The shape of a listener

by James Somers, May 23, 2012

You could not say a word and still be thought a great conversationalist, so long as your interlocutor ends up doing the kind of talking they like to do. That’s what it means to be good at conversation. It’s not about saying interesting things or absorbing what someone else says. It’s about extruding the right kind of talk.

The picture I have in mind is of a pasta maker. I imagine someone turning a little hand crank, working a glob of dough into clean hollow tubes of macaroni or waves of lasagna. That’s what conversation is like. Conversation is like making pasta the old-fashioned way, except that in conversation what you’re working into form is someone else’s ideas.

At the heart of the process, you, the listener, are just like a pasta machine—a machine so obnoxiously simple that you hesitate to call it one. Because all it is is a shape.

* * *

As a talker I have all kinds of configurable settings. Entering a conversation, there are many knobs I can turn:

Will I talk intensely, blood flushing my face, or calmly and casually?
Will I try to sound colloquial, professional, intelligent, ignorant?
Will I reference continental philosophers by name? Golfers? Poets?
Will I lean on analogies from math or physics, and microbiology?
Will I look for opportunities to deploy a sesquipedalian word?
Will I work the other guy in like my thoughts depend on his?
Will I let myself ooze with emotion, and romantical angst?
Will I consciously experiment with tones and inflection?
Will I be trying to find out what I genuinely believe?
Will I ask questions -- real and/or rhetorical ones?
Will I wait for that name on the tip of my tongue?
Will I be tendentious and polemical, out to win?
Will I use a long silence to plan what to say?
Will I speak delicate or with high abandon?
Will I be afraid to use the word "blog"?
Will I deploy pop culture references?
Will I be jokey? Punny? Sarcastic?
Will I play high status, or low?
Will I take it to a meta level?
Will I get fiercely political?
Will I play devil’s advocate?
Will I crank up my charisma?
Will I indulge digressions?
Will I talk fast or slow?
Will I try small talk?
Will I spin yarns?
Will I brood?
How much?

I shine—I come into my own—under certain configurations of these knobs, and shrivel under others. For instance I enjoy riffs of sarcastic banter and quoting movies, but I tire quickly of pun-upmanship. I like to explain. I lean heavily on a stock of nerdy analogies and feel crippled when I can’t use them. I don’t know how to keep small talk going. I range from being very charismatic to having something like a stammer. I like it when the gossip knob is turned up high. I can’t riff about football or how many gigabytes a phone has. I prefer my talk to be salted with curse words. I don’t like talk that sounds like it’s coming out of an English classroom. I rarely argue. I don’t do well when I’m trying to impress.

Different speakers draw different kinds of talk out of me. Michael, fluent in most of my intellectual interests, is great for helping me feel out ideas. Rob gets me spilling insecurities. I have a friend, Carey, who leaves me thinking I’m inarticulate and wrong. With Nikhil I talk slow and philosophical. I get Seinfeldian with Matt. I spout bullshit with Sanders. There is a guy at work who encourages me to improv. An old roommate, Andy, always had me explaining things I didn’t understand well enough to explain. Drew gets my polemical side going. I’m made to feel young when I talk to my older brothers, and wise when I talk to my older friends. I’m at my most charming in the company of my good friends’ girlfriends.

Which is all to say that I configure myself in light of who I’m talking to—so much so that you could say they configure me.

* * *

Some talkers are no doubt more configurable than others, in the sense that they change themselves, chameleon-like, depending on whoever they’re talking to, while others are “just themselves” no matter what. But I’d bet most people are more pliable than they’d say. How easy it is to tell when a friend of yours picks up their phone that they’re talking to their girlfriend? Their employer? A mutual friend? Their parents?

What’s happening, I think, is some combination of “mirroring”—that phenomenon where I’ll unconsciously mimic your posture, tone, level of intimacy, style of humor, and so on—and this thing where before each of my remarks I’ll think about you and what I know about you and what I think I can say and then I’ll triage your likely responses, and my responses to your responses, and so on, and make my conversational moves in light of this projected snap-analysis of where I think our talk might take us.

It sounds effortful and conscious but of course it’s not. Having a sense of where you are in a conversation, of what’s apt and in play, is the bedrock social skill. It happens automatically. To be socially well-adjusted is to adjust well, to be highly responsive to the microdynamics of talk.

Of course this only underlines the leverage that you have as a listener. That is, it invites you to invert the picture, to consider what kinds of rejiggerings you cause others to make. What sort of conversational selves do you have a way of drawing out?

* * *

Like everybody else, I have an incalculable store of memories: remembered episodes, snatches of speech, images, trains of thought, and so on. The problem is, I can’t just enumerate this stuff. I need cues to call it up. That’s how my mind works: it all just sits there dead until I do something or see something or hear something or smell something—and then little memorical fragments effortlessly spring to life.

“Conversations take random walks through events and ideas in a manner determined by the associative networks of the participants,” writes the cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter. Conversations are “stimulating” in the concrete sense of arousing inert patches of thought. It’s by the random walks of conversation that I am made to access neglected memories: whole books I had forgotten I’d read, whole ways of thinking and talking, articles, relationships, moments, jokes, flavors, phrases, feelings, ambitions, tunes, stories, fears, ideas—all of which are stored so that they can be called into action in just the right context, and which otherwise might as well not exist.

And the point is this: different people activate different parts of that complex. What I get to be, the parts of me I get to see—it depends so much on the shape of a listener.