Monday, July 28, 2008

Men are (?) boring

Dave Sculpt You never listen!

You just don't hear what I'm saying!

Why don't we ever talk?

Despite being literate, open, engaging, and witty, I will admit that (even) I (gasp!) get these questions from time to time.

And they now merit better discussion, following Sabine Durrant's article Are Men Boring? in the summer issue of Intelligent Life. She maintains that men just don't say anything in social settings, and, even when they do talk, tend to hammer on self-centered or tiresome topics. Either way, she asserts, men are poor conversationalists: they don't engage and they are incapable of making small talk.

While the article goes on to make various Mars / Venus rationalizations from neuroscience to sociology about why this might be the case, I'll diverge a bit today to a) admit the fact, b) offer three thoughts about why it might be true, and c) promise to try to do better.

I will admit Sabine's point that I often miss the signals that a conversation is being started.

I know that I answer simple questions with simple answers: "What do you think of that sculpture?" (I like it.) or "What do you think you'll have?" (I'm deciding between the steak and the chicken.). I don't extend the talk if it's simply a thrust ("I'm glad we came here." Me too!) or parry ("Are we lost?" I think I recognize the next street...). And I don't like to offer opinions if it could bite me later (examples omitted for self-protection).

But, given a bit of context and encouragement, I'm happy to have a sparkling conversation about travel, cinema, current events, the arts, investment, podcasts, philosophy, programming, clinical monitoring, or narrative parsing.

Okay, 'maybe that latter stuff is part of the problem.... But, beyond that, why is there so little high-quality small-talk?

First, I think that Sabine confuses communication within couples vs. social conversation. In her hypothetical dinner party, seated next to someone I hadn't met, I do open a conversation. My small talk tends to be a search for common ground: a shared travel experience or a current news item. If that goes well, then I am comfortable finding out more about who they are and an interesting work or hobby interest they enjoy sharing.

As a couple, though, I admit that familiarity and immediacy lead to practical, focused conversations at the end of the day: what's been done, who did it, what needs to be done, and who's going to do it. It is, unfortunately, different than with familiar friends, where there's more 'pub talk', laughing or complaining about the day's activities, swapping bits of sports or pop culture, telling jokes and stories, and catching up on events. It's a stupid distinction.

Sabine further notes that women like to 'chatter' ("we gabble away nineteen to the dozen"), but that's really a negative quality among men. In business settings, we're always encouraged to be clear and direct, to stay on-topic, and not to waste one another's time. Being an expatriate accentuates these qualities: we're advised to keep remarks short and simple so that they are understood by everyone. Be honest and direct; avoid telling illustrative stories that may not translate across cultures.

On reflection, these habits do unfortunately carry across to non-work settings. I get my best insights from seemingly random stories that successfully circle back around to illustrate a point. But associative diversions rarely enhance understanding or close the deal in a pitch or presentation. Even in social settings, I find myself assuring people that what I'm about to say does, indeed, relate to the conversation.

Finally, I have to admit that I'm not at my social best in the evening after a long day of formal work interactions. It's easy to be worn down by the day's events, distracted by unresolved issues, and focused on the agenda for the next day.

I make a conscious effort to leave work at work, but I recognize that I don't make the corresponding effort to shift into picking up alternatives. I probably fall into even worse habits from living alone. It's too easy to just relax by disconnecting, shutting the door and tuning out distractions.

So, I do take the point that everyone desires clever, funny, insightful companions, and that I can fall into bad habits that (can even) make (literate, open, engaging, and witty) me into an (occasionally) boring alternative. This is probably even more important to recognize and try to correct in familiar relationships, where conversation has a tendency to degenerate into a verbal shorthand. I'm trying to follow some of my own advice from the notes above, re-engaging with alternatives as I set work aside, being willing to tell a little story, and answering questions with a compound sentence to keep the exchange open.

I'm tending towards chicken, but it may not be as good as at the restaurant last week.

That isn't so hard...

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