Tuesday, August 31, 2010

The Art of Conversation - part 1

I am intrigued by conversation. To put it simply. I am occasionally embroiled in a mess of words. I love to listen, but I love to talk. I've adjusted multiple times in my life to different cultural cues, and these days I find myself questioning yet again just how it all flows.

As I child I was the shy one, the youngest who listened and absorbed. I also played alone or with just one other. I was not a groupie. I never belonged to a clique. Better to be on my own with a book, or at a table with adults than to play the social games demanded upon young females in grade school.

I discovered friendship with my peers in high school, of the birds of a feather variety. My close friends were in all my classes, on the swim team, in the band. We did many things together, played tennis after school, took out the sale boat, cut classes to head to the beach. It was a group thing yes, and I was often the extra one, letting the others laugh and shine as I went along -- fully enjoying myself, but allowing others to lead.

And then I learned to speak French fluently. And suddenly, (I think the wine had something to do with it too), I was chatting away. I was expressing myself. I was present.

Still, it wasn't an overwhelming thing -- I think -- I still took second fiddle to various boyfriends, girlfriends, etc., I was pretty discreet.

Living in Japan opened another door -- to being a clown and an entertainer. What else do you do when you're blond and a head taller than all around you? I started talking with my hands, making up words, expressing myself with sounds that exist in no language known to man, and occasionally managed some sentences in Japanese. But, whatever you learn in school (if you study Japanese), one of the great pleasures of this language is that much is left unsaid. It kind of goes like this: Oh, that woman.... Yes I so agree, she's.... Mmmm, Ah sooo dessunee.... and so on. Never say too much, be suggestive, but not precise, make some interesting noises of agreement and expression. Thank goodness for nuanced expression!

And then I arrived back in France for graduate school. Ready to be discreet, polite, attentive. I waited till I was spoken to, waited till the person in front of me finished his sentence, I was the epitome of grace. And I was ignored. Hm. So, I learned to talk again. I learned to impose myself into a conversation simply to be taken seriously and to be noticed and heard. Gone the discreet Asian influence, enter Gaulic intensity and argumentative tendencies.

The past few years have seen me living with a mono-syllabic husband, and managing tours and cooking classes all over Provence. I learned to talk. I learned to story-tell, laughter and jokes included.

I concurrently honed my skills as a hostess, questioning gently my guests as to their background, their previous voyages, their interest in food, wine, etc., Careful to avoid politics or delicate subjects, noting if someone was uncomfortable with a certain subject and bringing them back to another less offensive one.

But as I move forward in my life, I am coming to see that these years of talking for a living brought me towards a tendency to speak too much. And, frustratingly, it is hard for me to stop at the opportune moment and offer space to those around me to share (though it helps if I drink no more than one glass of wine). I find that I've a tendency to be in the personal and not the general, which also limits where others can contribute. And so I find myself in the position of observer - of myself, but also of the world around me. I am newly interested in the art of conversation. Is this something one learns naturally? at the dinner table? in the car? in school? And which cultures encourage which behaviors? Am I behaving in a French way? in an American way? or somewhere in-between?

Certainly, I am someone who is more often with one friend at a time going into detail and sharing lots on each side. I am less often at the table with a group of adults playing my small role in the life of the conversation before us. Thus the personal naturally dominates my conversation, and it is rarely the group dynamics that lift me to new levels of creativity and adaptation.

I've a dear friend who expressed that she prefers it this way. She finds group conversations tiring and banal, having lived that at a different time in her life. She prefers a more intimate setting and a more intense presence of each participant.

Meantime another agreed with me that the French tend to be lighter and more generalist in their conversation than Anglo-saxons, and that discretion is valued. Others will (or should) show you off to advantage. It is not necessary, and a bit boorish if you do so yourself. (Yes, but when you've a husband who never gave you credit for your part in your lives/business/etc., for 13 years... you do come to doubt this method). JP had brought this point up to me (ouch) and it is far easier to hear it (in a lovely and general way) from my friend. Okay, point taken, time to work on it.

I'm re-reading Cultural Misunderstandings (see the list of books to the right), in particular the chapter on conversation. And my mother is going to find me the letter of Diderot to his love Sophie concerning the salons de Paris and the magical movement of subjects and ideas amidst the participants.

I shall share more as I learn.


Zuleme said...

We're watching a TV series called Lie to Me, about micro expressions. You would enjoy it. We got it on the Apple TV. It is fictional but is at least somewhat based in fact.

Nathalie said...

Aaaah the art of conversation !
A most interesting post, Madeleine

Madeleine Vedel said...

mmm interesting idea for tv Zuleme. And yes, Nathalie, I was listening carefully to you the other day... and admiring the art of bringing the personal into the general, opening the conversation, sharing space. Tu le fais bien!