Todcast – Hush


get_nervousI am not a “one up” guy during conversations, although to listen to me you wouldn’t know it. I have a billion stories at the ready to go along with the one you’re telling me. One popular notion is that people like me see conversation as a competitive sport, like a tennis match. We want to demonstrate we are conversant on any topic and every topic, we are show-offs at best, boors at worst.

Another notion is we are attention hogs who need to keep the focus on them and their narrative all the time. The idea is, we are so self-centered we naturally believe every sentence is a solicitation for us to weigh in on the matter. Any matter. All the time. We find ourselves so interesting that we think it irresponsible to let people get away without enlightening them with our insightful position on a topic or our superior anecdote.

There is plenty of evidence to support both these positions, and they are true of many people, but as someone who comes off as a member of both these camps with some regularity, I feel as if it’s important to point out a third possibility.

To be clear, I am kind of a show-off but rarely a boor. Also, I am remarkably self-centered (a borderline narcissist, really) for someone of such meager talent and looks. These are character flaws of which I’m aware, and try often can compensate for. But when I engage in back and forth story-sharing on a topic, I’m neither showing off nor letting loose my narcissist. I’m doing something much more shallow, trying to establish a false connection.

Kurt Vonnegut called them “Grandfalloons,” meaningless connections people make and then ascribe meaning to. Usually, and in his conception, this refers to people from the same geographic area, people who follow the same sports team, etc. It’s a mostly harmless, half-assed attempt of tribalism in the modern era. We love them. You love them.

Here in Maryland, when I see someone with Mets gear I get a little excited and even wave sometimes. Unlike the Yankees, the fans of which are both soulless and ubiquitous, Mets fans are rare birds outside the greater New York area. I believe it has something to do with the Mets tradition of heartbreak and suckiness. It’s less exportable than one might think.

So when I see someone in Mets gear, I immediately think, “Hey! There’s someone who is either from my native area or at least my same incredibly bad taste in professional ball teams.” It’s a weird thing to consider. ┬áThere is no reason to expect that we should have anything in common at all beyond the Mets, but we both act as if we do, as if we’re part of the same tribe.

Belonging is a pleasant feeling. It makes sense on an organizational as well as on a primitive level. Our brains like things that make sense, so being able to put people in or not in our “group” is a convenient shortcut to actually getting to know people.

I discovered that when I go story for story with a person, this is what I’m really doing. It is my way of saying, I understand and relate to you. I do this with people to whom I’m already closely connected, I’m sure, but it is most noticeable when I do it to those with whom I have a looser association.

Having identified my disposition, like an addict I constantly am on guard. There is a hackneyed “are you listening or waiting to speak” aspect to my new attempt to stay silent. Sometimes, instead of paying attention to someone, I silently remind myself what stories I’m not going to tell or which kinds of observations I’m not going to make.

I have a friend who has excellent speech self-control. If he has nothing to say, he just remains silent. I envy this train immensely and have begun trying to practice it. Learning to enjoy the quiet or at least not contribute to the noise isn’t really a part of my disposition, but the close I get to being there, the less likely I am to step on someone’s story with evidence that I’ve had a similar experience.

People don’t share stories to be assured they are the same as everyone else’s, they share stories as insight into their experiences or worldview. Although the idea is to try and relate to the teller, what we do when we tell stories along the same line is marginalize their individuality.

Essentially, one person says, “I’m unique for this reason,” and the other says, “So am I!”