How Not to Talk

In a bit of cheeky homage, I took the title of this post from an article I read many years ago. That article was about conversational terrorism. This post is not.

Rather, I want to say a few words about good conversation… because I have the impression this skill is slowly being forgotten.

I am old enough to have attended “charm school” as a little girl. Most people of younger generations probably never had the opportunity to learn the basics of social etiquette. This is especially apparent in the virtual world.

Social conversations in the virtual world can be fun, fascinating, intimate and revealing. But in the hands of someone who knows nothing of social etiquette, they are often distinctly unsatisfying, if not downright off-putting.

Social etiquette is all about being kind and thoughtful, and putting others before yourself. This is especially key in conversations.

Good conversation is not difficult. Just follow these guidelines, and you will make more friends, and have more pleasant social experiences. In sum:

Focus on the other person.

Listen attentively to what the other person is saying. Don’t just think about what you are going to say next. Pay attention to them.

Refrain from talking about yourself. Instead, show the other person that you are interested in what they are saying.

One way to do this is to ask them a question that invites them to say more.

      • Example: They talk about the sim they are building.
      • Good response: Ask if this is the first sim they have built.
      • Poor response: Talk about the sim that you built.

One caveat about asking questions: be careful not to ask questions that seem intrusive by touching on highly personal or real-world information. Keep in mind that anonymity is important to most people in virtual worlds. They may not want to reveal what part of the world they live in, or details about their work, health, home or family life.

Another good way to respond is to rephrase or sum up what they have said. This is an effective way of letting someone know that they have been heard.

      • Example: They talk about a feat achieved in a video game.
      • Good response: Wow! That is quite an accomplishment!
      • Poor response: Talk about another game that you play.

If someone shares excitedly about something they enjoy, acknowledge their joy… even if you do not share it. Nothing is more off-putting than responding to someone’s happiness by rejecting it, with some version of “I don’t like that.” It may be the most effective of all conversation-killers.

      • Example: They talk excitedly about a concert they attended.
      • Good response: Ask how often they’ve heard the artist live.
      • Horrible response: Comment that you don’t like that artist.

The underlying principle in all these examples is to focus your attention on the other person, and encourage them to talk.

Sometimes, if the other person is reluctant to talk, you do need to start a conversation by talking about yourself. Choose something that you can use to draw the other person in—something that you can get them to talk about. Remember that the goal is to focus on the other person. Your conversation starter should be a way to encourage the other person to talk.

No matter how much you are tempted, refrain from speaking negatively about others, especially those who are not present. You may think your opinions are interesting, and that everyone needs to hear them, but what usually happens is that your audience begins to fear that once their backs are turned you will be gossiping about them. Gossiping makes you untrustworthy, and is a conversation-killer.

Try to be positive, rather than complaining. Life is simply too short to waste time complaining about what’s wrong with the world. To start and sustain good conversations, focus on enjoyable things.

If you want to create and sustain good conversations, especially with people you are only just meeting, avoid controversy. Starting a conversation about politics, for example, is usually an effective way to alienate someone you just met, and bring up bad feelings. Save the debates for occasions when you are talking with close friends.

listen-attentivelyIn summary: good conversation is about good listening—focusing your attention on the other person.

Why should we care at all about good conversation? What is the point of social etiquette? Most people love feeling that someone is really listening to them. And when you create good feelings in the people around you, you will also be making the world just a little bit better.

And that is worth doing!

Don’t Label Me


Yes, I know. I should not have been surprised. But I was stunned when someone learned one fact about me, and then, relying solely on stereotypes, proceeded to imagine a great many other things about me… most of which were untrue.

It happens with alarming frequency. We label a person. The human tendency is for our imaginations to fill in the blanks… often with that which we fear. We make assumptions about a person’s character, personality and beliefs, based on this label and what it is popularly believed to represent. Those assumptions may or may not be correct… but most people never bother to find out.

Often, the function of a label is establish division. It is a way of individuating oneself: establishing your own identity by highlighting how you are different from others.

Owning your own identity is a good thing. The problem comes when you try to shore up your identity, not just by having pride in yourself, but by denigrating those who differ from you… as if to say, “I’m good, and you’re not.”

This is not a new problem. People complain about it constantly. I hear many people bemoan the divisions in our country. Political differences, religious differences, cultural differences. Yet I hear very few go beyond talking, and actually try to do anything about it. For most people, bridging the gap and healing divisions seems to be about vanquishing the “other side.”

If we ever got honest enough to go out in the streets and uncover our common grief, we would discover that we are all grieving over the same things. –Miguel Unamuno

But here’s a secret. Believe it or not, it is possible to own your identity, to feel strong and confident about who you are and what you believe… without demonizing those who believe something else. Yes, as amazing as it might seem, you can treat someone with courtesy and respect even if you think that their values and beliefs are dead wrong. You can hold on to your own values, without compromising your beliefs, and still be friends with people whose values and beliefs are the opposite of yours.

Bridging that gap is not easy; it requires listening with an open mind. Instead of making assumptions about what someone believes, why not actually ask them? Why not find out what they believe? You might be surprised. You might even discover that you have more in common than you think.

This seems to be a difficult thing to do. The person who labeled me had no interest whatever in my beliefs. Their only interest was to say, in so many words, “You are not like me. I reject you.”

Convictions are more dangerous enemies of truth than lies. –Friedrich Nietzsche

As I’ve pointed out before, scientists have demonstrated that we are genetically more invested in winning arguments than in thinking clearly. Confronting this person would have been useless because they were entrenched, and unable to hear or see any reality other than the one they had created for themselves. So I remained silent. But there are a few things I would have liked to say:

You have NO clue what I believe.

I do not fit into most standard label categories. It’s almost impossible to label me as liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican, Christian or agnostic, or any kind of class distinction. But somehow, you decided that I fit neatly into some category, and that, as a result, you know everything there is to know about me.

You are totally wrong.

Not only do you have no clue what I believe, you THINK that you DO know. Because of your mistaken certainty, your mind is completely incapable of discerning the actual truth. You have no curiosity at all, no desire to find out what is real. And that lack of curiosity has made you blind.

I know who I am. I know that your assumptions about me are wrong, mere fantasies concocted by your imagination. They don’t affect me. But they sadden me.

I feel sad for you, because you cannot see. I feel sad for our world, because this blindness is widespread and causes rifts that continue to deepen, spreading hostility, fear and pain to everyone.

But I’m not giving up on you. I’m holding out hope that one day you will find the strength to challenge your fears, and crack the closed door of your mind just enough to let in a little light. I’m holding out hope that in the end, love will be stronger than fear.

we were all just humans
And in the end, we were all just humans, drunk on the idea that love, only love, could heal our brokenness. –Christopher Poindexter