The Lost and Found Art of Conversation

The Lost and Found Art of Conversation

April 16, 2020

Since the onset of social distancing, some of my habits have changed more than others. Perhaps yours have too. For example, I have been calling my mom every day, sometimes several times a day –and yes, it’s new for me (stop tsk-tsk-ing). We’ve even scheduled family Zoom meetings, dinners and drinks. This is a novel phenomenon for our family, brought on by the novel corona virus. It was surprisingly fun –and we ended up dueling our virtual backgrounds. I think the aurora borealis won!

I’ve also been talking –actual conversations, out loud– with folks who normally I only interact with transactionally. Neighbors who I pass every day, my UPS delivery person, the pharmacist. Weird right?

At the moment, lots of us are now spending more time alone or with our families. We can’t do the kinds of things we do to show affection or be social. We can’t hug, or hangout out at the bar, go to a football match or compare biceps at the gym (jk). In the absence of all those casual meetings and interactions, the usual terse messaging behaviors of text, swiping right, and commenting on Facebook feel pretty shallow.

They always were shallow –but now it seems to matter.

All that said, maybe there is a possible bonus out of our restrictive reality. We are discovering or re-discovering the profound bonding that can take place in simple conversation. We can learn more about our friends, neighbors or even parents when we are not speaking to them between innings or shouted over the background din of a football game on television. The only obstacle to that new found connection is our own tendency to interpret what other people mean –often inaccurately. More on that a bit later.

Connecting through conversation is as old as humankind. As long ago as 40,000 years, humans were painting on the walls of caves and communicating their experience to each other. We have no way of knowing what the state of verbal language was at that time, whether people spoke to each other in more sophisticated sounds than grunts and pointing. But conversation is so much more than language. We communicate through our touch, our body language, facial expressions and much more. And that’s just person-to-person communication — which is very limited right now.

We also communicate through art, music, dance and symbols. And it’s not hard to see how all those different media are conversational. Of course, one of the common elements of all conversation is interpretation. Even now, with copious quantities of scientists and medical people giving explicit information about the virus we are facing, the interpretations of those words and the intentions behind them vary tremendously. Just visit your social media feed if you doubt that.

That too is as old as humanity. Paleontologists debate the meaning of cave art as surely as judges debate the intention of laws written 50 years ago. The reality is that intention is always unknown. We can speculate about each other’s intended meaning, but we can never be certain. Despite that, we relate to our interpretations as though they are facts, not fictions. Just consider your own judgments about things that others have said to you, and the way in which we all invent meaning and intent.

“She said she needed space”, Mark told me.

“Wow. That sucks, I replied.

“Yeah”, he replied, “we all know what that means. She’s dumping me, right?”

Sound familiar? If you were ever a teenager, it probably rings a few bells.

We are always interpreting and being interpreted. Regardless of the medium or mix of conversationalists, interpretations are rife and uncontrollable (at least by the speaker).

Conversations are a negotiation between intention and interpretation.

When two people sing and play the guitar, they are having a conversation. Add a listener to the mix and you have instant interpretation of that conversation. Interpretation is ubiquitous and near impossible to control, at least in the moment it occurs.

But, we can get better at interrupting our own internal interpreters by constantly reminding ourselves that they are ours — our inventions. Not necessarily the truth.

Interpretation, by its very nature, is changeable, cultural and context sensitive. In some cultures, making the ok sign of an index finger and thumb is considered offensive. And normally, when we are speaking to someone one-on-one and they back up, we feel shunned. “Do I have body odor? Bad breath?”

Notice how differently you might interpret that body language now. You might feel badly for having stood within six feet of that person and experience some shame when they step back. Or, you might appreciate their diligence in doing so, keeping both of you safe.

We can already see that how we interpret what is virtuous or uncivil is shifting. I find myself feeling angry and contemptuous when I spot people congregated in groups in the park. Last month I might have envied their friendship and intimacy. Today it looks like irresponsibility and selfishness to me.

It’s an unexpected benefit of the virus that I am having so many more conversations, especially those with my family. I should have done these same things months ago and years ago. But, I didn’t. Now, given the restrictions on proximity and visitation, I get to learn more about the people with whom I share blood, even if I can’t share bread. But while we all are having richer and deeper conversations, we are also bringing to them our own interpretive filters. I am trying to stay vigilant that I interpret generously –giving everyone the benefit of the doubt. (I don’t always succeed.) To accomplish that, I’m scrutinizing the way I interpret what I hear and see –whenever I remember to catch myself in the act.

Being able to listen and notice that our brains added something that hadn’t been said is like a superpower –one we can all use all the time –but especially in this time of shared stress.

Relish your conversational bounty –and hone your superpower by noticing how your brain interpreted what got said. Both are invaluable.