Ask Polly: How Do I Make Conversation?

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Dear Polly,

I'm a quiet guy. I had always accepted this as part of who I am. I've always been comfortable in silence. That's a good thing. When I speak, people know it will be worthwhile. That's a good thing. And I'm an excellent listener. That's a good thing. I'd have been perfectly happy living life as a quiet guy, but then my girlfriend of six years left me for that exact reason. If my quietness is driving away people I care about, and now preventing me from forming new relationships, I have to change. But how?

The problem isn't shyness or social anxiety. I just don't have anything to say to people most of the time. I watch people chat and banter, and wonder where they're getting the words from. I have no idea what people mean when they say they're "just talking" or "thinking out loud." Words don't form in my mind until I have a complete thought with a purpose behind it. If I don't need information from you, or know that you need information from me, I have no way of coming up with things to say.

With my ex, we'd come home from work and talk about our days for maybe an hour. Or rather, I'd listen to her talk about her day, because she liked to do that. And I'd say nice things like "That sounds hard to deal with" or "I'm glad you're home now." Then she'd ask about my day, and I really didn't know what to say. She's not going to use any of the information for any specific purpose, so how do I decide what she needs to hear? If she asked a specific question like "What did you have for lunch?" that's easy to answer. But a vague "How was your day?" gets a monosyllabic "Good." I don't know what details you want unless you ask a question that requires detail.

Then we'd go and do things together, which was great! I love doing things with people. But since she was there the whole time, she knew everything that happened, what then do we talk about?

I probably seem like a tedious bore right now. And you're probably right. I never have free-flowing conversations with anyone. I was at a party last night and someone arrived late because of a pub quiz. I asked the obvious "How did you do?" "Second place." "Great!" And that's it. After the fact I can go over the exchange in my mind, and come up with things I could have said. But that takes tens of minutes instead of seconds.

I've seen therapists about this issue, and done a lot of reading on social skills. None of the "how to be a better conversationalist" things ever actually tell you how. They describe what a good conversation looks like, but if you don't have the skills to do it they just read like a list of things you're bad at. The therapists want to treat it as social anxiety, as if I had things to say but were too afraid to say them. Which I hope is clear is not the case at all.

So I'm stuck. I don't seem to be able to change the way I interact with people, despite enormous efforts over the past two years. But I'm not someone who can be happy alone either. I love being around people. I'm at social events four to five times a week. Those rare occasions when I come up with a quip that makes someone laugh are the best things that ever happen to me. I strongly desire closer relationships with the people I know and like. There are lots of them! They're nice! The problem is me, and it's wearing heavily on my self-esteem. How do I change and if I can't, how do I cope?

Quiet

Dear Quiet,

Conversations rarely have anything to do with exchanging useful information. For example, this morning my husband was sleeping and his hair had flattened into this '60s-era George Jetson cartoon shape. He opened his eyes and I told him, "You look like the president of an evil corporation."

He said, "That's weird, because I was just having a dream where I was sitting at the head of a big conference room table, trying to revise a paper with a bunch of other people. A guy started reading out loud, and said: 'The first goal of goal revision is …'"

This made us both laugh, because my husband spends a lot of his time revising bad academic writing. Enumerating the goals of goal revision pretty much epitomizes the ways that academics, in their effortful attempts to exchange useful information, forget to make a coherent argument or convey the central tensions of their work. In their quest to write words with a purpose, they create a jumble of repetitive, empty nonsense. "We are revising our goals, so why not begin by listing the various goals of our goal revision?" they ask, and no one is there to say, "BECAUSE THAT IS FUCKING POINTLESS AND REDUNDANT, DUDE!" 

I don't want to kick you when you're down, but if I were your Fairy Godmother, I would wave my magic wand and give you a good, close friend who could call you to the carpet whenever your logical, rational search for useful information becomes willfully stubborn and irritating. Since I can't do that, here's what I need for you to understand: Sometimes, applying logic to human communication is the least logical, most absurd thing you can possibly do. Communication between two people who've known each other for a long time is, 80 percent of the time, not about information at all. It's about opening up a small window to one person's internal world, so the other person can take a peek inside. It's about intimacy, in other words.

What is your internal world like? My internal world is a pretty dramatic place, where strange images and feelings linger without explanation. I woke up this morning and I looked at my husband and I thought, It's strange how I'm married to this handsome guy, who looks so conventional right now. When I'm feeling open and relaxed, I simply describe my impressions and emotions, no matter how seemingly negative and twisted they might sound to someone who doesn't know me well. And for sure, there are guys I've dated who, if I told them they looked like the head of an evil corporation, would've been annoyed by that. They would've assumed I was angry at them. They would've mistaken a glimpse of my mind for USEFUL INFORMATION. And then I would've felt frustrated and misunderstood.

