During Covid-19, You Need to Learn How to Have a Conversation

A closet introvert who avoids personal phone calls except in cases of extreme emergency or death, I tend to feel accosted when someone telephones out of the blue. It’s like bursting into someone’s home unannounced. What an intrusion!

So for me, one particular development during the pandemic era has been particularly startling. I have found myself happily picking up my phone for face time with friends in Nashville and Manhattan’s East Village. For Mother’s Day I Zoomed with siblings and extended family; last week, for the first time in too long, I called my Granddad in Dallas, just to say hello.

At work, I eagerly anticipate the weekly editorial meetings on Bloomberg’s internal videoconferencing system; I will call colleagues with brief questions when email would have sufficed—and then call others to debrief from the phone call we just had.

But I have noticed that, on the whole, we need some help. I’m sure you can relate: the Zoom group chats, virtual birthday parties, and family “reunions” that fall victim to stretches of awkward silence, or the stumble starts of people speaking over each other and then backing away, frightened. (There’s always one person, too, who dominates everything.) Then there’s the simple fact is that many people apparently don’t think to—maybe, don’t know how to—ask simple or genuinely interesting questions of others.

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The irony is that there isn’t much we can do with our familial and social communities right now, except for conversing. And that may be the one thing in this modern age we’ve almost entirely forgotten how to do.

So it occurred to me to ask some experts how to do it better. As Alexander Pope famously wrote: "True ease in talking comes from art, not chance, as those move easiest who have learned to dance."

Conversation Is All We Have

Wendy Kraus is a 15-year psychotherapist and licensed clinical social worker who, under normal circumstances, works from offices in New York’s Soho. Now she holds sessions with clients daily via videoconferences from Sag Harbor, sometimes with her young daughter dancing through the background. According to Kraus, some of the connection being offered through Zoom and this new culture of increased “checking-in” is actually a salve to cure a societal ill: the shallow relationships provided by social media, which have replaced deeper support networks.

“Social media is a really alienating outlet. It’s often a distorted surface-level presentation of who we are and what is happening in life,” says Kraus. On Instagram, as any influencerwill tell you, it’s easy to make nearly any situation look any which way: beautiful, cool, exciting—you name it. We scroll like automatons seeing snapshots and snippets of other people’s lives that don’t actually indicate their external and internal realities. A photograph offers no true sense of how someone is feeling, no insight to what they think. There’s no context, no broad perspective to any of it, which can leave users feeling empty, to say the least.

Lately, though, “there has been a step away from the overly curated conversations and surface-level connectedness promoted through social media,” Kraus says. “What I’m hearing is that people are much more vulnerable in conversation, much more prone to truth-telling. I feel really heartened by that.”

Thirty percent of her clients, Kraus says, are professionals living alone in New York. Many are actively seeking the intimacy that a good conversation provides and are using new platforms in the most generative and connective way possible. “Celebrating birthdays and happy hours on Zoom, putting on face time and eating dinner together—these are really unique adaptations to the technology,” says Kraus. “People are feeling emboldened to really connect on a human level.”  

Catherine Blyth, who wrote The Art of Conversation (Gotham, 2008; $16), says the phone calls and even WhatsApp messages she has exchanged with family and friends have provided deep solace in an otherwise unsettling time.

“For the moment we’re in right now, technology has been incredible. Conversations have been allowed in a way that I couldn’t have imagined when I wrote the book,” says Blyth, calling by phone from her home in England. “I certainly think we are social animals, and one of the many cruel side effects of this is how we are being denied intimacy and contact. But there are some benefits: You don’t need to look nice to have a telephone conversation. And now, we’ve all got a stake in the game. We have common ground. There’s a kind of urgency and charge to our exchanges.”

Of course, none of that means we’re automatically good at chatting. “A good conversation is one where we are sharing authentically from the heart,” Kraus says. “It’s an opportunity to be seen in ways that are legible and important to us. It creates a sense of deep inner well-being. It’s a sense of belonging.”

Sometimes we need a little help to get there.

Mr. Manners

“To me, a conversation is so much about a connection between two people,” says David Coggins, speaking by phone from Manhattan’s West Village. Coggins wrote Men and Manners (Harry N. Abrams, 2018; $17) about the very topic of connecting via good manners and etiquette. The important thing is to be open and human, he says—even vulnerable. It doesn’t take a high IQ or a comedian’s funny bone, it just takes a willing ear.

“A good conversation starts with being able to ask a question and being able to listen to the answer,” says Coggins. “When you get somebody talking about something they care about, they’re way more interesting.”

Crucially, it’s important to listen to the answers you get, he says. “Really try to understand the other person. It takes a little bit longer, but it’s worth it. People are more interesting than we give them credit for.”

And treat it with a light touch. Most conversations should not be burdensome to either party, which is unrelated to how meaningful they can get. Sometimes neighborhood gossip can be as fulfilling as deep discussions about spirituality—or politics, another famously taboo subject. The way a topic is handled (bedside manner, say) is just as essential as the subject matter itself.

“I really value those people who don’t make a conversation about themselves,” says Coggins. “We all love people who are self-effacing, who can take a joke and who can make a joke. A good conversationalist would bring that out in someone.”

Conflict Conversation

The contrast to an enriching dialogue, of course, is one that makes you feel badly. Either it erupts into overt conflict, or it folds into the subtle alienation that happens when we are misunderstood, made to feel unwelcome, or even rendered voiceless.  

