Conversation. It’s that thing that binds us to other people. We can have one over food or drink, late at night or early in the morning, with people we know well or perfect strangers. Like many other Princeton students this semester, I have been capitalizing on the opportunity that in-person university provides by catching meals with new people and engaging them in conversation. But a good conversation can be hard to find, and it’s hard to know why one fails.
I’ve been thinking seriously about how conversations fail ever since I listened to an interview with Deborah Tannen, a Georgetown University linguistics professor who studies human communication, on NPR’s Hidden Brain. In the program, Tannen explains that “a perfectly tuned conversation is a vision of sanity, a reassurance that you’re a right sort of person and all is right with the world.” I agree with this statement wholeheartedly. However, while a good conversation can give you self-confidence and a sense of validation and human connection, a bad conversation can lead one to doubt that these things are possible.
Even before I listened to Tannen on conversation, I was already prone to overanalyzing my interactions with others. I am sensitive to a conversation’s rhythm and flow, worrying if I am speaking too much or too loudly or not enough. I find this feeling is particularly acute in group conversation settings. When speaking one-on-one it is easier to gauge engagement and conversation time. In a group setting, it can be much harder to balance all of these things while still helping the conversation flow and not feel stilted.
In particular, I tend to do something that Tannen calls “talking along.” Talking along is when, throughout the time while one person is telling a story or sharing something, their interlocutor interjects small comments. For example, this can be inserting statements like “so true” or “that’s right.” The talker-along is not intending to interrupt the speaker and take the conversation space for themselves. Rather, by adding these comments, the talker-along communicates that they are interested in and engaged by whatever the other person is sharing. However, this backfires with someone who is not familiar with this kind of conversation style, as they will view each comment as an interruption and will then pause to give that other person space in the conversation, even if the talker-along does not really want a turn to speak.
Some of this, Tannen argues, is cultural. Tannen spent months analyzing a conversation held between herself and several other friends from New York and California. She found that people from different regions of the U.S. had different lengths in conversation pauses, which determined how long they would wait before jumping in to add something to the conversation. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Tannen found that the New Yorkers would jump in after only a few seconds, which meant that her friends from California struggled to grab hold of the conversation space.
As someone from the Midwest, but whose parents are both from the East Coast, I have often felt this tension. I distinctly recall hanging out at the house of a friend whose family has deep Midwestern roots. When my dad, who grew up in New Jersey, came to pick me up, he dominated the small talk exchange between parents as I gathered my things to head home. It was so noticeable that I remember my dad reflecting on the car ride home, expressing how he regretted being so aggressive in his conversation style compared to my friend’s more soft-spoken parents. At Princeton, we have the opportunity to interact with people from all across the globe. Here, I have found myself acting as the more aggressive conversationalist and as the more passive interlocutor in different conversations.
There is something extremely genuine about the anxieties my dad expressed on that car ride. I too reflect on my conversations, regretting times when I’ve interrupted others or spoke too quickly or too aggressively or didn’t choose my words carefully. But what I think is most dangerous about overanalyzing conversations is that one can be less forgiving of others’ conversation faux paus. Unfortunately, I tend to react negatively to people who I feel exemplify the kinds of conversation styles that I am most concerned about emulating.
So how do we communicate better? Is there a right way to converse? I recently had a conversation with a female friend of mine where she expressed some of her frustrations when communicating with her male partner. While she would ask about his day and how he was feeling, he would not necessarily reciprocate those questions. In fact, he didn’t necessarily need her to ask him questions to share about what was going on in his life. Yet my friend felt that she really needed to be asked to feel comfortable sharing in their conversation space. Is there a right or wrong in this situation? Should she be more comfortable sharing about her day without being asked or should he be better at asking questions?
In truth, the answer is probably a little bit of both. But perhaps just recognizing that conversation is complicated and can be influenced by so much of our environment and background can help to make sense of those insanely awkward moments of communication. Having open and honest conversations about your different communication styles with the people in your life can help to alleviate some of the ways conversations turn uncomfortable and perhaps give you a greater level of appreciation for those moments.