Saturday, January 17, 2015

beyond the conversation

When it comes to socializing, a lot of emphasis is placed on conversation.  Starting conversations.  Continuing conversations.  Ending conversations.  Changing conversation subjects.  Avoiding conversation subjects.  And so on.

I think that this is fair.  After all, without conversation, we would have difficulty knowing if we got along with someone else, building social relationships, and learning new things about people and sometimes about the world that we share with them.  Certainly, people that thrive together in a couple, a friendship, or a business partnership generally owe a big part of their success to conversations.

Yet, sometimes, on subject of enjoying real-time, face-to-face communication, conversations do not seem sufficient or appropriate.  They generally require substantial time on the part of the participants, they can easily become too factual, their structure is highly predictable, and the topics discussed tend to be the same ones.  And I say this while recognizing that I have not mastered the art of engaging people in conversations that are both stimulating and insightful.  As a member of society however, I bear a certain responsibility for the current state of conversation.

Real-time, face-to-face communication is about social interaction and conversation is only one form of social interaction.  Or at least that's the way I see it.  And there is so much joy to be derived from other forms of social interaction that are free from the constraints inherent in standard conversation.  I could not even dare naming all of them, since they are limitless in my opinion.  But there are a few that I use on a regular basis, and others less frequently.  I offer you some examples below.
  • When a person looking in your direction waves to someone else (who may be visible to you or not), wave to the person who initiated the wave.
  • When you are aboard an airplane and it lands after an uneventful and relatively short (1 to 2 hours) flight, applaud loudly to celebrate the landing.
  • When you are reading a book in the subway and you spot a fellow passenger reading a book written in the same language as yours, go closer to them and ask "Book swap?"
  • When you cross paths with someone while eating a sample of some delicious pastry from a bakery that you just left, ask them if they have tried that type of pastry from that bakery.  If they respond in any way other than saying yes, say "Well, I recommend it!".
  • When you discover an uncommon animal being presented on the street that you are walking on because of some event or holiday, e.g., a camel on Epiphany, remind yourself to ask a fellow pedestrian that you cross paths with some moments later on the same street if they like that kind of animal.  Better yet, convince them that they are in for a big surprise.
  • When, after just exiting a subway station on your way to work in the morning, you see someone in front of you exit a building and then walk towards the subway station, say hello and ask "You're going home?"
  • When you see a group of five girls or more seated comfortably in a bar chatting away, go over, say hello, and ask, "So, what do you girls want to talk about?"
  • When you see a girl standing with her eyes fixed on the screen of her cellphone, go next to her, quickly pull your cellphone out, and while pretending to use it, say "Ok, I'm listening, area code, 212, go on ..."
  • When you are in a crowded bar and a girl is passing you with a pint of beer that she just bought in her hand, tell her "Hmmmn, that smells good".
  • When someone on the street asks for directions, help them by first asking "How much do you have?"
  • When you are in conversation with peers that you do not know well, interrupt at some unexpected moment by saying "You know, it's like cheese".

Indeed, there is no limit to the forms of interaction we can have with people, if it is not our own imagination that imposes it.  We do not even have to use words, which a conversation could not do without.  All that is needed, at a minimum, are people and some idea that includes people.  The stranger idea is, the better, yet it should be respectful of the wishes and well-being of everyone included.  This is an art that the good people at ImprovEverywhere have definitely mastered.

But why bother with alternative social interactions anyway?  Well, for one thing, it is simply fun using them to step beyond the confines of what is normal ‒ standard conversation ‒ from time to time.  Secondly, they can serve as sources of inspiration, allowing us to dream up new ideas applicable to social settings, try them out, refine our methods, and even imagine other forms of interaction based on the feedback we receive.  A third reason is more personal yet it is universal.  This kind of interaction is a quick way to connect with people in our midst, with whom we would perhaps never imagine having an engaging conversation (an activity that many of us seem to cherish).  I think that some issues that we as individuals face in society would not need to be if we reached out regularly to people that we did not know and shared with them more of what we loved about our lives, even if that lasted only 10 seconds.  Brené Brown, a research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, stated during a TED talk that "connection is why we're here. It's what gives purpose and meaning to our lives."  I am yet to read somewhere that connection required five minutes of conversation.

Yet a conversation of five minutes has its merits.  And it does not have to be restricted to common topics.  If it is engaging conversations that we want, we have a responsibility to foster it, using our personal resources (such as creativity, knowledge, and sense of humor, among others) as much as necessary.  Dare I say that complaining that a conversation is banal or superficial may be a sign that one is not expressing his true interests or his true values during the conversation.

So I'm all in for some good ol' conversation, with family, friends, colleagues.  But I do not want to always wait to be reunited with people in my social circle before I can share an idea, a discovery, or an experience that is worth sharing.  If, for some reason or the other, I am unable to converse with the people around me at any given moment, I prefer to interact with them in other ways, because it can be just as fun as conversation, and sometimes more.  Besides, doing so gives me a sense of purpose.

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