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Conversation-wise

August 5, 2018

Sorry, what did you say?

Oh … well … thank you.

I credit my parents — both of them.

You know how you get some things from your mother and some things from your father? Well, I get my conversational style from both. I think their respective influences are about equal. It’s kind of a “codominant alleles” situation.

For my mom — and also her brother Scott — the basic principle is that you show someone that you care about them by asking them lots of questions. It’s a matter of fundamental politeness, like saying “please” and “thank you.”

Of course, everyone knows that it’s nice to ask people about themselves. But my mom is unusually consistent about actually doing it. I think she may have a three-question minimum; any less would be impolite. And the questions can’t all be totally generic, either. “How’s it going?” is a fine conversation-starter, but it doesn’t count toward the minimum.

It’s funny — peculiar funny, not ha-ha funny — that my mom’s parents, for all of their other marvelous qualities, were NOT great conversationalists. Her dad told tangent-filled stories that were not well-tailored to their audiences. Lots of details about which roads you should take to get from town-I’ve-never-heard-of A to town-I’ve-never-heard-of B. And her mom was generally terse, especially when talking about herself. Somehow my mom and her brother internalized a very different code of conversation — a code of gentle but persistent questioning. So I try to ask a lot of questions too.

Are you wondering how my dad fits into all this? Well, my dad believes in the same approach, to some extent. He once took a Dale Carnegie course on “How to Win Friends and Influence People,” which taught him that people like to talk about themselves, and that you should enable that by asking questions. But my dad is more relaxed than my mom about demonstrating his interest. He thinks the Dale Carnegie thing works best when you ask questions that you really care about. Don’t ask questions just for the sake of asking questions.

One other thing about my dad: he once was a newspaper reporter. It wasn’t necessarily the job he was best at or liked the most, but I like to imagine him sniffing out hidden truths, like Woodward and Bernstein, or David Fahrenthold. Rutland, Vermont did not have many presidential scandals to uncover, but my dad was there, just in case. I think once he got to investigate a suspicious fire.

Anyway, while I’ve only dabbled in journalism myself, I think I bring my dad’s reporter’s mindset to a lot of conversations. I try to get past the small talk to find the story that the person wants to tell AND that I will find interesting. My tendency to drill down like this may be off-putting; sometimes, if I’m getting overly journalistic, I’ll pantomime shoving a microphone into the other person’s face, just to make fun of myself. I think most people appreciate the questions, though.

While my tendency to “interview” people reminds me of my dad, I should note that my mom is a good reporter too. She’s often in an information-gathering state, anyway. I suppose it’s hard to say exactly where one parent’s influence ends and the other’s begins. Or, for that matter, where their collective influence ends and one’s own personality begins.

Hmmm — that was quite a lengthy monologue, wasn’t it? Not my best work, conversation-wise. But if you’ve ever wondered why I converse in the way that I do, well, now you know!

3 comments

  1. Not that I wondered, but now I know! Fun to read!


  2. Not bad. However, I did some good digging in my reporting days, a lot more than one suspicious fire. Dad


    • Sorry, Dad! The narrator was making a lazy joke for an easy laugh, as I sometimes do in conversation.



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