The Art of Conversation

July 1999

The other night I came home to find my husband on the phone.  I wouldn’t have been able to decipher this if I hadn’t actually looked at him, because he wasn’t saying anything.  With the receiver nestled between his shoulder and his tilted head, he went about cleaning the kitchen counters, putting dirty dishes in the dishwasher, and silently taking the remaining dinner dishes off the dining room table, periodically relieving the strain on his neck by substituting his hand for his shoulder. I often try to guess who he’s talking to on the phone by what he says, but this time he didn’t say anything, except an occasional “uh huh” or “hmmm” or “really.”  You might think that would make it impossible to guess who was on the other end of the line, but quite to the contrary, it quickly narrowed the field to a neat and vociferous group.  Something about the way he said those few and widely-spaced words, a certain gallant attempt at expressing interest where there was none, narrowed the field quickly down to one:  his cousin Bernice.

Conversations with Bernice are adventures in listening.  With the single-mindedness of a black widow spider, she subjects her victim to a small but choice selection of topics, ranging from, say, her children’s dental needs and the various options for dealing with them to, say, her dentist’s appointment schedule and the difficulties of making appointments that fit both his and her busy schedules, to say nothing of the busy schedules of her children.  (“We thought she might have an abscessed molar and I thought she should see the dentist right away, ya’know, but he didn’t have any openings until Wednesday, so I asked him if he could squeeze her in on Monday, because Monday I don’t have to do carpool  ‘cause my neighbor, whose kids are in the same school as mine, does it on Mondays, see, … and I’ve heard that if you don’t deal with an abscessed molar right away you can end up needing a root canal…”)  These are admittedly fascinating topics that I’m sure I have not considered to their fullest, but I somehow find myself adrift when confronted so head on with them.  I almost don’t know what to say, which is convenient, because no response is called for, except perhaps an occasional “uh huh” or “hmmm” or “really” – which is why, as I watched my husband, I knew within seconds that he was on the phone with Bernice.

Listening is an art that I highly prize, and at which, sadly, few people excel.  In the past I used to pride myself on being a good listener, the kind of person to whom people wanted to talk, wanted to unburden themselves.  Talking can be very therapeutic, and listening — the kind of sympathetic listening that invites a burdened soul to gently, if temporarily, unburden himself — can be an invaluable gift.   Sometimes people need to talk.  But the need to talk usually implies an emotional burden heavier than, say, the difficulties of scheduling a dental appointment.

But perhaps I am insensitive to the true gravity of such problems.  And Bernice talks — about the intricacies of dental problems, about what insurance does and does not cover, about what day of the week she tried to make an appointment, about the alternative route she took to the orthodontist’s office when the main thoroughfare was closed because lightening split a large tree, half of which ended up blocking her usual route — with a serious intensity, with an air verging on confidentiality, that I usually associate with something weighty.

The good thing is that listening to Bernice requires almost no effort on my part. I don’t really have to listen.  I just have to hold the phone and make appropriate noises from time to time.  I have been sorely tempted to try just quietly putting down the phone while I go do something else for a while, but I’m too risk averse.  I worry that the mere presence of my ear at my end of the line draws all this copious detail from her mouth through a sort of mystical magnetism that might be broken should I remove my ear.  How embarrassed I would be if Bernice suddenly (and uncharacteristically) paused and said something like, “What do you think?” only to be greeted with cold silence.

These listening sessions can last for a good hour or more, and are inevitably ended only by a feeble intervention on my part.  (I have played out a scenario in my mind in which I do leave the phone receiver to rest gently on the kitchen counter and go on to live the rest of my life, leaving Bernice to simply talk herself to death.)  I have, at times, resorted to trickery, asking her to hold on a minute while I instruct my son to loudly request my help with math homework in five minutes.  (I’m really sorry, Bernice, I guess I have to get off and help Johnny with his homework.)

The worst moment is usually about two seconds after I pick up the phone and say hello, when I realize it’s Bernice.  I feel instantly trapped, like a caged animal, and start casting about wildly for an escape route.  The trick is to find a point in the monologue at which I can politely, discretely interject an excuse to get off the phone — a task akin to trying to snag a single molecule of water in a stream that’s rushing by with relentless fervor.

Part of the art of conversation, it seems to me, is sensing what may be interesting to the person one is talking to and what may be, to put it delicately, less than interesting.  Alas, the question, “I wonder if she’s interested in this?” too seldom clogs the mind of a busy talker.