“There are those who—their idea of conversation is performance. They think they’re [bleeping] Oscar Wilde,” Blyth says. “These are the ones who just can’t help feeling like they have to entertain you, and you just want to have the game show-type button to slip them off their chair.”

Technology mishandled, she says, can make it even worse. At least if you’re talking with someone face-to-face, they will give non-verbal cues such as crossed arms or eyes glazed over, which may signal that the speaker has lost the audience. Not so over the phone. “It’s the un-self-consciousness, that’s one of the dangerous of technology,” Blyth says. “People get alone in a room, and they think they’re [figuratively] a porn star, and it’s total disinhibition.”

Helpful rules apply here, as during normal circumstances: If you’re on camera, smile. (I have been on many a Zoom call with half the users looking utterly miserable; then again, maybe they are.)

Look the other person in the eye, but don’t bore into them like a laser beam. (Freaky.)

Keep your posture alert. (Slumping suggests boredom.)

Avoid embarking on personal monologues. (If you’ve spoken for 30 seconds straight with no input from the other person, you’re on a monologue. Halt, apologize immediately, and ask the other person something meaningful about their life that week.)

“Try hard not to be bossy,” Blyth says, noting that any general domineering tendencies to demand that the other person talk about a certain thing will certainly come across as rather rude.

Ask questions that lead the listener to share some of their day’s events, thoughts, or inspirations, but don’t ask endless questions. A good conversation should feel like a tennis match, not the Spanish Inquisition.

“The art of conversation is taking turns, changing sides—it’s like a game,” Blyth says. “The person who makes you feel like you are a brilliant conversationalist is almost certainly the best at it. It’s not the person who can talk for hours.”

Take It All In

Really try to listen, not just hear, what someone is saying. Forget suppositions about how and what a conversation should be; let it flow naturally, based on what you truly hear the other person telling you.

And if you’re stuck as captive prey to  nonsense chatter, turn up the intensity by asking about something that’s actually meaningful.

“The way we get out of chit-chat is when we discuss things that have more meaning,” says Coggins. “It’s not that you’re going around with your hottest take trying to upset someone, but you might reveal an ‘80s hair metal band that you secretly like. Very rarely do we say something that makes ourselves vulnerable.”

For larger groups speaking together online, it can help to appoint someone as the holder of the proverbial “speaking stick,” which when passed confers the right to hold the floor, she adds. That “stick” can be an agreement that everyone on the call will have a hat close at hand, and the person wearing their hat is the one who has the floor. (Take turns, people!) Or it can mean simply nominating a moderator in charge of gently steering the call with questions to specific people and keeping mindful of the clock. (There is nothing more tedious than an overlong Zoom call.) Otherwise the danger is that your Zoom group calls will inevitably devolve into chaos, like chimps hooting and hollering over each other at the zoo.

“I’ve noticed that if you have more than three or four people on a video call, it can get out of hand—and the technology rewards that,” she says, noting that the microphone always defaults to whomever speaks loudest and most. “Very quickly, you’ll see who is dominant in the room.”

The Seeping Dread of Chit-Chat

Small talk can be another form of failed conversation. It’s perhaps the most painful form of all, like death by a thousand pricks, while one is trapped a dinner table, on an airplane, or at a cocktail party. Thankfully for those easily traumatized by banality, those face-to-face instances are less common at the moment. Unfortunately, awkward chit-chat exists even in virtual form.

Excruciating small talk situations often stem from boredom between those who are interacting, says Anthony Haden-Guest, the charmingly irreverent British-American writer and critic who lives in New York and London. He should know: As a party-goer of notorious endurance, Haden-Guest’s work has appeared in Vanity Fair, The New Yorker, The Paris Review, and Rolling Stone magazine; his book, The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco, and the Culture of the Night (It Books, 2009; $18) ,chronicles “the tornado of 1970s disco, drug excess, and excessive sex that was Studio 54,” as one reviewer put it. Haden-Guest starts our telephone conversation by asking “Was it you who was with me the night that man tried to strangle me?” Why yes, yes, it was. The man has a good memory. Or maybe that just happens to him a lot.

Haden-Guest blames poor conversation etiquette on the increasing lack of recognition that others in society are interesting, empathetic beings worthy of attention.

“We live in particularly and slightly eerie times, and I’m not talking about the virus,” he says. “In a world of screens, there’s a great social dissolving of social glue. The simple act of recognizing another as a human being has diminished considerably.”

Appreciate the Conversation You Are In

The good thing is that trivial chit chat can be used as a tool. “Small talk can be the key to getting to comfortable—you’re finding your tempo and getting a rapport with someone,” Blyth says. “Even if the topic is meaningless, it can be significant because you’re getting somewhere. You can set the tone in the first few minutes and then move into something more meaningful.”

It doesn’t take a genius to make the transition from chit-chat to conversation. Curiosity is the cure.

“The luminous conversationalists I have known are everlastingly curious about the outside world—about big things and little things,” Haden-Guest tells me by phone. “George Plimpton comes to mind. He was not personally very interesting, but he was very human and very giving.”

“Be curious about everything,” Haden-Guest repeats like a mantra. Take the time to recognize the spirit of the human in front of you, even if it’s on a screen. Give them time to speak; think before you respond. “Empathy and curiosity are related,” he says.

“I think good conversation is people who like to give and also like to take,” he says. “You have to be interested in people. It doesn’t mean they have the best mind, or that you do. It means you have the ability to learn.”

It all reminds me of that old Jane Fonda jewel: “It’s more important to be interested than interesting.” That, presumably, applies whether you’re sitting down to catch up over coffee—or speaking across the country on Zoom.

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