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May 11, 2021

Conversing in an age of verbal flatulence 

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Richard Hil 

The other day I bumped into an old acquaintance of mine in the centre of Brisbane. For twenty-five breathless minutes he regaled me with a microscopically detailed account of his secondhand electric car. After ten minutes or so I fell into a soporific stupor from which I barely recovered, until that is, he uttered the immortal words: ‘See ya later, mate’.

And off he strode. I felt like I’d been verbally mugged, dragged over a lexical hedge, and left for dead. The encounter reminded me of a scene in Fawlty Towers where a monotoned spoon salesman (Bernard Cribbens) overwhelms Basil Fawlty (John Cleese) with a volley of hyperbolic requests, to which Basil looks left and right and asks: ‘Are you talking to me?’ ‘Indeed I am, kind sir,’ says the salesman, only for Basil to inquire, ‘Why don’t you speak properly?’

Was I even remotely interested?

The problem with my acquaintance’s extended homily was not his obsession with an inanimate object – a disorder that surely warrants a mention in the Statistical and Diagnostic Manual of Mental Disorders – but the fact that he made no effort whatsoever to check whether or not I was even remotely interested.

This insistent offloading of topics one might find excruciatingly dull is something that social commentator Hugh MacKay complained of years ago in the aptly titled book, Why don’t people listen? Mackay had been similarly accosted, this time by a renovation obsessive at a dinner party.

Talking at, through, and over you

He was mystified by the encounter so decided to devote over 200 pages of a bestselling book to explain what was going on. Let’s just say that the reasons for this phenomenon are complicated.

Like Mackay, I’ve discovered that some folk are, for a host of social, cultural, genetic, and idiosyncratic reasons, predisposed to talk at, through, and over you. If cornered, you might stand there for what feels like hours, melt like butter in a heatwave, have a stroke, start frothing at the mouth, and it wouldn’t make a bit of difference. Your presence, for as long as it lasts, is the point. You might as well be a cardboard cut-out.

During some of the more protracted stream-of-consciousness encounters, I have found myself slipping into the world of daydreams, or I try to think of what’s for dinner tonight; did I switch off the iron; or should I become a vegetarian; should I get a haircut; why did that grevillea keel over and die; should I buy boxer shorts or budgie smugglers at my age; how can I fix my mobile phone… anything to avoid this turgid parade of unrelenting tedium.

Concealing one’s displeasure

Trying to conceal one’s displeasure at such times is difficult. I tend to nod, smile, and squawk, ‘Oh really’, ‘wow’, ‘uh huh’, ‘that’s interesting’, ‘amazing’, etc. I also rely on the wonders of peripheral vision, focusing my attention on passers-by, flying insects, shopfronts, and cars.

How to make sense of all this? Someone recently said, ‘Oh Richard, you’re such a good listener,’ to which I felt like saying, ‘well, I’ve got no choice, mate’. On the rare occasions, I do summon the energy to intervene in such cases, these word warblers are suddenly distracted, their eyes glaze over, or the mobile phone goes off, or they remember they have a dentist’s appointment.

So frequent have these encounters become that I’m led to inquire whether we have forgotten how to converse. You know – I say something, you listen, then respond, then you say something… and so it goes. It can be a joyous, sometimes exhilarating experience – rather than murderously annoying.

Here’s a half-baked thought, and it certainly doesn’t explain everything. Over the past 40 years or so we’ve lived under a system that celebrates individualism. One of the spin-offs has been growing social disconnection, loneliness, and anxiety.

The loneliest generation ever

It has been suggested that we’re one of the loneliest generations ever, which doesn’t really provide the right social conditions for dialogue, does it? After all, the art of conversation is something you have to practise, and if there isn’t anyone to practise with then…

It’s a situation that has been exacerbated by social media which, according to social researchers, has reduced our capacity to empathise, to share, to reciprocate. Inwardness and self-involvement seem to have triumphed over sociability.

Journalist Anne Manne argues that a ‘new narcissism’ has taken hold, graphically illustrated in such mind-numbing phenomena like the ‘influencers’ in Byron Bay who are about to invade our ‘reality’ TV screens.

Influencers and influencers

There are influencers and influencers of course, but it appears, and I may be wrong here, that the purpose of this particular concentration of digital grandstanders is to promote brands and products via self-beautification, personal promotion, and the regurgitation of banal insights.

But I digress. Can I finish with a plea? Can we see meaningful dialogue, otherwise referred to as conversations, as the beginning of a counter-revolution aimed at the rediscovery of reciprocity and mutuality? It might also help change the world.

As Aidan Ricketts points out: ‘Real change is often achieved through millions of interpersonal conversations where people are encouraged to learn and self-reflect’.

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  1. The net effect of online communication and jaded entertainment saturation is generally to encourage brevity and indifference, and to mute genuine enthusiasm. It’s likely that the electric car raver was from an older generation, and part of a vanishing breed.

  2. It’s the loneliest generation that ‘generates’ I’ve got my apps so what else do I need?
    It’s the ‘selfie’ without a camera’s second person. It’s the mobile phone in an
    otherwise ’empty pocket’. It’s no-eye to eye-contact. It’s name forgetting & non-caring.
    It’s a dead ending un-alive head-space that’s lost all human behaviour.


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