Six LDS Writers and A Frog

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Conversation for Dummies (Me)

by Stephanie Black

Rob’s scintillating wit, razor-sharp interview questions, and unparalleled ability to manufacture a load of garbage on a moment’s notice tie in nicely with today’s theme: the art of conversation.

I’m not a very skilled conversationalist. Oh, I do just fine with people who are easy to talk to. Give me a chatty person and no problem, I can chat. The conversations I have trouble with are the ones where the other person is un-chatty. I don’t know how to draw them out.

For instance, suppose I see a new sister at a Relief Society activity. I should make her feel welcome. I go up and say, “Hi, I’m Stephanie.” She says, “I’m Jane Doe.” We smile. I say, “Are you new in the ward?” She says, “Yes.” I say, “Where did you move from?” She says, “Provo.” I say, “Cool” (a handy sort of all-purpose word. Another handy phrase is “Oh, that’s really neat.”). We stand in silence for an awkward moment. I pick lint off my sweater. “So what brought you here?” I ask. “My husband’s job,” she says. “What does he do?” I ask. “He’s a manager at Acme Corp,” she says. “Cool,” I say. More silence. I smile vacantly at a centerpiece. “So do you like it here?” I ask. “It’s very nice,” she says. “Yes, it’s a great community,” I say, and add, “We really like it.” Silence. “It was a beautiful day,” I say, trying again. “Yes,” she says. I concede conversational defeat, say brightly, “Good to meet you,” and slink off.

Yeah, I’m a dud. Jane, bless her, didn’t bat any of the conversational balls back to me (“So where are you from?”) and her answers were all very brief. I could have dug deeper, asking what she likes best about the town and so on, but the conversation was already starting to feel like a one-sided interrogation. If I’d kept questioning her, I’d have needed a stool and a bare light bulb.

So, all you Dale Carnegies out there—how do I draw Jane out and get a conversation going? When she’s not asking me any questions in return or expanding on any of the questions I ask her, I feel awkward pushing her for more information. Plus, if I don’t know Jane at all, I don’t know which subjects are taboo. What if I try to keep the conversation going by asking, “Do you have children?” and it turns out she has struggled with infertility for twenty years? I’d feel terrible. I know that showing genuine interest in people is important to good conversation, but when I’ve barely met someone, I feel weird saying something like, “So what are your hobbies?”

As authors, we’re supposed to promote our work, which can involve chatting with bookstore staff, readers and interviewers (unless we’re lucky(?) enough to have an interviewer like Rob who’ll just make up our answers without actually consulting us). So all you conversational whizzes out there, feel free to give me advice, so at my next book signing I can engage people in riveting conversation instead of smiling vacantly at centerpieces and talking about the weather.


At 11/07/2007 6:34 PM, Blogger A. Riley said...

I hope many people give some thoughts. I tend to be like Jane and hard a hard time talking to new people.

At 11/07/2007 7:15 PM, Anonymous Jennie Hansen said...

I really hate it when your comment section dumps my comments into outer space or wherever. I'll try to repeat what I said.
Stephanie, I think most writers are introverts who are happiest holed up in some small space with our computers. We can devise scintillating conversation for our characters, but don't do so well in person. I, too, love chatty people who take over the conversation ball, especially at book signings, especially the ones who announce loudly that they love my books and encourage everyone in the store to buy one. And why is it that people assume that because someone can write, he/she can also speak? I'll admit some writers can speak, but most of us would rather be home with our computers or a good book.

At 11/07/2007 8:03 PM, Blogger A. Riley said...

I agree with that. When I'm writing, I can find the perfect words and set up the conversation exactly how I want it to go.

When I'm talking with strangers, I'm not sure what to say, or I don't say it quite right sometimes. No editing there.

At 11/07/2007 8:25 PM, Blogger Ronda Hinrichsen said...

Ditto, ditto, ditto. I've often said, "I write because I can't talk." Don't get me wrong. I don't have trouble "speaking" in the sense of giving prepared talks, etc., because I can plan that. It's the one on one, spontaneous stuff that gets me. Worse than that, whenever I've done the "the next person who walks in the door, I'm going to---" I end up making a huge fool of myself.
As I write this, I'm starting to think: Maybe what I need to do is think about what draws ME out. I'm not a chatty responder, usually, so maybe . . .
I don't know.
I hope someone does. Hmm. Maybe we should ask LDS Storymakers to add a class on this at their next conference. (I'm only partially kidding.)

At 11/07/2007 9:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Who says you have to wait to be asked? The conversation could go something like this:
"What brought you here?"
"My husband's job."
"Oh, what does he do?"
"We's a manager at Acme Corp."
"We came here for a job transfer for my husband's job, too. He works for Big Bad Corporation. We've been here three years."

And there you go - you've done a couple things:
1. Made the conversation less one sided.
2. Modeled longer responses. That's what chatty people do that make it easier for you to give longer responses.
3. You've pointed out one similarity between the two - you both moved into town for a job transfer.
4. You've opened the door for HER to ask where you moved from. Sure you could volunteer that, too, but if you're volunteering EVERYTHING then it becomes a monologue, not a conversation.

At 11/07/2007 10:09 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Thanks, Anon! Great advice. I'm going to practice this at the next opportunity.

Jennie, sorry about the lost comments. Thanks for persevering!

At 11/07/2007 11:45 PM, Blogger RobisonWells said...

Stephanie, myabe you just don't seem like the type of person anyone would want to get to know?

It's a thought.

