Keeping the Channel Open
Posted on February 27, 2016
I listen more than I talk. It’s a lifelong habit that has granted me access to many stranger’s unique histories and perspectives, but it occasionally leads to conversation misconduct, a scenario where I become prisoner to a string of monologues, which can leave me feeling exploited, disempowered, chewed up and spit out.
I was reading at a coffee shop when I heard, “What book are you reading?” I turned to see an elderly man in the seat beside me, his laptop perched on his knees.
“Adventures in the Screen Trade,” I told him, a book about the film industry written by the screenwriter William Goldman.
I could barely finish my sentence before the man told me everything he knew about the movie business, Los Angeles, and the art of storytelling.
“Ah, they’re all weirdoes in Hollywood… it’s all about the money, you know… have you seen Bridges Over Madison County… now that’s a movie, Meryl Streep was perfect, the other guy was terrible.”
I listened and nodded my head, realizing this man had little interest in conversation. By “conversation,” I’m referring to the word’s definition, “an informal exchange of ideas by spoken words.” The key word: exchange. In my opinion, a conversation is like a tennis match. You talk, I talk. Back and forth we go.
When I visited Paris several years ago, I observed people in restaurants and coffee shops leaning forward in their seats as they talked to one other, their eyes locked, bodies erect. There was electricity, engagement, equal exchange. Tennis matches. Perhaps it’s no surprise that conversation was elevated to an art form in French salons. Such conversations bring to mind another definition of conversation: “Social intercourse.”
It wasn’t my hope to engage in social intercourse with this man. It was just small talk, after all. But I would have settled for a friendly game of tennis.
I considered politely saying, “It was nice speaking with you, but I want to try and finish up this chapter.” Instead, I kept listening.
“I used to visit the homes of celebrities,” he continued. “I sold cell phones before people knew about cell phones, when the only people who bought them were celebs and crooks.”
I responded with more head-nodding, more “mm, hmm’ing.”
I started to feel like the frustrated Neal Page (played by Steve Martin) in Planes, Trains and Automobiles. After spending several days with his obnoxious travel companion Dell Griffith (played by John Candy), Neal says that Dell reminds him of a Chatty Cathy doll that pulls its own string.
“Didn’t you notice on the plane when you started talking eventually I started reading the vomit bag?” Neal says in a tirade. “Didn’t that give you some sort of clue that, hey, maybe this guy isn’t enjoying it? You know: everything is not an antidote; you have to discriminate. You choose things that are funny or mildly amusing or interesting. You’re a miracle. Your stories have none of that. They’re not even amusing, accidentally. And, by the way, when you’re telling one of your little stories, here’s a good idea: have a point. It makes it so much more interesting for the listener!”
The man asked me why I had moved to California, then reacted to my answer with a tangent, and then steered the conversation toward his art.
Then we were discussing his work schedule.
Then we were browsing his website.
Then I was holding his business card.
When I couldn’t swallow another speech, I closed my book. “Well, it was nice talking to you, but I have to get going.” As I was leaving, I felt sorry for future victims who might fall into this man’s web.
The next day, I received an email from him. He suggested a topic for a story. Before I responded, I re-watched Planes, Trains and Automobiles and paid particular attention to the hotel scene where Neal erupts in anger. Had I become like Steve Martin’s character? Cynical, intolerant, someone who explains the basic rules of conversation to abusers?
I then found a definition for the phrase small talk: “keeping the channel open.” Meaning, on the surface, while a conversation may seem to be about the weather or books or movies, it’s really a form of recognizing our common humanity.
I listen more than I talk; I had crossed paths with a man who talks more than he listens. But that doesn’t make him a meandering kook, or a selfish loudmouth. It makes him someone hoping to open a channel. I’m glad he called my attention to it.