Conversation flows or stills. There are awkward pauses, clearing of throats, the hmm and the er, the huh and the eh. Not everyone is the life and soul of a party, some are listeners or introverts or bored and plain disinterested or just have nothing to say.
In life, as in movies, dialogues are a two-way effort, the shortest bridge between two people. Lines must smoothly fit into the gaps, into the nooks and crannies of a chat. Striking a balance between verbosity and the silence of a grave. No hint of manipulation, no yawns. Do take Oscar Wilde’s advice to heart: ‘Conversation should touch on everything, but should concentrate itself on nothing.’
Small talk – as is a sense of humour – is the biggest indicator of individual cultural levels. What we refer to, ally with, protest against, laugh at, touch lightly on… all of that give the other party a fair idea of what we are about. So that they know if they should shake hands with us or dash away from. One extra word and you are a social pariah forever. As Yogi Berra said: ‘It was impossible to get a conversation going, everyone was talking too much.’
Of course, there is a mountain of books on this subject – the art of talk. And the shy, the ‘I am not the talking type’, the ones who blink instead of speak, rush to buy these guides. They come armed into the next conversation of their lives with prefixed statements that they then strive to casually throw in. Better polish those exit lines and punch lines.
What to say is as important as what not to say. The unspoken adds itself to your sentences as much as what is said. We have all had that moment we spoke to someone special and lay there later with a stupid smile on our stupid face, breaking out into goose-bumps all over and just reveling in remembering, going over the words again and again, what you said, what was said to you. Anne Morrow Lindbergh is right; ‘Good conversation is as stimulating as black coffee, and just as hard to sleep after.’ But that is when chat turns song, and we burst into the streets just singin’ in the rain.
The secret joy of conversations is that they take you somewhere unexpected. It is a kind of travel in words and sentences where hearts are bared and souls are freed. There is the chance encounter with a stranger or a deeply honest one with an old friend you meet after a long time. Unforgettable confessions and admissions follow. Oh, the release of coaxing a toxic secret out of someone you love, or the cathartic relief of unburdening yourself in one single shot. There is also the ease or the embarrassment when you next meet up with the confidant or listener.
Conversations can be magical, change your life, turn you against suicide. That way lie higher self-esteem, an evolving personality, a great deal of emotional nurturing – or terrible memories. Chats are a give and take, the very lifeblood of living. They are the currency we pay our way with during this journey from birth to death. The stuff that gives us our highs, our lows. Don't open your mouth unless you agree with what it says.
Shinie Antony is a writer and editor based in Bangalore. Her books include The Girl Who Couldn't Love, Barefoot and Pregnant, Planet Polygamous, and the anthologies Why We Don’t Talk, An Unsuitable Woman, Boo. Winner of the Commonwealth Short Story Asia Prize for her story A Dog’s Death in 2003, she is co-founder of the Bangalore Literature Festival and director of the Bengaluru Poetry Festival.
Read Shinie Antony's columns here