Beyond Small Talk
A brief guide to good conversation
Whether it be a passing exchange with a local shopkeeper, an impassioned dialogue with a loved one or perhaps an intimate tête-à-tête with one’s animal companion, there are few activities as poignant, uplifting and revealing as a good conversation. Yet the art of fertile discourse is difficult to master. Artist, actor and playwright Anna Deavere Smith wrote of the refusal to “use language as a mask” – utilising communication as a way to reveal the architecture of one’s character despite “the expectation that words mean very little, because we have seen it all before, heard it all before.” On a related note, writer, critic, philosopher and painter William Hazlitt spoke of conversation as “the art of hearing as well as of being heard.” While communication may be spontaneous and unrehearsed, it must always be a balancing act; it must involve a thoughtful attention and consideration of the other, as well as a good-natured and respectful representation of one’s self. Yet without well-defined rules and an ever-changing context, how do we use language to reveal rather than obscure? As Smith noted, how do we communicate in order to peel back the realness people often conceal beneath the comfort of familiar words? Where the goal of communication is a deeper and more meaningful connection, what does it mean to converse well?
Below, three tips to enhance the quality of one’s conversation.
Words Chynna Lao
Images Calvin Wang
"While communication may be spontaneous and unrehearsed, it must always be a balancing act; it must involve a thoughtful attention and consideration of the other, as well as a good-natured and respectful representation of one’s self. Yet without well-defined rules and an ever-changing context, how do we use language to reveal rather than obscure?"
01. Eye Contact
There is the adage that eyes are the windows to the soul. Eye contact is often a signal of interest, confidence and trust. Our pupils dilate when we find another attractive. Which is to say, to lock eyes is to signal one’s readiness to engage and empathise with another; to know and be known. As artist Marina Abramović mentioned in an interview following her performance piece, The Artist is Present, to gaze at another is to engage in true and intimate communication. “I’ve been looking by now into 1,565 pair of eyes, which is lots of eyes, and the people who I look, I know them, they’re like family."
To affirm another verbally is to reassert the veracity of something; to confirm that something exists or is true. Relationship councillor Gary Chapman notes that ‘words of affirmation’ are one of the five essential love languages and involve verbally encouraging another, articulating their positive qualities and expressing their value to you. Beyond merely providing compliments, however, affirmation involves re-articulating what another has said, a sign of good listening and more so, of a resonant connection. In reasserting the veracity of someone’s experience, we amplify the energy and connectiveness experienced, facilitating what writer Ursula K. Le Guin coins “a continuous interchange between two consciousness."
03. Good Humour
Hungarian writer and satirist László Feleki once noted that if humour was a fluid it “probably served to dilute the hard facts of life making it possible to swallow and digest them.” Good conversation involves a combination of wit and thoughtfulness which, properly harnessed, can allow one to navigate even the most difficult of thematic terrains. Good humour is a state or temperament of amiability; it refers to a conversation underscored by mutual respect and affection, as well as generosity, placing the comfort of the other above the purpose or nature of the exchange itself.