Thursday, December 30, 2010

Conversational Off-Roading

Do certain people or social situations leave you frustrated, flustered, embarrassed, shy, awkward, or sullen? If so, you may need lessons in conversational off-roading!

You are probably a sensitive intellectual. Maybe you're introverted. You like to have quiet, thoughtful conversations. You dislike what you see as superficial topics, and you yearn for deep, meaningful exchanges.

Am I going to help you find what you're looking for? No, of course not.

This off-roading package is not about giving you what you want. It's about giving you tools to cope with situations when you are not getting what you want, and you're not going to get what you want. With these tools, you'll be able to navigate such situations gracefully.

If not the life of the party, at least you won't be the butt of every joke.

First, you have to recognize that you're in an off-roading situation. Within the first few minutes of a conversation or a party, ask yourself: Am I excited about this interaction, or am I looking for a way out? Do I want to get to know these people better, or am I dreading having to spend any more time with them?

If you're excited and interested, no need to put on your off-road tires. Roll down the top and cruise along the highway. (But keep the off-road tires in the trunk, because you never know when someone you thought was trustworthy may veer off the conversational pavement. You'll need a snappy reply.)

Major clues that you may need to put on your off-road tires include: teasing (ranging from gentle mockery to straight-up insults), interrupting (which includes getting bored with the subject and abruptly changing it), and inane superficial discussions of pop culture (particularly TV shows you've never seen and don't care about).

Here are three rules for conversational off-roading, which I've just made up:

1. Go with it.

In improvisational theater, they tell you to say "yes, and" to everything. If someone says, "Oh my, it's raining so hard!" you can't reply, "No, it isn't raining." You should say, "Yes, and our pet fairies will drown if we can't get them inside immediately!"

In an off-road conversation, this technique is primarily useful as a response to all kinds of teasing, mockery, and insults. It allows you to be part of the joke rather than its object, and sometimes you can even turn it around to make the original joker look ridiculous.

PC = Paved Conversationalist
OC = Off-road Conversationalist
PCO = Paved Conversationalist with Off-roading tires

PC: "I don't really like Swiss cheese."
OC: "Do you hate other Swiss things, like knives and chocolate?"
PC: "Um. No. I just don't like Swiss cheese."

This kind of response is usually delivered by the Paved Conversationalist in a confused, off-balance, or offended tone. It opens the speaker up to further teasing. Here's a better answer:

OC: "Do you hate other Swiss things, like knives and chocolate?"
PCO: "Yeah, and I really hate Swiss people."

This is so outrageous that the whole table laughs. The person who was being teased has taken charge of the joke and exposed it for the absurdity it was.

The go with it principle can also be applied to interruption and abrupt subject shifts. As soon as your story is interrupted, or the topic of conversation is highjacked, you must let go of the old story or subject.

Even if someone asks you a question, and you are in the middle of answering it when he decides he's bored and changes the subject, immediately drop your explanation and embrace the new topic of conversation. If he wasn't interested the first time, he definitely won't be interested if you try for a second round.

2. Don't state opinions or positions about anything you're emotionally invested in.

Feel free to state opinions, but only about trivial topics, and when you do state them, express them as absolute truths rather than opinions. It's funnier that way.

For example, suppose everyone is talking about Harry Potter, and you think Harry Potter is stupid. This is how you should express that opinion: "I guess Harry Potter is okay, for lesser intellects."

You've just insulted everyone at the table, but conversational off-roaders love that. They may throw barbs back, but as long as you're prepared, the discussion can devolve to witty repartee without anyone's feelings actually being hurt.

What you should never do is express a genuine opinion about something that will engage you emotionally. It's like that old rule about not discussing religion and politics at the dinner table, but the critical topics are different for different people.

For example, if you're a vegetarian and you feel strongly about it, don't let conversational off-roaders know. They'll start saying things like this just to get your goat:

OC: "I like to eat chicken, because frankly I hate chickens and want them to die."
PC: "That's terrible! How can you possibly hate chickens?"
OC: "I was just joking. You always take everything so seriously!"

This changes the topic to your personal failings and gives everyone an opportunity to laugh at you. A better response is:

OC: "I like to eat chicken, because frankly I hate chickens and want them to die."
PCO: "I know, I feel just the same way about carrots! They're despicable."

See? Funny!

