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With, not To

by VM Brasseur on April 20th, 2007

I’m a social critter, going out fairly frequently (perhaps too frequently) and meeting a lot of different people. More often than not these are interesting people and they always start talking to me. It doesn’t normally take very long before they start telling me all about their life and their accomplishments and their troubles and their dreams.

The thing is, I don’t usually want them to talk to me. Instead, I’d much prefer that they talked with me.

It’s remarkably rare that I’ll meet a person who will not only share information about themselves but also who will of their own volition ask about me. Not only ask, but actually BE INTERESTED in me and what I have to say. Turn the one-sided exposition into an actual dialog.

Don’t get me wrong. I enjoy listening to other peoples’ opinions and stories of their lives. It’s endlessly interesting to me. While they’re speaking, I always ask follow-up questions to get them to tell me more or different details.

I have to admit, however, that the reason why I ask questions of others is not only because I’m interested in what they have to say but also because years of experience has taught me that they will not be interested in anything I have to contribute to the “conversation.” I do not volunteer information as I know that it will not be received well, if at all.

For many years I thought that this was my fault. How could so many people have so little interest in what I have to say? Why would so many people spend so much time speaking about themselves unless they found me so uninteresting? The majority rules and the majority has said that they have no interest in me, therefore I must be uninteresting.

It’s only been in the past few years that I’ve finally realized just how wrong this is. And it didn’t even take years and thousands of dollars in therapy. No, the problem isn’t with me. Despite the odds, the problem actually lies with everyone else. Well, sort of. Really, the problem appears to lie with our society*.

There has to be a societal reason why so many people feel compelled to speak about themselves at great length when given the opportunity and a willing audience. I’m not going to be arrogant enough to claim that I know what it is, but I’m aware enough (now) to recognize that it’s there.

If the reason is that these people yearn to be close to someone else emotionally then someone should tell them that by shutting out the other person in favor instead of their own cathartic release they’re not going to succeed in gaining that closeness. Rather, they’ll just made themselves more isolated.

I’m not the only person who has recognized this tendency in others. I was having drinks with a friend a few weeks ago. She’s a very cosmopolitan woman. Intelligent, beautiful, successful. Well-read. Well-spoken. Well-traveled. Canadian ex-pat. Spending an evening talking with her is always a treat and I look forward to the time we spend together. That evening she suggested that it must be something societal which causes otherwise caring and thoughtful people to neglect their partner in conversations (or more). Her reasoning behind this statement is that nowhere else in her travels has she encountered this phenomenon but in America. All over the world people perform two roles in a conversation: listener and speaker. In America, most everyone wants to be to latter but never the former. Granted, she works in a very open-minded industry where people might be more willing to engage in two-way communication, but she meets and speaks with people from all walks of life and areas of expertise outside of her own. Still, she says, her observations typically holds true for her.

It’s unclear to me what I’m trying to accomplish by discussing this here. No lives are going to be changed. People will not magically start listening as well as speaking to others. It must just be a form of venting for me. Regardless, the next time you’re in a conversation with someone do everyone a favor and ask yourself whether you’ve asked any questions of the other person or whether you’re forcing them to try to volunteer information about themselves during the short spaces where you’re taking a breath in between sentences. If you have, pat yourself on the back. Then ask another. Communication can be addictive and liberating once you get used to is. Give it a whirl.

*: And lo! She doth place blame on the nameless faceless whole, thereby avoiding offense to individuals.

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2 Comments
  1. suomynona permalink

    That’s interesting, but can I tell you about this time I was in New York…

  2. marc-o-tron permalink

    Thought provoking. Especially as I’ll be amongst non-Native English speakers for the next 2 weeks ( read China )

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