On Conversations

Adrian Ngiam examines the motivations for, and the mechanics of conversations.


The question of what is conversation, in my case, brings forth an efflorescence of category: the chat, small talk, ‘DMCs’, arguments. All these forms attain circumstantial validity, but some, I think, are more interesting than others, for is not conversation supposed to draw us into some meaningful exchange? We are all individual creatures with unique histories and interests and yet we squander this inheritance with excessive desire to take only from others what we want.

Small talk and cheerful chat, whether at the anonymous, drunken shindig, or just for the pleasure of the company of old or new friends, does not really enter into my declaration: on occasion we communicate for only the purest of intentions. But here we can also see our first oddity – our inaugural evidence – for the sinister and ugly forms even the most innocuous conversation can take.

Think of the last party, before all this snow, and that person who held attention throughout all four quarters of the interaction. We can attribute this to mere charisma and energy, and yes, they can be interesting and spread humour. However, I’ve also had the unpleasant experience of being in a room with a person that just wouldn’t shut up, who appeared immune to any social cue that they were obnoxious, loud, and, most terrifyingly of all, completely uninteresting.

There is a pattern of high-status people (either through beauty or social prowess) that continually seek validation, unconsciously usually, for their vacuous and inane personalities, or, if they had sufficient time to calcify their behavior, forego the purpose of communication to use others as an audience to their whims.

Shifting egos lurk to deprive all of us from this beautiful faculty of conversation, whether through excess or through silence. For those that ego has already consumed, we cannot help but pity them for how pathetic they seem, while also falling in love with their sheer confidence: since there are two breeds in this: the egomaniac who creates a wonderful setting where everyone is heightened; and the one who dominates with imprecision and autoeroticism, destroying any chance that another can speak. Simultaneously, in these occurrences, there is a suppression of our own egos. We are all familiar with the concept that conversation is really a dialogue of power, with each statement qualifying, or disqualifying, appraising highly, or lowly, the other’s words, so we cannot omit the self from this analysis.

And I am tempted to see it as an inevitability that we all want the power to consistently express ourselves in a world where norms and structures have enabled certain people to modes of communication and forced others to sulking pleonexia.

A world where everyone is able to actively compete for dominance in a conversation would create so much life: different perspectives engaged with symmetrical language to truly conceive a dialogue. But I can’t delude myself into believing this.

We have been socialized to believe that confidence and power define our identities and that they are reproduced by social successes, or failures, within specifi c contexts. So the self-proclaimed intellectual scoffs at the nightclub, while the socialite dismisses them as lame. And the self-professed diffi dent yearns to take part in the fearful jungle of interactions, and the confident tutorial expert cannot approach a potential mate. Bertrand Russell once said “the scientist is respected by everyone but his colleagues.”

Parsimony naturally occurs when such dissonance encounters our identity, and without consistency in who we appear to be, we use conversations as a way to reassert ourselves. Someone less able to navigate the social waters will give you an ego rush; and a friend is always there to tell you you’re not an idiot. But I’m being reductive — all my categories can and do intermingle, I just don’t think this happens often enough.

In a quest to reclaim conversation, I think awareness of the self is paramount. Insecurity is a strange thing that is honestly a specious neuroticism. Success or failure does not define a person, only, in Whitman’s words, “mind and spirit” does. Kobe said he would rather miss 20 times than stop shooting the ball. Shut out the voice in your head and stop trying to seek validation. After all, what is the utility of this sort of behaviour? Secondly, confi dence can take up so much space that it can redefine a context and turn a party into a philosophical arena; is this power being used for good? Confidence can corrupt an entire interaction and painfully impact others, but in the end, as you lose yourself in the lulling cadence of your own voice, you are only limiting your empathy and, ultimately, losing so much of what life has to offer.

It is important to understand your essence, past the persistent hum of others, to achieve Mills’ sociological imagination. A life well-lived is not one of desperate confidence or forlorn insecurity but to know who you really are, and how you relate to others. Then, you can truly converse. Suddenly, their conservatism is not so disgusting — sure enough, we are all “moral beings to some degree” — but something they wrestle with and developed to understand the world. Now adopting common terms, their ideas can be confronted and not laughed at as just a primitive political view.

Do you even understand the world? And then when you have a chat you can enjoy each other’s company past simply seeking the dominance over them that someone had over you during that other interaction.

If we could understand our essence, and thus the contexts which shaped us, a confident objectivity would emerge that would allow us to imagine past the zeitgeist to see new possibilities, and therefore change. Then, conversations could leave us “threatened but thrilled” and we could finally pursue a real communication between minds.


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