Every time we say “Hello” to another person, we stand at the entrance to a potential conversation. Oftentimes, the way we say “Hello” will lead the other person to initiate the conversation or to cancel that potential conversation. Once we are admitted to the dialogue, though, our own conversational style will either allow that conversation to live and thrive, or it will cause that conversation to wither and die. Here are some conversational styles that I have observed in my almost 70 years of life.
The Miser. The Miser is a lot like Ebenezer Scrooge, the tight-fisted, money hoarding character in The Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens. The Miser is the individual who will verbally share nothing whatsoever, often not even a return greeting. This character may grunt or nod after the initial “Hello,” but he or she is clearly not interested in talking. If you fall into this category, you may be perceived, unfortunately, as antisocial, self-absorbed, or downright rude. However, you might have a good reason for remaining silent. Perhaps others have hurt you in conversation, perhaps your personal situation is so complex and involved that you can’t formulate the words to express it, or perhaps you are creating a poem or a song in your mind, and you do not want to be interrupted. Whatever the reason, you are entitled to your silence if that’s what you need, and you can eventually break away from that silence, as Scrooge himself did in the end of Dickens’ story, if you ever feel so inclined.
The Storyteller. At the other extreme of the conversational spectrum is the Storyteller. If you greet this person with a question such as “How are you?” or “What’s new?” you can sit back at that point and relax for 15–20 minutes because you won’t be called upon to speak for at least that long. The Storyteller will share intimate details with you about her recent trip to the grocery store or his latest home-improvement project. And believe me, no detail is too small to ignore. From the hard-to-find location of the toothpicks to the obscure size of the correct drill bit, the Storyteller will give you much more information than you need or desire. If you typically fall into this conversational style, try to convert your novels into short stories. Try to provide a short summary up front, and if your listener wants additional information, he or she will ask questions, much like a full- or part-time journalist.
The Full-time Journalist. The Full-time Journalist, in my humble opinion, is the ideal conversationalist. This person is generally curious about everyone and everything and will often ask the six key questions that most journalists employ: who, what, where, when, why, and how? Yes, at times, too many questions may seem intrusive, but if this journalist is also perceptive, she will pick up on that discomfort and alter the approach somewhat. At that point, she might share some of her own thoughts and opinions, so that the conversational partner can comment or ask questions of his own. I like the perceptive Full-time Journalist because she finds the middle ground between the Miser who says too little and the Storyteller who says too much.
The Part-time Journalist. The Part-time Journalist is a tricky character because he always begins with a question, and he seems genuinely interested in your answer, and you think he may have follow-up questions as well. However, he is not at all interested in your answer, he has no further questions, and if you pause for even a second to catch your breath, he will cut you off to give you his answer to his question. In other words, he is a Storyteller in disguise, and his question is merely a way for him to start telling his story. So be careful if he happens to ask you, “Did you have a chance to travel at all this summer?” For as soon as you say, “Yes,” but before you reveal the specific spot you visited on the Jersey Shore, he will interrupt you and describe every last lake, mountain, and great camp he discovered while vacationing in the Adirondack Mountains. Once again, you’re likely in for a 15–20-minute travelogue.
The Squirrel. Obviously, I’m not a big fan of the Storyteller or the Part-time Journalist because they dominate the conversation. However, they can be mildly entertaining and informative if you’re feeling like the Miser and don’t want to talk or if you’re stuck with them at a luncheon, and you just want to enjoy your meal without the pressure of conversing. The Squirrel, however, is even more annoying because his stories are all over the place; they never connect and never have a point. At times, he, too, may begin with a vacation narrative that actually sounds somewhat interesting, but before he delivers the key detail or the punch line, he gets distracted. Here’s an example: “The person who designed the building was not only an architect but also an actor who once won an Oscar, and speaking of Oscars and movies, last week, we went to see . . . .” Yes, of course, you can try to bring the Squirrel back and ask about the identity of the Oscar-winning architect, but that will likely lead to another random story, and, then, you’ll never find out about the movie The Squirrel saw last week. The experience can be exasperating.
