Last week was Fuck You Week, Jezebel's first annual week of desperate emotional cleansing and unhinged psychic purging. But Friday took a turn for the awful and we didn't run our final entries. So we're doing that now.
I realize I'm going to sound like a total bitch on wheels for telling people that they don't know how to have conversations, and that they can fuck off for not having them well. Me!? The single most annoying conversationalist in the universe? (Is that what the people say? Tell me what the people say!)
But this has to be one of my biggest pet peeves in the whole wide world. The whole thing about going out into the universe is that there are other people and other things than the people and the things in your own house, right? In your own HEAD for that matter. There are literally people everywhere else but with you, who lead insanely interesting lives full of complex choices and dramatic struggles and remarkable triumphs.
And yet! Do you run outside and embrace your fellow humans by asking them interesting questions, listening carefully to the responses, and then responding with something relevant to the subject matter? No! You talk talk talk and yap yap yap your head off about yourself all day long to anyone who will listen, barely pausing to take a breath or adjust your yap-talking yapper. To you, bad conversationalist, all that stuff out there is better left undiscovered, untold, unknown.
Look, we're all guilty of having an obnoxious night out (or a hundred), we've all been bad company and boring partygoers and shitty small talkers. We have all botched jokes and stumbled through anecdotes and left out the telling details or told all the wrong ones. We have all been too nervous, too drunk, too slow, too off, too everything. Among friends, all is forgiven. These are not the people I am talking about. For those people, there is an essential good-faith effort to connect with fellow humans that yields ultimate connectivity and not awkward, endless, tedious, inescapable drudgery. At least not on purpose.
I am talking about the other people. The people who are so self-absorbed, so utterly unaware of themselves or others, that it actually never occurs to them to ask other people questions or follow up in thoughtful ways to the questions asked of them. But I'm also kind of talking about people who have no idea how to be interesting, or who fall apart when disagreed with.
You know them. They do not ask you about you. Ever. They just talk about themselves the entire time and then move on to the next victim. And they are the worst. Or maybe they are the person who only does small talk, and cannot possibly talk about subjects that scratch the surface. Maybe they are the person who can only talk about their personal feelings about a relationship and they can't talk about current events. Maybe they are the people who never seem to have any actual ideas of their own, or thoughts on anything. Maybe they just seem oblivious to anything in the actual world around them, and are solipsism incarnate. Maybe they are always enlisting you to play therapist.
But mostly, above all this, they are guilty of being incurious about anything that isn't them. In order to have good conversations and debates, you have to have thoughts outside yourself. Being a fascinating expert on yourself will only get you so far in the annals of Not Having to Look Outside Yourself. You have to consume literature, news, art, comedy, sports, history, nonfiction, fiction, poetry, SOMETHING, and form an opinion, make a connection, be a person in the world with thoughts in your head and go forth and put them out there.
If you do that, I truly, genuinely believe you will not be a total complete waste of a conversationalist, because if you do that, it would seem to me that you would want to actually connect with others about these things, ideas, pieces of art, information about the world. It would seem to me you would want to discuss this stuff, and have someone respond in kind, instead of you know, getting on their phone to see if anyone tweeted anything new about coyotes recently.
I don't flatter myself and assume that everyone in my company should be itching to know all about me. I live in LA, a place full of non-question askers who are really asking one big question in their heads: Who are you? No, really, are you somebody?
But what I can say is that my curiosity is such that I want to know about anyone worth knowing anything about, that is to say, anyone with a story to tell. I will listen and I will think about it, and probably have a thought or two about what I might have done differently. That's the whole thing about it: I'll have an opinion, and I'd love it if you would, too.
And let's not blame social media for what ails us. Oscar Wilde spoke in brief a hundred years ago and managed to say something entertaining in person. He used to actually - for realz - SAVE UP WITTY THINGS TO SAY AT PARTIES. Can anyone get their minds around that? He read news of the day, consumed art and literature, mulled it over, came up with stuff to say, and then thought about how it might make for good banter in the future, like, at some unfathomably unimaginable later time. Yes, it's pretentious as fuck, and yet, he wanted to be an interesting person. I'll take pretentious interesting person over self-absorbed fuckwit any day.
OK, I do blame social media in part, but mainly for the complacency it breeds in people thinking they've interacted meaningfully by eloquently firing off one-sided status updates and lying back to be thumbs upped. FYI: Getting the shit thumbs-upped out of you 24/7 is what your parents are for, and your surrogate virtual parents, Facebook. Not the people who are actually in your physical, in-person life by choice, who are not under any obligation to validate your existence all the time no matter what wacky antics you get up to.
Which leads me to debate. People who are bad at talking are usually also bad at debating. I'm not talking about intense political debates that leave everyone in tears, just the ability to have a conversation about something you disagree about without it coming to fisticuffs. It requires having considered, thought-out opinions and being able to think on your feet. And it's not just being able to do it; it's wanting to do it. It's being able to see that there is actual value in having someone question your viewpoint.
There is also a fine thing called verbal sparring, which, at least in screwball comedies in the 1940s, was considered a charming and fun thing to do between two people with a potential romantic interest or even just brains, but which now is apparently considered hostile, enemy fire. You know what I call someone who thinks just like you and laughs at everything you say? Boring.
Perhaps the real social media conundrum is that we are able to have this Jekyll and Hyde existence thanks to technology: Online we are all firebrands, but in real life, we've all been lulled into this non-offensive, self-absorbed, no-real-opinion-having state of complete and utter nonexistence, sickened by opposing viewpoints and in no hurry to test out our own on an audience that's anything but identical to us. But hey, at least our social profiles are kickin' and sassy.
And for the record, I'm not talking about people who are just being polite. Being polite is good! Being treated politely is a lot like sniffing glue, only it's the best glue in the house, because it gets you high on life. It's the fabric that holds it all together so society doesn't descend into pissy chaos.
But politeness actually creates a kind of friendly distance, and thanks to that warmly generic blanket of nice we wrap ourselves in, we can never get down to the business of actually connecting with individual people. By, you know, talking to them? Being authentic? Asking real questions? Stating our opinions? Listening to theirs? Arguing passionately for or against something? Spirited debate? Talking? Having to hear about something other than us? Is this thing on?
I'll leave you with this: Dale Carnegie has a great anecdote from his famous book about attending a dinner party and meeting a botanist whom he finds so interesting that he can't help but ask him questions the entire time. After the party, the botanist relays to a mutual friend that Dale Carnegie was the most interesting man he'd ever met, but Carnegie had never told him a single thing about himself. If this seems preposterous to you to spend a dinner party never discussing yourself, by all means, you are the type of person I am talking about. Get thee to a library. It's a secret building where you can check out books for free, and in those books hides a special secret: there is a whole world outside of your window. Please stop fogging it up with your hot you-breath.