When you assume that people are exchanging concrete information at all times and that every information exchange should be useful and logical and purposeful, you're essentially cutting intimacy off at the knees. You're not disclosing anything substantive about yourself or your emotions, and when other people make such disclosures, your kind response ("I'm glad you're home now") still ends up sounding like this: "It's unfortunate that you had to experience negative things, but now at least you aren't experiencing bad stuff, because we're here EXCHANGING USEFUL INFORMATION LIKE ROBOTS, HOW RELAXING FOR US!" 

Likewise, if I ask you, "How was your day?" and you insist that I specify exactly which aspects of your experience I expect you to describe, my impulse is to wonder about the two or three decades you've spent in the company of other human beings who've modeled for you, over and over again, the myriad ways one might answer such a question. "How was your day?" doesn't mean "Succinctly summarize the overall trajectory of your experience today" or even "Please pull a great story out of your ass immediately." All it means is "Choose something to tell me about your day, ranging from the extremely trivial to the sweeping and complex. Just give me a tiny window into your thinking or your emotions." It also (often) means "I love you and I want us to share ourselves with each other." The answer can be "Pretty good." The answer can be "It rained and my scarf fell into a puddle." The answer can be "I kept thinking about my mother today for some reason." The answer can even be "A void opens up when I hear that question. I can't imagine a good answer. All I can think about is how ordinary and featureless my day is." And that may lead to a talk about a more meaningful conversation two people might have in the evening when they see each other. 

Anything is possible.

I trust that you don't have social anxiety. You simply have a fixation on what's logical and useful and what's not worth saying. I know that you can't imagine saying stuff before you've thought it all out first. My brother is like that. He doesn't really think out loud unless he loooves the topic at hand (his dog, Australian drought-tolerant plants, medieval fantasy, outer space). Sometimes his wife talks and he says, "Oh no, that sucks" in this particular kind of alien way, like he's shooting off flares from a far-off galaxy but has no idea what human emotions feel like.

Sometimes when he does that, I say, "Jesus, try being a human for a minute." And he does try, because he'd like to be humanlike and have relationships with other humans if possible. He also knows me and trusts me and tolerates the fact that, when I don't understand something, I need to swing my mace or my battle axe around wildly, but my dexterity is only a 6 or a 7 so I might knock the branches off a few bottlebrushes and banksias along the way. Close, trusting relationships are all about understanding and accepting each other FOR WHO WE ARE.

Obviously, then, you don't have to change everything about yourself to have a close, trusting relationship, Quiet. You just have to be very honest about who you actually are. You are someone who doesn't really WANT to talk all the time, but you're also someone who really, really wants to learn a brand-new skill. You want to learn how to talk, openly and freely, when the need arises.

I can't do much to help you learn that skill from here. If I were you, I would find a therapist who trusts that this isn't about anxiety, it's about learning how to talk and understanding what talking even is. You need a very smart teacher who can break the little building blocks of conversation down for you, and who'll also encourage you to try talking — ramblingly, recklessly — in order to loosen you up and show you what it's like to think out loud. This person also needs to remind you, over and over again, that you are a good person and you're fine the way you are. This is just something YOU WANT TO DO because you're brave and you're interested in other people and you want to grow. This is extra-credit shit you're taking on. You should not be ashamed of it, not at all. 

You need practice, that's all, among a person or some people who understand exactly what you're trying to do. At some point, it would be great if you could say to a few acquaintances, "Can you help me to talk more? I'm so quiet and I really just DON'T KNOW how to chat." Be open and optimistic about it. Some people might shy away, but others may get really into helping you. They'll fire questions at you. They'll encourage you to talk and keep talking. They'll cheer you on. 

Maybe you don't have acquaintances like that yet. Be a little vulnerable and admit that you need guidance, and I'll bet that will change. When you state your desires with an open heart, people appear out of nowhere, wanting to rally to your side. Trust me. It's uncanny.

It might also help you to understand more about what your interior world is made of. What are your earliest memories? What do you love the most? What kinds of people infuriate you? If you had tons of money, what would you create or build? What makes you sad? Forcing yourself to write for 45 minutes every morning could help. Typing words onto the page in a steady stream without stopping, even when half of it is nonsense, is a great way to experiment with what's inside your head. You'll get the impression that there is NOTHING IN YOUR HEAD at first. That's normal! Find some writing prompts online and start with those if you need to. See where they lead.

Above all, though, give yourself credit for being a nice person who cares about other people. The world needs quiet people who don't blab on and on about themselves endlessly. Never apologize for being quiet, and never beat up on yourself for being who you are. But don't turn your back on the worlds inside of you, either. You contain multitudes, and I feel sure that you'll be happier and more fulfilled if you find ways to share them with other people occasionally. Set aside USEFUL INFORMATION for a while, and try to exist in a land where wild, colorful, cartoonishly pointless ideas reign free.

Polly
 

Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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