?

Finally, choose your venues and wisely match them to the opportunities. If you are in the wine-and-cheese set, a gallery opening might not be the best place to ask about opinions on the Super Bowl, unless you are actually at a gallery in one of the places where wine-and-cheese style social atmospheres originated on this continent: New York and Boston. A Super Bowl party at a friend's house, in the tense quiet before the offense goes for it on fourth and inches, is not the time to nervously ask your host what he thinks should be done to bring our troops home from Afghanistan on a realistic time-table.

Bottom line: Repeat to yourself a hundred times each night before you go to bed, "I have as much right to spout off as anyone else."

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