The art of conversation is a dying one.
I don’t know if it’s just me, but in the past few years, I’ve noticed a significant downward trend in people’s ability to hold a conversation and to engage—to really engage—with the person sitting across the table from them.
To illustrate the point, I’ve created a character named Jack. Although Jack is fictional, his conversational traits are not. He was pieced together—like Frankenstein’s monster—from various people I’ve encountered over the past few months.
There are three primary ways in which Jack manipulates conversations. Most people I know (and that includes me) have been guilty of at least some of these conversational blunders in the past.
Being aware of them is the first step to fixing them. I’ll follow this article with a new one next week that walks you through three counterintuitive ways in which you can excel at conversation in a world that is increasingly losing the ability to do it well.
For now, let’s meet Jack.
1. Jack always brings the conversation back to him
For Jack, the purpose of a conversation is to have an audience for his one-man show. The other person functions like a mirror—to reflect his ideas and to magnify his already-inflated ego.
During the dialogue—well, more a monologue—you learn about everything from Jack’s recent travels to his promotion at work. He tells you about his dating life and the rad photo he just posted on Instagram. As he meanders from one anecdote to the next, he repeats the same points over and over again, and the repetition—from your perspective—begins to resemble an old torture technique.
Every now and then you attempt to chime in, but Jack interrupts you to put himself back where he rightfully belongs—in the spotlight.
Throughout the conversation, Jack acts like the senior professor from a joke famous in academic circles. The senior professor is chatting with a junior colleague. For an hour the senior professor drones on about his remarkable achievements—particularly his latest, groundbreaking, field-defining book—while the junior professor listens like his tenure depends on it (because it does). The senior professor eventually comes out of his self-centered trance and says: “But enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do YOU think of my latest book?”
As you sit there attempting to pay attention to Jack, you find yourself swinging between one extreme of utter boredom and the other extreme of fascination about how Jack can turn a conversation into a personal homage.
2. Jack has mastered the art of pretending to listen
During the conversation, Jack is physically there, but he’s having an out-of-body experience. He maintains eye contact with you and puts on an empty smile while ignoring everything you’re saying. As you talk, he’s either daydreaming or thinking about what to say next about himself.
Jack does something else to elevate his self-importance. At the beginning of each conversation, he pulls out his iPhone and sets it on the table to confirm what is painfully obvious: You deserve only part of his attention. His high-profile digital life signifies his importance and must always be within reach.
Every now and then, he shoots furtive glances at his notifications. If a text message comes in, he picks up his phone, reads it, and says “Oh, I don’t have to respond to that now,” making it clear that *you* are *slightly* more important than a text that doesn’t warrant an immediate response.
If people wearing Google Glass hadn’t been branded “glassholes,” Jack would be sporting a pair and scrolling through his news feed while nodding, smiling, and pretending to listen to what you have to say—during the infrequent breaks when he’s reluctantly given up the spotlight.
3. For Jack, questions are superfluous
In today’s world, the race to be heard is the only race that matters.
As a result, Jack believes that questions have no place in conversation. Instead, Jack views conversations as an extension of his Facebook news feed. He lists updates and posts comments, and he expects you to respond by “liking” what he has to say.
Even when you drop hints—I have a new book coming out soon!—Jack ignores the giant breadcrumbs you leave on the table and moves onto the next topic on his lengthy agenda.
It’s not always a lack of curiosity that drives Jack’s behavior. Sometimes Jack doesn’t ask questions because he fears to look clueless. In an attempt to impress you with his knowledge, Jack pretends to know what you’re talking about.
“I see,” he says, not seeing at all.
“Interesting,” he says, not being interested at all.
“I know just the thing for that!” he says, not knowing at all.
When all else fails, he pulls that trusted phrase from his linguistic grab bag: “That reminds me of a time when I . . .” and brings the conversation back to him.
It’s easy to spot these conversational atrocities in others, but much harder to see them in ourselves. Stay tuned for an article next week on three things you can do to counter these flaws and excel in the dying art of conversation.
Ozan Varol is a rocket scientist turned law professor and bestselling author. Click here to download a free copy of his e-book, The Contrarian Handbook: 8 Principles for Innovating Your Thinking. Along with your free e-book, you’ll get the Weekly Contrarian — a newsletter that challenges conventional wisdom and changes the way we look at the world (plus access to exclusive content for subscribers only).