A few months ago, an old friend re-entered my life (waking me up to do so) with a late-night phone call.  Harriet’s problems are weighty.  In fact, “weighty” doesn’t do them justice.  After many years during which we had lost touch, Harriet filled me in on what had been happening in her life for the last, oh, twenty years in that first phone conversation.  I no longer remember what time it was when I finally said goodbye and hung up.  Harriet’s life has been, pretty much from day one, a disaster — the kind of life one wishes (and perhaps she also wishes) she could simply redo.  Like Bernice, Harriet needs to talk.  And also like Bernice, Harriet apparently doesn’t require much (one might even venture to say “any”) response from the listener.  Ironically, although her problems are nothing if not weighty, in contrast to Bernice, Harriet regales me with them in an almost cavalier narrative, punctuated by periodic throaty laughs, with a kind of “can you believe this?” tone.  That was the tone in which she brought me up to date, a few weeks ago, on her chronic bronchitis and on her neighbor’s efforts to get the county to take her kids away from her — in response to my opening, “Hi, Harriet.  How are you?”

Years ago, my husband worked with a guy whose wife was what was then commonly termed “neurotic.”  Rhoda had been seeing a pschycotherapist for years, actually for much of her adult life and probably some of her adolescence as well.  Rhoda had gotten in touch with her anger and had, in the process, cast off the constraints she might once have felt about telling people about it.  A simple “Hi, Rhoda.  How ‘you doing?” was all it took.

It has sometimes irritated me when acquaintances unexpectedly passed on the street or run into at the supermarket say, “Hi, how ‘ya doing?” but keep on moving as they say it, not waiting for the answer.  One might understandably infer that they are in fact not the slightest bit interested in how you are doing.  The expected reply, the reply required by the etiquette of modern life, is, of course, “Fine, thanks.  And you?” or some variant of that.  It’s not even really required that the person who initiated this little conversation bud respond.  By the time the “And you?” part is spoken, that person may be rounding the turn into the next isle of the supermarket.  But this is to be expected.  Most people understand its social function, which is nothing more than a glorified “Hi.”

Whether Rhoda didn’t understand this, or whether her need to talk about her feelings at that moment simply exceeded the requirements of social etiquette, I do not know.  But a simple “Hi, Rhoda.  How ‘ya doing?” would likely unleash a flood. Rhoda did indeed tell you how she was doing (“I’ve been feeling very angry lately…”), and if you had already put the container of ice cream into your shopping cart, you quickly realized that that was a big mistake.

The problem is not always lack of interest.  I probably was interested in Rhoda’s anger.  I usually find people’s feelings fascinating.  The human psyche provides a veritable wellspring of interesting material for conversation if people are open to exposing their emotional guts (sometimes requiring only the most meager degree of closeness to feel comfortable doing so).  It’s when I feel trapped in a conversation — snagged by someone else’s monologue — that there’s a problem.  No matter how interesting the topic may be, if I know that it could go on without end — and if I sense that a mannequin or my pet goldfish at my end of the phone line would suffice quite as well as me – a panic immediately takes over and I can think of nothing else but, “How the hell can I gracefully get out of this conversation??”

But there is something of an antidote.  Should my ego sag, if I worry that I am handily replaceable by my pet goldfish, I can always call my Aunt Zelda.  In contrast to the Bernices, Harriets and Rhodas of the world, Aunt Zelda is quite another type of conversationalist (using the word very loosely) who does indeed require my input.  Replacing myself with a mannequin or a goldfish would, in a conversation with Zelda, result in a protracted dead silence.

Aunt Zelda is quite old and doesn’t do much of anything these days.  If she is very angry, she doesn’t care to tell me about it.  If she sits for hours trying to sort out which of her maladies are and are not covered by her insurance policy, she has chosen not to fill me in on her conclusions (bless her soul).  In fact, Aunt Zelda doesn’t say much of anything, unless asked.  And when asked, she doesn’t say much of anything.

“How are you, Aunt Zelda?” I open.

“Fine, dear.  And you?” (Good beginning.)

“I’m fine.  I just called to say hello and find out what’s new with you.”


“So, what’s new with you these days?” (I forge ahead.)

“Nothing much.”

“How’ve you been feeling?  Is your arthritis still keeping you from walking much?”

“It’s about the same.”


“Well, have you heard from Sadie recently?”

“No, not recently.”


“Hmmm … And what have you been reading lately? Anything interesting?”

“Nothing, really.”


“So what have you been up to lately?  How do you pass the time these days?”

“Oh, I don’t know.  Nothing, really.”


“Well, next time I’m in Des Moines I’ll come by.  Would you like me to visit?”

“That would be nice, dear.”

“We could do the town.  What would you like to do when I come?”

“I don’t know, dear.”

“How about a show? Are there any shows you’ve been wanting to see?”

“No, not really.”

Conversations with Aunt Zelda are exhausting. You can see how a goldfish just wouldn’t be up to the task.

But I suppose I shouldn’t complain.  It’s like the weather in Minnesota, where the winters are numbingly cold and the summers are blazing hot, so that, on average, the temperature’s just about right. I guess that, on average, my conversations with people are just about right.



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