On this and Enkerli’s blog a conversation about conversation has been developing. Conversation (thanks, Enkerli, for that link) is one of the things Enkerli is expert at, along with coffee, beer, and moving. I realize for many people this sort of “meta” analysis is a dead snooze, but not me! I never met a nalysis I didn’t like.
Enkerli has this really profound and admirable way of appreciating and teasing all at once. I dig it. He appreciates and teases me for speaking directly. Egad! Enkerli himself never fails to say what he wants to say, but his style is more gentle and diplomatic. I just can’t recommend his blog enough, not just for what he says, but for how he says it.
OK, I’m hoping I’ve reeled my friend Enkerli in for a more direct conversation about conversation here. Hey, Enkerli, here’s a case study for you. I wonder if you’ll tell me what you make of it? (Others who may be lurking, please feel free to join our conversation.)
My wife Rachel and I are both, more or less directly, from the northeastern U.S. We now live in the southeastern U.S., in the vicinity of Raleigh NC, where we have discovered that we are conversational barbarians.
Neither of us care to talk when we have nothing in particular to say. When we do, we both think it’s important, polite even, to plainly and directly say what we think. We take this to be an ethic about the content of conversation, and also a compliment to the general functionality of our partners in conversation.
We are aware that tender feelings may be hurt by directness. We ourselves have tender feelings and they are frequently bruised by the utterances of others. Our view is that this is our problem, not theirs. We think it’s our job to manage our own feelings, it’s other people’s job to manage theirs, and in the meantime the contents of conversations should be plain, direct and substantive. We’d rather know if our butts look fat in these jeans, and we’re not going to ask if we can’t handle the real answer. We bond pleasantly with people who share this conversational style; for example, we are well matched with each other.
Here in the South there are just a whole raft of things wrong with what I just said. In this culture content is important, but conversation’s function as a ritual of sociability is much more highly developed. Lots of talk with no overt content whatsoever happens here — its entire purpose seems to be to convey, without ever saying this, the message “I see you, I know you” (I refer to these, insensitively, as ‘butt-sniffing’ conversations).
Endless circumlocutions are used (including a lot of passive voice) to avoid giving any sort of direct offense to tender feelings. This seems nice, and it often really is. Yet, a fascinating thing is that offenses are being delivered, but it’s all subtly targeted and done under the cover of splendid courtesy and solicitude. It seems to me that as a result, Southerners intend all of their insults (and feel them all the more keenly), whereas Rachel and I just blunder into them (and cut others a lot of slack). I mean, if I want to tell you something you said is dumb I tell you “That’s dumb.” I don’t mean anything personal there — that sentence would be “You’re dumb.” If a Southerner wants to deliver the same message, ambiguous in the noted variants, he may say something like “What a fascinating way to think! I’ve hardly seen anything like it. You remind me so much of my sweet cousin Cletus.”
I know much better than to think one or the other of these conversational styles is ‘better’; or rather, I think they’re each probably ‘better’ for different purposes. I actually know how to perform ‘Southern’, although I’m far from expert. But it’s exhausting for me, and therefore I’m honestly baffled about what’s supposed to happen when these or other styles come into contact with each other. Enkerli, any thoughts? Or is this/am I just dumb?