It seems to me that conversation has run amuck. Either we’re talking ourselves in circles (like, who is sick of talking about COVID?) or we’re talking ourselves into a corner (like, realize you’re just not going to convince that person of your political point) or we’re talking ourselves right out of relationships (like, there are some things you just keep to yourself, sir). I, for one, just sort of want everyone to be quiet for a little bit—unless we can all remember how to be both interesting and considerate.
In the era of woke culture, proper etiquette is losing reputation. We all want the freedom to say what we like, when we like, and this apparently makes us a more developed and modern society. Don’t get me wrong—I can run my mouth and completely enjoy it from time to time, but it’s important we don’t run in circles, into corners, or right out of all we hold dear.
Since Emily Post has been right about etiquette for about five generations now, I thought it might be interesting to see what she had to say on the matter. Sure enough, she has tips on how to be a great conversationalist.
First, she says, the key is to be a listener. Seems pretty basic. “Empty other thoughts from your mind and concentrate on what the person is saying,” she says. Just for clarification’s sake, here is a straightforward definition of “listening:” “give one’s attention to a sound; take notice of and act on what someone says; make an effort to hear something; be alert and ready to hear something.” Let’s please note that listening always refers to the speech coming from someone else, not your own voice heard in whatever someone else is saying. When was the last time you really listened?
Second, says Emily, no interrupting. And anyone who wants to make sure to drive this home says (repeatedly, with a smile), “I’m speaking. I’m speaking,” and, to follow-up, “If you don’t mind letting me finish, then we can have a conversation.” Of course, Emily Post, writing from the dark (light?) ages of appropriate conduct has nothing to say about how to defend oneself against an interrupter, so I had to draw from some more recent inspiration.
For our third point, I’d like to explore territory Emily Post never had to navigate. She says that to be a good conversationalist, you need to be aware of personal space. To review, might I suggest the 82nd and 83rd episodes of Seinfeld, “The Raincoats,” otherwise referred to as “the close talkers” episodes. Of course, 1994 is practically an archaic reference now too, because God help us if Seinfeld had had to deal with personal space in the digital age. In my opinion, it is an affront when someone speaks directly into my nose (never more true than in the time of COVID). Why is that? Because you have lost control of your own safety zone and it makes you feel, as the invaded, that you have to be rude in order to regain equilibrium—i.e., very obviously step away or lean back. I would argue that it is equally invasive to have bombs dropped into your phone unexpectedly. Topics we used to reserve for meaningful face-to-face conversations are now casually inserted into emails, text messages or the inbox on your preferred social platform. Now, without warning, perhaps before you’ve finished your first cup of coffee on an average Monday morning, you’re forced to deal with the extreme, politically-charged opinion of your Aunt Mildred in Massachusetts, when ordinarily you could have girded yourself for that Thanksgiving conversation. Personal space is important, physically and digitally.
Finally, Emily Post reminds us that body language is exceedingly important, communicating sometimes more than our words do. This assumes that you’re having a face-to-face conversation with someone, calling attention to such behaviors as expression, eye contact, gesturing, nodding, pointing and posture. Certainly these are components of communication worthy of our attention when we’re speaking with someone; and when I consider how to apply them to these days of Zoom calls and FaceTime, or dealing with Aunt Mildred (no offense to the Mildreds out there), I think the best advice is found in Emily Post’s motivation. In each category, she encourages showing interest and respect, denoting warmth, finding connection and being open. I wonder, nowadays, how often we enter a conversation solely for the purpose of connecting with someone else, to show interest in them by giving them respect, an open mind and a friendly smile?
From someone frankly a little too young to harp on “the good old days” of conversation and at the risk of sounding preachy, I can’t help but mourn the loss of good conversation. Even as you’re reading this (a rather one-sided conversation, I realize), I wonder if you’ve taken your recent interactions into consideration or if, convinced of your own rightness and know-how, you’re writing me off before you’ve even gotten to the period at the end of this sentence.