At 11/08/2007 12:25 AM, Blogger Annette Lyon said...

We write instead of talking, for sure. Writing allows you to revise for months before you get it right, but speech just comes out, wrong or not.

But yeah, people assume if you're a writer you have a way with words--even my sister did at one point and was surprised I felt so uncomfortable in new social situations because, well, I'm a writer. Shouldn't I be able to talk well?

To put it eloquently: No.

At 11/08/2007 1:03 AM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Wouldn't it be great if we could revise our spoken words? Then again, maybe not . . . I'd end up revising so much I'd never get anything said. Then again, maybe that wouldn't be all bad.

Yep, Rob, that must be the problem. No one wants to talk to me, so I've sunk to associating with the kind of bozo who hates libraries and has had a gold-star membership in the crabby old man club since he was fifteen.

At 11/08/2007 9:17 AM, Blogger Rebecca Talley said...

Rob made up that interview with Annette? I'm stunned.

At 11/08/2007 9:51 AM, Blogger Cheri J. Crane said...

I find it stimulates conversation when you add in things like:

"So once I was abducted by an alien spaceship."

At 11/08/2007 10:20 AM, Blogger Karlene said...

My third question (after who are you and why are you here) is always, "Have you ever seen a UFO?" They either answer enthusiastically with lots of details, or they remember they had something very important to do and leave. Either way, it resolves the long one-sided conversation dilemma.

At 11/08/2007 10:21 AM, Blogger Karlene said...

Oh, crud. Between the time I read the previous comments and typed and published mine, Cheri jumped in with the same idea. Now I look like a copycat.

At 11/08/2007 12:00 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

UFOs, eh? You people are scaring me.

At 11/08/2007 1:23 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

"...but the conversation was already starting to feel like a one-sided interrogation."

Its said that people like talking about themselves. That may be a little overly ego-centric. Most people enjoy talking about their lives, what they're doing and things they know lots about because they are things that are familiar to them. Our lives are well within our comfort zone. So you go off and ask a list of personal questions and poor Jane doesn't open up. It isn't that she is clueless about her husband's job or that she hasn't a clue about why her family decided to move to your neighborhood. Of course she knows why. But you're a complete stranger and just like you she's reserved, hesitant, and a little unerved about possibly saying the wrong thing. She plays it close, stays in her comfort zone, gives you some polite answers and is likely relieved when the converstaion ends.

How do you get past that wall? If you're not willing to open up, possibly even take the risk of being vulnerable, why should Jane? Don't go after poor Jane with a list of questions. That's what you do right after you've made both of you comfortable. And don't open your joke book and hope that a few canned laughs will part the veil where you will instantly find that you are, in fact, kindred spirits.

Instead of asking, "How do you like the neighborhood?" volunteer something a little more personally revealing about yourself. Something like, "We live just around the corner where they're putting in a new sewer line in the street. Did you see that big hole? I thought my little four year old was going to fall right in. Which if it had happened yesterday I would have been a little relieved. He was a handful yesterday."


Instead of asking, "So where does your husband work?" you say something like, we really like living here because its so much closer to my husband's job at Wal Mart. He manages the meat department there and we get the best steaks."

What usually ends up happening is that your new-found sister will laugh and ask the name of your four year old. Or maybe she'll ask how you cook your steaks. Now you have her asking the questions---a place where she feels a lot more comfortable. You've given her something she ask questions about and of course you give her even more information. Something like, "His given name is Jacob, but we call him fish. We can't keep him from running out into the backyard and dowsing himself with the hose. We removed the faucett and now he dunks his head in the toilet."

Just like writing a novel, you'll get a sense of proportion in your responses and you won't go off and dominate the opening exchanges in your converstion. But you will provide enough information so that your new kindred spirit knows that you are not perfect, that you have a sense of humor, that you have few preconcieved notions about how people should behave and that you are accepting of new friends. Jane feels comfortable. So now when you finally get around to asking your first question about Jane she's shed her reservation, she's comfortable sharing some of herself with you and magically you really do find out that you are kindred spirits.

Those are my inital thoughts. I could be way off base, but that's where I'm coming from.

All the best,


At 11/08/2007 1:39 PM, Blogger Stephanie Black said...

Excellent insights, Dave! Thanks so much.

At 11/08/2007 3:09 PM, Blogger Heather B. Moore said...

I just say, "Read any good novels lately?" Talking about books is always fun. Unless they say, "I don't read novels." Then you can say, "Hey, that was pretty lousy of Laman trying to kill Nephi, don't you think?" or "What do you think the real story is behind Sariah murmuring and calling her husband a visionary man? Pretty rude of her, eh?"

At 11/08/2007 4:56 PM, Blogger David G. Woolley said...

Or you could ask, "How big of a rod do you think Laman used to whack his brother senseless?"

At 11/08/2007 7:27 PM, Blogger Jon said...

Well, really, Stephanie, you should be congratulated for being willing to take the first step and introducing yourself. =)

"Oh? You're taking a course in conversation?"


At 11/08/2007 9:43 PM, Blogger Marcia Mickelson said...

I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who has social challenges. And, I agree with Jennie sometimes I would much rather be at home with a good book than in a social setting. I really have to make an effort. I also love being in Primary and have volunteered to stay in nursery so I don't have to go socialize in Relief Society. (I like RS, I just have trouble with the social aspect of it) I talk to kids so much more easily than adults.

At 11/09/2007 2:05 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Ditto to everything...except the UFO's.
Great blog Stephanie!


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