I’m an introvert, and although I can pass as an extrovert in certain situations (like being in front of a crowd, or when hanging out with people I know well), I still have a problem with small talk. I’ve run into this problem a couple of times over the last few days, where a conversation I’m having with someone suddenly dries up. I often make it worse by sighing or shifting my gaze downward. There’s just nothing to say for a moment and we (this happens in one-on-one and small groups, mostly) just sit for a while and steep in the silence.
Often we get the conversation going again (I usually try to ask about hobbies, goals, work, etc) but it’s a painful reminder that I’m not great at keeping a conversation going.
But there are some people who I seem to be able to talk for a long time with, at length about topics, and some external force has to intervene to end the conversation. I, of course, try to make friends with these people and hang out with them often, but occasionally it happens with a stranger. What mysterious force is it that suddenly makes me able to hold a deep and intelligent conversation with someone, without having to resort to “small talk”? I was thinking about this on the subway home after a party tonight and framed it in an interesting way, that I thought might make a good essay.
Note, I don’t want to claim I’ve “discovered” anything or that this is “the way”, I just want to explore this idea and would love feedback on it.
People have certain interests, and various intensities of these interests. I might call these “wavelengths” – a frequency (topic) and an amplitude (depth of knowledge / interest) that people carry a multitude of. I, for example, could talk to you at length about webcomic publishing, or perhaps the 1987 roguelike computer game Nethack, or how everything about the Scott Pilgrim movie was perfect except for Michael Cera. All of these things I have factoids, opinions, and perhaps most importantly and interest in discussing.
If you ask me to talk about gasoline cars, or maybe the Kardashians, or football, I have a thought or two but you’ll quickly discover that I’m not “on that wavelength.” The conversation can’t last long because I don’t have much to contribute. I’ll say, “hmm, interesting” and listen to you and be happy to learn some things, but I won’t have anything real to contribute. And so unless you’re very passionate about the topic, the conversation will soon end and I’ll make an excuse about having to refill my drink and wander off to find a new conversation. Which is fine, I bet you don’t want to be in this staring-at-the-floor-contest any longer either.
There are also some real dampeners, which one should seek to avoid. Some people don’t like to talk about some things for real reasons, and it’s not kind to force them onto those topics.
And so striking up a conversation is a frequency-searching exercise. What do we have in common enough to talk about. Work, sure. The weather, sure. Complaining about the MTA, sure. But those things aren’t (usually) the kind of things that get people really excited. And sometimes they’re dampeners, when someone is having a bad time at work and you ask them how work is going. But it’s difficult, since the things people really like to get into the weeds about are often obscure, and there’s a strange pressure against just opening conversations with, “hey are you into Nethack?” unless there’s some reason, like I saw you playing Nethack. I think it’s a failure thing; if I get all excited, “oh, are you a Nethack fan?” and the response I get is, “what’s that?” then I know I’m in for giving an explanation, which isn’t the same as a conversation.
Which of course is one of the reasons that the internet is so neat. I can just click some buttons on my $2000 facebook machine and get instantly connected to a large group of Nethack fans. Sometimes these online conversations spill over into real life. But often the Venn diagram of people I hang out with IRL and the people who are in these online groups is two circles. The fact that we can find these “lifestyle enclaves” (see Habits of the Heart by Bellah et al) of people on the same wavelength can also be dangerous echo chambers.
But the best, the best thing is when you run into someone who is an amplifier on your wavelength. My partner is like this for a lot of things, where we both get excited about something and end up being able to talk about it for a long time. And I have a friend who is like this for technical things – once we start coming up with tech and business ideas it’s very difficult to stop.
But to do this, your wavelengths have to be similar, and just like music there have to be other notes – other wavelengths that you can bounce off of to add interest to the conversation without it falling flat. And these amplifiers are rare. You know them when you find them and you hold on to them. They’re people who hear your ideas and “yes and” them, sending the wavelength back to you, but louder. You’re safe to explore here. You can even dig around for new wavelengths together, since you can always return to your common ground if nothing turns up.
There are some people who seem to be able to frequency-hop easily. It’s practice, I know, but I’m not that good at it. And as an awkward nerd-human I’m terrible about hiding when I’m uninterested in a wavelength, I quickly lose interest. My partner is great at this – she has the ability to work with people across a much wider variety of interests and be (or at least seem) interested in what they’re saying, and carry on a conversation. This is a skill I’m still working on, but it is a skill that can be practiced.