In the last three years, I’ve noticed a severe decline in both the quality and manners of conversation, in personal and professional contexts. Behaviours not long ago thought as unacceptable for children are now incorrectly normalized amongst adults, and passed off as generational changes, rather than the poor form that they really are. I thought it prudent to address some of the fundamentals.
– If a conversation is happening with people you know in an open social environment, and you wish to participate, do not come in and change the topic as soon as you enter the discussion. Approach politely, get a feel for things, and see if you have anything to add.
– Small talk places a glass ceiling on most interactions. Silence is often preferable, even moreso to those of us required to make small talk all day at work. If the weather is the same most days, no need to mention it. Sports and sports talk are not for everyone. Speak less, say more. Mundanity needs no exposition or explanation in most cases, and using too many cliches will turn a person into one eventually, as awkward conversation is often worse than awkward silence. A scarcity of words often means they have a greater value, and command more attention when used.
– Change LEVELS often. Tonality is important, and talking at the same pitch and speed all the time makes people tune you out. You may think mumbling or rambling monotone is acceptable for your music or ASMR videos, but in real life, proper enunciation and tonal variation is a necessity. Do not just assume a person is emotional or aggressive because they are animated – some of us come from very expressive cultures. High energy people with good self control do not need to stifle their expression for your preferences, just because you always talk in a whisper with no change in pitch or pace. On the flipside, if you come from a louder culture (as I do), adjust for new places to an extent.
– This one’s mostly for the Boomers: Don’t assume people share your more conservative views, as they’re now minority opinions. Don’t act shocked if you use slurs or derogatory remarks about things like gender changes or gay rights, only to be harshly criticized for it. A lot of old men now trade on mouthing off and being too old to get their asses kicked, and try to get away with remarks that would have got them punched out 20 years ago. Be grateful we’re only chastising you verbally now. Oftentimes, the things you complain about were never designed for you, and you have no experience in such affairs, so you can only speak out of ignorance. Don’t offer opinions on subjects without experience.
– Do not interrupt people for any reason but an emergency. Read the room you’re in, and wait your turn. If you are ‘in a hurry’ at a store, then you better be on time always, and use every minute to the best of your ability. Far too many people do things like go to a restaurant/try to make a frivolous purchase/etc. and assume their bad time management trumps the people in front of them, who behave politely and allowed enough time to do their stuff. Not every culture tolerates line cutting and talking over the top of others who came first, and some will respond harshly. It isn’t normal or acceptable behaviour literally anywhere, even if it is common.
– Don’t overstay your welcome. If the talk has dried up, and the silence is weird, time to move on. Nobody is obligated to entertain anyone who isn’t paying them for it, nor to guilt people for not staying longer when it’s clearly time to go. Neediness is a childish trait, so be grateful for the time people give – it is arguably their most precious resource.
– Eye contact is a tricky balance. If you stare at someone constantly in a conversation without blinking, it’s creepy. Unless you’re sexually involved with them, then it’s kind of hot. No eye contact is also bad. The norm varies from culture to culture, but nobody wants to talk to someone who’s only talking to their shoes. I can’t make eye contact for long periods with most folks because my eyes move around A LOT, but a few times here and there shows I’m paying attention.
– Taking the piss and using a bit of sarcasm is fine within limits, but take the temperature first. I’ve seen too many people (mostly white, male, straight) come in, wrecking ball style, with edgelord jokes and wind up material that flat out sucks. Not offensive so much as just weak. They act like some of us who grew up in sarcastic pisstake cultures have no sense of humour, when in reality we’re just used to masters, not novices. Earn a bit of respect, trust and verbal chemistry before going down those paths, and pick your spots carefully.
– It’s a diverse world, and people have lots of interests and options. Don’t act shocked when, while discussing music, it turns out the devout punk or metalhead doesn’t enjoy your chart topping favourites. Not everyone watches stupid fucking dragon show, so no need to convince or bully them into it. The hard sell is a turnoff, and much like religion, if it was THAT good, would it need to be forced on people so much? Try to avoid saying “You should do/watch/try …”, because only the people who pay you or raised you get to say “Should”. Offer suggestions, not directives (I’m looking at you, iPhone cultists).
– Most importantly, consent. If a person is not up to a conversation about an issue that does not directly involve them (and even if it does), then unless it’s life or death, discuss it later. I’ve had too many late night, unwanted therapy sessions or interrogations that ended in tears or yelling because I simply had nothing left. Instead of a short, civil chat the next day, someone else’s garden variety anxiety/everyday existential angst somehow took precedence over severe stress or fatigue, and the right to sleep and privacy. It’s not ok. If a person reacts emotionally because you keep poking and prying, despite being offered alternatives or asked to talk at a better time, it is YOUR lack of restraint that is to blame, not theirs, and really it’s low level abuse. Let people wake up or wind down, and consider if talking the matter over truly helps – often (dare I say usually) contemplation or catharsis is better.
– Silence can be a teacher. Let conversations breathe, and if you’re not sure you should say it, wait. Read visual and verbal cues – it is your job to learn them, not that of others to adapt to your inexperience, or unwillingness to absorb basic universal concepts.
– Just because people lash out online, and trumpet their opinions and preferences as law, does not mean they count in reality, and so it’s generally best save them for when you are asked. And if you do ask, accept that nobody forced you – if you can’t handle the answer, don’t ask the question, especially when you are warned. Nobody is obligated to explain themselves to anyone until they violate the boundaries of others, or enter into official arrangements, be they business or personal. Our society has lost a lot of social grace and decorum in the last 20 years for all our ‘enlightenment’ – let’s try to regain some.