More often than we’d like, we find ourselves in situations that our primitive, non-speaking ancestors would not have been prepared for; we find ourselves needing to communicate with another individual via the spoken word. Now, if you’re anything like me, the difficulty of this task can range from moderately easy to completely paralyzing. Suddenly the smiling, interested person in front of you becomes something like a judge, their silent patience mocking your awkward, clumsy fumblings through what is made to look so easy on television. At this point, you realize that you are either 1. stoned, or 2. completely unprepared for the type of mental gymnastics that good conversation thrives on. And, come on, how could you be prepared? I mean, you’re reading this article right now… You obviously have no social skills. But that’s ok. Because thanks to the miracle of the written word, awkward people have been made to look intelligent for about as long as they have been made to look… well, awkward. Therefore, I appoint myself most eminent and credible authority on conversation, and will arm you with the tools and knowledge necessary to successfully navigate through conversations with other people.
There are several steps to follow in order to pull off a successful conversation.
Step One: Engage in a Physical Greeting
This could mean a handshake, a pat on the shoulder, a big bear hug, or an Eskimo kiss. The point is to break the ice early, so that you’re both feeling happy and warm because you’re speaking with another human in person, which is all too rare in today’s futuristic world of wireless communication. This is why you lack social skills in the first place. Because of your physical isolation from other humans. What’s that? Overthrow the wireless empire that is hijacking our human nature? Well, let’s rehabilitate you first before we worry about the greater plan, which is, incidentally, codenamed Project Kill. For now, though, we’ll focus on getting you back into decent conversational shape.
Step Two: Smile
Unless you’re greeting someone with the intention of robbing or murdering them, a smile to indicate good nature and peaceful exchange of ideas is always appropriate. Granted, the movement of one’s lip corners in an upward motion oftentimes feels fake and cheesy; ugly. But the sooner you get in the habit of repressing this feeling, the sooner you can be out there, making others feel uncomfortable as they try to guess how much of an idiot you think they are. If you’re conversating with a seasoned pro of the conversational art, you will at the very least look like you are capable of exchanging ideas verbally, regardless of whether or not this is actually the case.
Step Three: Ask a Question
All great conversations start off the same way great movies and books do: With a great premise. What if aliens and humans in a galaxy far, far away engaged in an intergalactic battle? What if we could go back in time? What if Steve Martin and Queen Latifah co-starred in a movie about a taxi driver? These are all great starting points for stories, and are the key to really diving into a successful plot. A great premise is also key when diving into a successful conversation, and great premises are usually framed as questions. During your next interhuman encounter, try some of these on for size: How’s Martha and the kids? Did you see that cement truck out back? What’s with all these new “hip hop artists?” Asking a question or questions accomplishes two important tasks in surviving this social encounter: 1. It makes the other person feel flattered that you are interested enough in their life to form sentences, the intention of which is to extract more information. And 2: It causes the conversation to temporarily switch to being their responsibility, buying you more time to think of other questions. Remember to continue to implement step two, in order to maintain the illusion of mutual interest. One warning: Beware of the counter-question. This is when the other conversationier finishes answering your question and then asks you the same question you just asked them, in an attempt to maintain the illusion of mutual interest. This can be combated in one of two ways: The first and most obvious way is to memorize your own answer to the question you ask before you ask it, possibly by having an arsenal of questions and answers; possibly by making up your own answer while the other conversationier is answering whatever your question was. The other method is to interject with another question before the other conversationier has time to counter-question you. It helps if the second question, called The Fork Question (because it creates a fork in the conversational road) is related to something the conversationier had just mentioned. For instance:
Question: “How are you?”
Answer: “I’m fine, thanks for–“
Fork Question: “I’ll tell ya who’s fine, that Vivica Fox, don’tcha think?”
Step Four: Express an Opinion
Opinions are like mistresses: Everyone has one and they all suck. However, opinions (like mistresses) do serve their purpose. For one thing, an opinion will indicate that your cognitive abilities are above that of a simpleton, and that you are in fact capable of building elaborate mental architecture, with multiple points of interest all connecting together to form one (or sometimes more, but lets not get too ambitious) conclusion. You may or may not have this ability, and even if you do, articulating an opinion can be a battle in and of itself. The process of forming an opinion and expressing it verbally is too complicated to be covered in this brief blog post, but a few pointers should get you started.
1. What’s rolling across the nearest television screen at the feed on the bottom? If you’re not near a television, what object or objects are existing, oh, say, 10 feet in front of you? The answer to either of these questions is your starting point.
2. Now that you have your starting point, think of your favorite big word. It could be hippopotamus, transgender, shmorgasboard, or any of the other big words that God made.
3. What country comes to mind? America is the safe one, but why not be creative? For instance, what’s going on over in New England?
4. Finally, combine these three elements together by imagining them as three dots in your mind. Now, you just have to connect the dots. Good luck.
Step Five: Escape
Sadly, all good things must end. But thanks to the Law of Opposites of Stuff, all bad things must end too! You can quicken this ending process by asserting your will on reality, which, in this case, will take the form of deceiving the other conversationier by telling them a lie. Lies are your most valuable tool when practicing the Art of Conversation, and are necessary if you hope to leave the conversation before you are forced to painstakingly build another Opinion. Fortunately, lies are simple and can take many forms. I recommend memorizing a few before entering any conversation. Some good ones to use are…
Oh damn, time for me to go. My students must be so bored!
Crap, is it really [insert time here]? Rhianna will not be happy…
Shit… My team is waiting for me so they can finally prove the existence of the graviton.
These are foolproof because they all indicate that you have something important to do, and all conversationiers will bend over backwards if that will help you get to where you need to be quicker. This is because the other conversationier was just as eager as you to stop engaging in conversation, but is better at keeping up the facade. Not surprisingly, Step Five will not apply if the other conversationier implements it first.
You’re good to go!
Practice these steps at home with a sock puppet; it will hone your skills and better prepare you for that unanticipated social encounter. The more disciplined you are in your practice, the less foolish you will look if and when another human being decides to engage you in a word swap. I recommend using a blindfold and punching out candles while conversating with an imaginary otherhuman. This increases the conversational brainwave frequencies, resulting in a more finely tuned conversasional abiliti. I bet you didn’t even notice that I just made up two words and made them look French. That’s because you haven’t been practicing. Now go forth, and fulfill your destiny.