We sometimes find ourselves in situations with people when being silent would be rude, and yet we haven’t a clue what to say. Smart humans tend to follow that famous statement attributed to Abraham Lincoln and others that it’s better to stay silent and be thought a fool than to open your mouth and remove all doubt.
Still, there are times when talking improves the silence. Like the other day, when I got my hair cut by a stylist I’d never met before. There she was, hovering around my head with sharp instruments, chopping away my hair in a way that would make or break my appearance. It seemed wise to talk about something, to try to make friends if nothing else. And since I prefer listening over talking, I wanted her to talk.
It wasn’t that difficult. She started it up with the canned salon-type questions about where was I from, where did I work, what did I do the past week, etc. I ran through quick answers and then started questioning her. Within three questions, I discovered she’d been married less than a month. Pay dirt. She proudly showed me the small diamond on her finger, I asked, “So, how did you two meet?” and we were off to the races. An occasional, “Oh, really?” and “So what is his family like?” and “How was your wedding?” and I was set to listen, listen, listen.
Through giving hundreds of interviews, I’ve learned that most people’s favorite topic is themselves, provided a couple of obstacles are overcome. First, they have to know you’re listening — with more than just a cursory nod or half-hearted smile. The best conversations happen eye to eye. And response — people need response. They want comments, questions that make sense, follow-up observations — validation for what they’re saying. That kind of stuff keeps people talking about themselves, sometimes for long periods of time.
Three favorite topics pop up when people talk about themselves: their families, their ideas, and their pastimes. Set the right stage, bring up one of those topics, and most folks will talk to a total stranger. And in the strangest places.
Take the bus, for example. Bus riding can be boring, so I look for a seat by the person who looks like a talkative candidate. Non-talkers are easy to spot: people with earphones plugged in, people texting, or people sleeping are going to be slim pickings. But someone who looks up at me and smiles — that’s a person who will want to talk. I’ve been richly rewarded on the bus with stories I never could have made up. I’m amazed at some of the things folks will share with a perfect stranger, i.e. someone who listens, nods, empathizes, smiles, maybe shares a tear. And the nice thing about the bus is that if you end up with someone who wants to tell you more than you want to know — like their entire life history — a bus stop will eventually save you.
A shortened version of this exchange can even take place on an elevator. I work at a 10-story building, and have learned a lot of things about a lot of people in short, between-floors discussions. There are 10 stories in that building, but thousands in the elevators.
Store checkout lines, doctors’ offices, automotive repair shops — anywhere that people end up congregating with strangers is an opportunity for conversation.
Someone once told me I have an overdeveloped interest in people. That’s probably true. They might have meant I’m just annoying and prying. I hope not.
I see it this way: We’re all just trying to get through life, and we bump into each other every day. Those collisions usually happen in silence as we pass each other with no interaction. But I have yet to meet the person who, given a reasonable chance, hasn’t shared some broken piece of their heart, who isn’t wondering why they’re here, or where they’re going or how they’re going to get there. And it often seems that the short exchange of thoughts with a totally non-judgmental stranger somehow lifts them.
And that lifts me.
It’s really nothing more complicated than that.
You may contact Louise Brown at email@example.com or by calling her editor at 801-625-4223.