In modern conversation, you will often find yourself in the following scenario:
A: Have you seen [movie]?
B: No I haven’t! What’s it about?
A: [summarizes film]. You should totally see it.
B: You’re right! I definitely should. Have you seen [different movie]?
Then the whole cycle repeats itself. Sometimes this kind of conversation is fine, but I notice that it creates a loop of trying to one up your conversational partner in tallying up movies that you love against movies that they love. Even if there is overlap between your tastes, the conversation becomes a pissing contest rather than something rewarding or fruitful.
Now that the amount of media available is massive, we essentially are faced with an infinite amount of movies, books, and albums to consume. To constantly match what you have seen against what someone else has seen is fruitless. There needs to be a better way to create meaningful conversation out of comparing our individual experiences with media with other people. For simplicity’s sake, I’m going to use movies as my primary example.
For starters, try to figure out why this person is telling you about this particular movie. Questions like “Why do you like this film?” “Why do you think I would like this film?” are good places to start. I also try to contextualize media in relation to the present moment. “Explain to me how this film is relevant?” is not necessarily an elegant question for conversation, but it is another angle you can use for digging deeper. The purpose of these questions is to open the dialogue to a broader spectrum of conversation that can result in a new idea or experience.
A: Have you seen “Aeon Flux”?
B: No I haven’t! Why do you think I should see this film?
A: Well, it’s an almost direct translation from anime to live action…
A: Have you seen “Baby Driver”?
B: No I haven’t! What’s it about?
B: It’s about a kid who drives cars for robbers, but stylized in a way that is centered around the music that constantly plays into his headphones, which he never takes off.
A: [thinks “how is this relevant?”] Huh, that’s interesting because of how relatable that experience is for a lot of people who listen to music a lot on their commutes or at work.
Both of these open the conversation to diverse subject matter, and escape the trap of going back and forth comparing our film-viewing history.
Conversation As a Dance
A lot of the time I only want to talk about coffee or books, but I am learning that being a conversational partner is as much contribution as it is listening. This is sort of a no-brainer for some people, but after working in customer service and meeting hundreds of people in the past couple of years, I sometimes fall into a conversational autopilot that is neither present nor awake. Conversation is assessing the other person’s interest and matching it. If someone doesn’t want to have a conversation, you don’t talk. If someone wants mild, pleasant small-talk, you can potentially reciprocate. But if you’re talking to someone and you touch upon something that they are genuinely interested in, it benefits both participants of the interaction.
I know two excellent conversationalists who have told me the secret to good talks is finding out what the other person wants to talk about. I believe most of us are chewing on some kind of idea at any given moment, and it is really exciting and special to be given the opportunity to share what that thing is. I like talking to my friend Zac because he shares the same vocabulary for entrepreneurship that I do, so when I tell him what I’m thinking he can come back with feedback that matters to me. I like listening to my friend Elliott talk about music because it occupies such a large portion of his thinking space that he usually has a lot to say about a particular artist or genre. Zac likes listening to me, I like listening to Elliott, and it’s all because we get to share what interests us.
There is a silly stereotype that computers and phones make us more closed off and more awkward in person. I think that this is something people like to say to mask their fear of technological change. People have the potential to be quality conversationalists, and to be able to bring meaningful dialogue to the table while avoiding problems like the “Have you seen…?” trap. It boils down to listening and providing the opportunity for new ideas to enter the space between you and the person across from you.