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the art of conversation.

May 20, 2012

On Thursday evening I was waiting to meet Toby and Said in Starbucks in Westfield after work. I had my frappuccino, my copy of L’Officiel Hommes Italia (I had bought the Italian version rather than my usual French version in order to practise my Italian – I have been doing my Italian course for 3 weeks and I feel it’s going well, although I am still finding it hard to avoid thinking and speaking in Spanish) and my iPod in. I had serendipitously commandeered three comfy armchairs around a table, and was settling in to read. However, the cafe was getting busy and Toby and Said were running late due to traffic and transport. A pretty Asian lady in a blue coat came up to me and asked if anyone was sitting with me. Now, I could hardly say “I’m sorry, my friends are coming” because I didn’t know when they would arrive – as it happened, I ended up waiting for another half an hour before they arrived. So I said “No, go ahead and take the chairs.” The woman flopped down in the seat and exhaled loudly, before exclaiming “They should make places in here (i.e. Westfield) where you can sleep for half an hour!” I smiled and agreed, and soon she was joined by her equally pretty friend, who sat in the other vacant armchair. For a while, we didn’t converse, but somehow we eventually started talking. About shopping, about London (the first lady maintained that London used to have “quiet areas, but now there are so many people everywhere, you can’t escape them!”) and about iPhone apps. We even talked about finances and relationships, and somehow we passed the time amiably chatting. Their friend showed up and they introduced her to me, and although I didn’t know these women, I felt included and comfortable. It was an unusual situation, and when Toby and Said finally arrived, they wore slightly amused and surprised expressions on their faces as I bade the women farewell.

I explained how we had ended up talking, and I realised that while it was cute that “I had made Starbucks friends”, in the past this kind of situation probably wasn’t so uncommon. When you’re on a plane or on a bus and someone sits next to you, in the past we didn’t have iPods and other devices with headphones to cut ourselves off so effectively from the rest of the world. Ok, we might have been reading a book and people might have interpreted that as someone not particularly wanting to engage in conversation, but it didn’t render us incommunicado from the world outside in the same way – and we probably didn’t regard someone new wanting to talk to us as an entirely unreasonable intrusion on our privacy. Although a lot of people harp on about the youth of today communicating so wholly via social media that they no longer have (or necessarily need) conversational skills in the real world, I don’t think that I hold with that anti-technology, anti-modern view. People are either socially confident and equipped with skills to handle face-to-face interactions, or they’re not. Me and my friends use Twitter, Facebook, Instagram etc. – but we also enjoy talking face to face and venturing out into the big wide world.

As someone who has always been good at learning languages, the hardest and most nerve-wracking aspect of studying a new language is always speaking and listening – being able to successfully navigate a real-time, real-life interaction and find the words and sentences to express my needs and opinions. It takes practice, perseverance and a certain acceptance of making mistakes and learning from them. We can’t be afraid that we’re going to mess up from time to time – because that is definitely going to happen, and when we ask for help, correct ourselves and re-establish our confidence is when we learn. In much the same way, people can’t be afraid of making a social blunder even in their first / only language – it’s a totally understandable fear, but if we acquiesce to that fear, then we end up staying in hiding behind that array of screens never to conquer our social unease. The art of conversation is something that some people have much stronger skills in than others – but everyone can practise and hone those skills. We are all human, and at the end of the day physically being with one another isn’t the only way, but it is the ultimate one.

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