You gotta know stuff!
A prerequisite of good comedy and conversation is knowledge
I don’t know about you, but sometimes, when I’m knee deep in a conversation and I feel that I’m flailing, it’s more often than not that my facts aren’t straight or that I’m missing solid evidence. I attended a comedy night at the acclaimed Comedy Cellar in the Village in New York, and the comedian berated us, the audience, because we didn’t get one of his references. He pursued: “You gotta know stuff!” The second and third degree layers of a good joke can only be understood if you’re sufficiently cultivated. And it’s true that if you’re trying to have an in-depth and meaningful conversation, it helps to know what you’re talking about. That includes inserting facts, citing references, and being aware when nuance is needed, or when issues aren’t quite as black and white. Having meaningful conversation doesn’t just mean being deep and soulful, it means knowing how to argue, recognize or challenge information, anecdotes and aphorisms when appropriate. Meaningful conversation happens in the nuance, and with the willingness to share and the openness to learn.
In looking at the nature of conversation, I love to look for patterns. This has led me to at once participate, but also observe the conversations going on around me. I’ve always tried to keep a bigger perspective in my discussions, rather than let myself fully go. I don’t know if that’s right or wrong, but I know it’s what I tend to do. As a result, I rarely get all het up in a conversation. On the other hand, I do tend to get easily switched off. There are certain things that turn me off, such as people who don’t know how to listen or those who come off as too much of a bombastic professor. And then there are the topics. There are a host of subjects that are just plain boring, including most small talk (the weather, the result of the latest sporting event or how great their children are). Some of these are desperately predictable and repetitive. Meanwhile, there are some topics that are endlessly enjoyable, as if every time it’s an exploration or a discovery.
What types of people turn you off from conversation?
What might those endlessly enjoyable topics be for you?
How many conversations?
In one of my duller moments as I was waiting at a restaurant in Paris, I decided that I want to count the total number of conversations possible between two sober adults. This became a thought experiment. Admittedly, I was going at it a bit tongue in cheek. Certainly, I’m no expert in all matters of conversation, but it seemed like a fine challenge. First, though, I needed to establish what I meant by a “conversation.”
What’s a conversation?
I qualified it as an exchange on a topic with a start and an ending. But, of course, that’s not really how conversations go. A conversation is formed by a series of different threads. These are inevitably intertwined with deviations, overlaps, interruptions, and even with meta topics (i.e. talking about the conversation). A full blown conversation is at once a process and a journey. On a napkin, I started to scribble down some thoughts as to how I was going to map out all the possible conversational threads or capsules. There were the topics: how does one categorize the subjects (see below)? Then I started thinking that the nature of the relationship between the two individuals inevitably had a bearing on the conversation. Finally, the context in which the conversation was happening would also impact the tenure of the chat. So, I began to list these out… and ended up creating a three-dimensional chart. I’ll deal with the relationships and context (as well as the chart) in a follow up article. Let’s start with the topics.
The taxonomy of topics
I started by looking at the topics, as I outline below. How to come up with a definitive and comprehensive list of all possible topics? With some road-testing over the years and having to shoe-horn some fuzzier or satellite topics into multiple categories, I landed on a total of 33. An auspicious number? Let’s break these down.
Small talk - Phase 1
Like it or not, small talk is generally part of the conversation ritual. It’s designed to warm us up and, eventually, help lead to “big” talk. But it can also shrivel to drivel with lightening monotony. I identified five typical topics in this zone or phase of the conversation:
How are you doing?
Origin (e.g. where are you from?)
Livelihood (e.g. what do you do for a living?)
As we’ll see later on, the reality is that these topics are treated differently according to the nature of the relationship. For starters, a friend typically won’t need to ask how you’re called, unless you might have changed your name recently (which does indeed happen). “How are you?” is one of those trite questions where anything other than a “good or above” answer (top two box for survey junkies) is not acceptable.
While recognizing that small talk has its place, I thought one day it would be great if we could cut through the crap by just using a code in place of the chatter, such that we acknowledged each other but, as is often the case, paid little attention to the details. So, for example, we could both just count out loud and in unison: 1-2-3-4-5… and move on to the next phase of the conversation.
The following five topics fall into a 2nd phase, although some more familiar couples will of course start here.
Food and beverage (typically used at meals and parties)
Current state of affairs (without spilling over into politics... e.g. What do you think of what we're doing right now?)
Joke/humor (e.g. Did you hear the one about...?)
Future state of affairs
What characterizes Phase 2 topics is that they can be trickier. For example, you might have an off-color joke. But, as in life and conversation in general, anything can go wrong in a conversation. Equally, opening up to more insights and opinions is also how we come to know each other better. More about that later.
Now, for people re-visiting each other for at least a second time, we move into Phase 3. The topics constitute pivot pieces that can remain impersonal and noncommittal or tilt into more personal or probing topics.
What are/have you been watching? TV/cinema/video/series
What are/have you been reading? Books/articles/blogs
How are you...really? This is the probing version seen earlier in a lighter version in Phase 1.
Hobbies and social activities
Neatly, these first three phases of subjects amount to fifteen. At last, we are now ready to move into the Valhalla of conversation: the “right” stuff, as Wolfe might have said. Taking a leaf out of the different phases of sleep, here we are now moving into the deeper phases of conversation (N.B., in sleep, we talk about phases 3-4 of deep sleep). What characterizes these topics is that they’re likely more penetrating, more revealing. Depending on the context and nature of your relationship, these topics will inevitably get you to the thick “it”, where it is what matters. And, it’s important to reiterate that the depth of the conversation will be dependent on the amount of knowledge that you bring to it. As the comedian stated, you gotta know stuff.
Family affairs (and major domestic decisions e.g. college choices, house or car purchase)
Culture in general (e.g. literature, music, art, fashion…)
Nature (including animals)
Travel (e.g. holidays)
Psychology and love
Beauty (in us, others or in general)
“Them” (aka gossip)
“Us” (i.e. our relationship)
Absurdities, conjectures and oddities (e.g. “What if?” questions)
Those often taboo topics:
Whereas bona fide taxonomists have eight different strata for describing our life forms, I would equate my subdivisions to Order (i.e. primate for the human being). It’s neither at the top nor at the bottom… In this list of 33 topics, I’ve only allowed for one duplication; but many specific and niche topics may well form hybrid categories… let’s say like species interbreeding, but at a higher level!
What categories do you think are missing? What do you think of this organization? Does any of it make sense?
“You gotta know stuff!” The second and third degree layers of a good joke can only be understood if you’re sufficiently cultivated. And it’s true that if you’re trying to have an in-depth and meaningful conversation, it helps to know what you’re talking about. That includes inserting facts, citing references, and being aware when nuance is needed, or when issues aren’t quite as black and white. Having meaningful conversation doesn’t just mean being deep and soulful, it means knowing how to argue, recognize or challenge information, anecdotes and aphorisms when appropriate. Meaningful conversation happens in the nuance, and with the willingness to share and the openness to learn.
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