The Tormentor. The absolute worst conversationalist is the Tormentor, the Storyteller who also happens to be in a position of authority: for example, a boss, a teacher, or an elderly neighbor. In each case, as the employee, the student, or the respectful young person, you may feel trapped and unable to escape this older person’s ramblings about the “good old days.” If you have to deal with this person only once or twice per year, you could probably survive. However, when this rambler is a daily presence at work, in school, or in the neighborhood, you have to gradually build up the courage to eventually break free from this conversational dungeon or you will die there without the opportunity of uttering your own last words.
The Killer. My first six conversational characters are the people I usually encounter in one-on-one conversations, and the following four are usually found in group conversations where three or more people are sharing their thoughts. The conversational Killer is much like the Squirrel, easily distracted and prone to share immediately whatever is on her mind. For example, four or five people might be intelligently discussing the upcoming election, and the Killer will jump in with this comment and question for the most recent speaker: “Oh, I absolutely love those shoes. Where did you get them?” When this happens, I want to kill the Killer myself. You couldn’t hold that thought, that question, until later? Really? Yes, the person with the stylish shoes could ignore the question or promise to answer it later, but most people will try to be polite and answer it immediately. By then, of course, the interesting political conversation has been literally “shooed” out the door, never to return.
The Entertainer. We’ve all encountered the Entertainer. He can’t be taken seriously. He cannot intelligently participate in a group conversation because he is constantly showing off his collection of puns, jokes, observations, and one-liners. He’s really a stand-up comedian wannabe. And there’s a place for this character too. In a stand-up comedy club where he has the microphone and where the audience is waiting and willing to be entertained. Most of us don’t want to be entertained all the time, however. At times, we want to share serious thoughts and opinions, and the Entertainer won’t allow that to happen. Here, I have to admit that I have often performed as the Entertainer myself, especially when I was younger. Thus, I am consciously aware that the Entertainer sometimes can’t understand or deal with serious issues, so he hides behind his humor to avoid having to deal with them. Please forgive me. I’m working on this weakness and trying to keep my mouth shut when I’m tempted to speak foolishly.
The Narcissist. When I think of the Narcissist, I am reminded of the old song written and recorded by Sam Cooke entitled “Bring It on Home to Me.” This individual is actually a pretty good conversationalist but only if the conversation revolves around him and his specific situation. He can be helpful, insightful, and interesting. If the conversation drifts off into another topic, though, he doesn’t do well. He wants to be at the center at all times, and he will do all he can to make that happen. I’ve actually heard one narcissist say, “That topic is so boring; can we go back to what I was saying earlier?” And another narcissist once said, “Can we talk about me again?” Sure, some people may need our undivided attention once in a while — but not all the time. Please.
The Chameleon. Finally, we come to the most flexible conversationalist of all, the Chameleon. This person is not locked into one conversational style. She will change her colors as needed to keep the conversation moving. For instance, if she’s seated at a business seminar with five other strangers, and those five are all silent and shy, she will jump in and make sure everyone offers a brief personal introduction with an added explanation for attending the seminar. By contrast, if the entire group is talking easily and comfortably, she will simply sit back and listen; she will enter only if called upon or only if a conversational lull occurs. At that point, she might share a story of her own or bring up a recent controversy or news story to encourage the others to share their thoughts and opinions. And if the Killer jumps in with the “shoe” question, the Chameleon will make sure that the group returns quickly to the previous topic.
So what about you? Do you fit neatly into one of the conversational styles mentioned above? And have you always used that style, or have you changed with age? As I discussed in a previous post, I was initially a combination of the Miser and the full-time Journalist because as a young introvert, I didn’t have enough confidence to share much of myself with others. As I aged, though, I often contributed as the Entertainer and sometimes as the Storyteller. Today, finally, in my old age, I am content to be the Chameleon. I will listen or talk as needed, and, hopefully, my conversational teammates and I will comfortably share our lives together.