Somewhere along the line, despite coming up with asinine things like radio commercials, FOX News, most Yankees fans, cellphone ringtones and reality TV, we evolved. I mean we really really evolved!
Obviously we pale in comparison to God who formed his little hovel called the universe in six days, a fact corroborated by Breibart News and President Trump himself, but still, in the past century alone, we constructed the Eiffel Tower, built cruise ships large enough to sleep the entire population of Honduras, mass produced I-phones which access more information than the New York Public Library and generates more manifestations of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder than even the latest DSM -5 edition knows how to identify.
And to top it off, a few precocious, sleep deprived Harvard students had the gumption to create a cellphone accessible social network which guarantees women will never fall asleep at a professional sporting event other than baseball.
But based on my decade long research into the topic, there is one area in which we have devolved – communication. Yes I know there is a much more of it and more people are sharing more in more platforms, but it’s definitely not better communication. As a semi-competent communicator, I could wax poetic about this paradox, but for the sake of simplifying, I will just focus on one aspect – how 99.9 percent of conversations start.
In fact, the typical conversation starter is really a conversation stopper. Let me explain.
I will give examples in both English and Spanish.
Let’s say you are in the grocery store and run into someone you recognize. After spending at least four minutes trying to identify who exactly the person is (He is the guy whose newspaper you steal at least three times a week because he has been your next door neighbor for a decade), you launch into what can be best described as the universally agreed upon small-talk.
Neighbor – “Hey Marco, whats going on with you?”
You’re tempted to launch into a big spiel.
Me – “Not much, and you?”
Neighbor – “Same old, same old” (or some variation thereof).
Me – “Good luck on the deli line”
Neighbor – “Thanks. Oh and thanks for stealing my newspapers. The headlines are too depressing anyway.”
“Hola Maria, Como estan?”
“Bien, y tu?”
Mind you Maria is calling because she can’t come today to take care of your three kids today because she just got into a major fender bender. Plus her oldest child has been detained in Venezuela indefinitely for booking a one way flight to the U.S.
Please note, I am not trying to channel curmudgeons I admire like Larry David or Bill Maher, but of the literally millions of phrases in the English language, can’t we come up with a starter that smacks of a little more originality. Besides, why does everyone want to know how I am. Isn’t that for a shrink to discover?
So I say lets take back the human potential to have a non-automated, non-reflex based conversation and strain our craniums a bit. For one, I don’t even see “How are you?” as a completed question. Lets finish it as in: “How are you enjoying this nice day?” or “How do you find your comfort level in a world where climate change in a “hoax” but it’s 93 degrees in mid February and two hours of rain forces you to wear a wetsuit just to walk to your car?”
Or “how are you managing to keep your morale high when you are approaching middle age and still work a series (albeit it productive ones) of part time jobs?” (The latter question is entirely theoretical).
Frankly the possibility of such an exchange is kind of exciting.
For now, I say lets bag the existential question of how I am or others like me. First, I think about the answer for far too long. Second, the answers are rarely accurate. If everyone was good as they suggest they are, then there wouldn’t be such a large mass of country music fans, high rate of depression, road rage, cheetos munching or Trump voters.
But also because I, as I’m sure others do, also get handcuffed by the question. Do they really want to know or are they just speaking without thinking? Am I the only one Sally has asked this question to today? However, if you really want to get existential on me, you could start a conversation with “Hey Mark, good morning. Who are you?” Now that’s a question with a little forethought not to mention, some great conversation potential.
For context, there’s a popular sports call-in program on Miami when the host hangs up on anyone who starts the conversation with the phrase that shall not be repeated. His goal, I assume, is to get past the generic pleasantry and cut to the chase. But here’s the irony. The other day he was doing a phone interview with a local baseball manager whose name rhymes with Fattingly and the first question out of his mouth was “Hey Coach, how are you?” The man whose name rhymes with Ron did not, of course, hang up.
But lets say it takes people a little time to adjust to what I propose as the new conversation ice breaker. Lets say the grocery store clerk lets her favorite line slip. Here’s how I plan to respond,
Sheila – “Hi, how are you?”
Mark – “Hmm, never quite been asked that question before at least with not such zeal for inquiry. But now that you ask, let me think about it. Well I am somewhat in existential limbo. You know contentment is really a matter of perspective but also a matter of the convenience at which I can work my way through the deli line. And there was a little bit too much kibbitzing behind the counter. Not to mention, I just realized that an unexpected chunk of my discretionary income was spent on tipping and sales taxes last month, not to mention the outrageous spike in summer electricity costs. Speaking of which, one of the reasons why I think your establishment overcharges for oranges is that you crank up the AC way too high. But overall, I can’t complain. After all, it’s two in the afternoon and I wearing tennis shorts and a t-shirt……………….. And how about you Sheila. Sorry, I mean how are you adjusting to life in the ever unpredictable Trump administration? Do you think he is going to do anything about subsidizing the cost of tropical fruit? Or if that was a bit of a curveball, I mean “Who are you?”
Sheila – “Glad you asked. You’re the first person who has asked me that all day. And that’s a very fair question about adjusting to Trump. It sure is quite the brain bender, isn’t it?”
Now that’s the kind of lady who understands the art of conversation.