I Have Become a Conversational Chameleon. What about You?

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As someone who has taught writing and public speaking for a long time, I know how important it is to establish one’s credentials at the outset, so the readers and listeners know they are in the presence of an expert. Thus, regarding the subject of conversation, I have to admit that I have no expertise whatsoever. I have not studied the subject in a formal way, nor have I any specific experience regarding conversation that one might say is extraordinary. No, all I really have is my very ordinary experience of talking to others over 67 years. Yet, I do feel that my experience and observations might be helpful to some.

Before I begin, though, I have to clarify that I am writing today about a one-on-one conversation, two people only. I am not referring to a group conversation where three or more people are trying to share ideas. That multi-person conversation may be the subject of a future essay, but not today.

Also, this is not an essay on a specific type of conversation, like a professional interview or a boss-employee dialogue or even the breakup of a relationship. Instead, the subject here is the typical and random conversation we all experience on a daily basis at work, in the neighborhood, or at a social gathering.

I believe conversation is like a game of pitch and catch with a baseball, an activity that I practiced often in my youth. My father and I would throw a baseball back and forth in the backyard when I was young. My teammates and I would warm up often in this way on the sideline before a game. And later, after my competitive days were over, I would still sometimes share a catch with a relative at a family picnic or reunion.

The game is rather simple. One person starts with the baseball and tosses it to another. The second person catches it and throws it back to the first person, and the process continues. The baseball represents the sharing of information or a question, and as long as the ball is moving back and forth, the game is usually fun for both parties. The game breaks down, however, when one person holds on to the ball for too long or when one person treats the ball as if it were on fire and returns it too quickly. In other words, conversations break down when one person talks too much or not enough.

Basically, I become really annoyed when people talk too much. For example, when I worked in private industry for a time, an older co-worker came into my office often to tell stories about his home life or to share previous work experiences. At first, I was somewhat interested, and I know I asked a question or two, but that only encouraged him to visit more often and tell more stories. Never, however, did he throw the ball my way and ask me a question or encourage me to speak. Eventually, I reached a point where I felt I was being verbally abused, and I had to physically escort him out of my office. Under ideal circumstances, I should have explained my frustration to him, but I was incapable at that point because I live at the other extreme.

Generally speaking, I do not talk enough. I am the catcher who holds the conversational ball for only a quick second before I throw it back with a question. If you ask me how I am, I say, “I’m good. How about you?” I won’t ever admit that I’m struggling in any way, and I rarely share what I’m thinking or feeling or what I’ve done lately or what I’m about to do. For some reason, I have always felt that it’s not my job to talk but to let all the others do all the sharing, to give them the opportunity to tell stories, to express emotions, or to pontificate — even if some people drive me crazy.

Why am I like this? Basically, I have always been an introvert, and I’m not all that comfortable expressing my thought or emotions unless I’ve already processed them thoroughly. As you may have guessed, I’m much more comfortable writing than speaking, most likely because writing allows me the opportunity to edit and clarify before I share what’s on my mind. I’m reluctant to think out loud because I’m afraid I’ll say something stupid and embarrass myself.

Fortunately, after all these years, though, I have changed and adapted my conversational style a bit, and I think this change is a result of all my years of teaching both at the high-school and college level. When I began teaching, I quickly realized that the questioning style I used with my students during writing conferences and during after-school conversations could only take us so far. At times, I needed to share more of myself in order to draw out reactions or stories. For instance, if I were working with an introverted student and I only asked questions, that student might not say much. However, if I told a story about my own experiences, that story might elicit a laugh and a response like, “that happened to me too,” and the student would begin to tell his version of a similar story. Naturally, too, now that I’m approaching 70, I have a much larger trove of stories to draw upon, but I don’t want to abuse that privilege.

So, now, I really am a conversational chameleon. I can still ask lots of questions to initiate and prolong a conversation, but if my conversational partner is even more of an introvert than I am, I can turn it around. I can share a recent story, or I can open up, make myself vulnerable and admit that I am stumped or puzzled by something going on around me. In other words, when I meet someone new or when I encounter someone I have known for a while, I try to read the situation and react accordingly. I change my conversational colors as needed.

What about you? What is your natural tendency? Are you primarily the talker or the listener? And do you stay in that role at all times, or can you adapt? I hope you can adapt because we may bump into each other someday, and if we’re both adaptable, we will probably have an enjoyable conversation together.

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Jim LaBate works as a writing specialist in The Writing Center at Hudson Valley Community College (HVCC) in Troy, New York.

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