This brings us to the third and final rule:

3. Tell lies.

But don't think of it as telling lies. Think of it as acting. This technique can be used defensively, as in the above examples, to deflect questions or teasing. It can also be used offensively, if you feel ready to take the lead in the off-road conversation. You will be surprised how much off-road conversationalists like to be told lies.

OC1: "Did you see that commercial with the guy running away from the alligator?"
OC2: "Oh yeah, that was so funny!"
PCO: "Did you know that doctors actually did an experiment once by feeding different parts of the human body to alligators? Apparently hands are the most delicious part."

This is a great lie, because you don't need to have any actual knowledge of the commercial, you're just riffing off the mention of alligators. You've derailed the conversation, which is appropriate off-roading technique, and as an added bonus, if anyone actually believed you, you can laugh at them.

If someone says, "Really?" you can roll your eyes, shake your head and say "No" with a suppressed laugh in your voice, as if to say "Are you really such a fool as to believe that?" Everyone else will laugh at that person.

Even if no one believed you, they'll still think you told a good joke. They may go back to discussing the commercial, or someone else may remember (or fabricate) something else about medical research, and take the conversation in that direction. It doesn't really matter. You've contributed!

There you have them, the three rules of conversational off-roading (which I've just made up). But most cars don't run well on just three tires, so here is a fourth rule--a word of warning.

4. Keep your soul.

It's possible to get very good at conversational off-roading. Dangerously good. Remember, an ATV has its place, but once you've learned how to drive it, don't abandon your street car. You still love deep and meaningful conversations. Don't lose your ability to have them.


  1. Holy cow. Have you been spending a lot of time with Noah I don't know about? Cause oh man you just described him perfectly.

  2. Hah! No, but our husbands do seem to have a lot in common. =)

  3. That... makes me sad.
    I want to say something like "but doesn't going along with off-road conversation just encourage the other off-roaders? Can't we do something to make them understand the value of real conversation?" But I know that whatever we say they would just make it into a joke or change the subject... which makes me sad again.
    Think about all the sensitive semantic soil crust being destroyed by the conversational off-roading...

  4. So, I realized after I wrote this that I lumped all sorts of different situations together under off-roading. Some of them really bother me, but some are actually fun.
    Using humor to belittle people and avoid serious discussions is very sad. But I do love the creativity and spontaneity of improv. Off-roading with friends when everyone's on the same page is kind of like playing make-believe for grown-ups.
    My ideal, I think, is to use off-roading tires to keep from getting upset in the first kind of situation and to enjoy myself in the second. But I make a point of seeking out meaningful exchanges with the wonderful friends (and family!) who are interested in street driving.
    Nice alliteration, by the way. =)

  5. I'm with Mike. Because it makes me sad, and also reminds me how tiring and energy-draining I find it. Improv is bonding, off-roading is getting along. -- J

  6. Heh. Well I can tell that this blog post is written to describe how to deal with conversations with me; it even contains things I've said at parties. Call me a Veteran Off-Roader. Sorry about that. :P
    Saying things that seem outlandish, insulting, and plainly false is one of my most advanced and energy-intensive conversation patterns. It's purpose is to amuse and disarm people who make me feel nervous or insecure. (Which is basically everyone. That's why I'm sitting on my couch installing mediatomb and typing a blog comment response on a Friday night, instead of out at a bar.)
    When I was a kid, people didn't like me. I was know-it-all-y, insecure, humorless, and easy to upset. I was always a target, and nobody was in my corner. I desperately wanted to be liked, and yet my peers generally didn't.
    So over the years I have tried a lot of different tactics to get people to like me, or at least not be mean to me. I've tried self-deprecating humor, quiet listening, active listening, insightful questions, superficial chit-chat, and even knock-knock jokes.
    Seeming to be amusingly mean at a party is just another one of those tactics, but you'll find that although I seem to dish it out, I can't take it AT ALL. On the bright side, I often notice when I've gone to far, and I take steps to go back and privately connect with people who were casualties of group amusement. Except you maybe :)
    I do want deep-and-meaningful connections; the desire to be deeply understood is one of my most core values. But I can't deeply sync with everyone on every topic, and it's damned exhausting to explore the surfaces of accord with each new person, especially several at a time. As a result, I typically limit my attempts at ernest sincerity to one-on-one conversations. A dinner table with 5-10 people just feels hopeless to me.
    And since I avoid conflict for various pavlovian reasons that I'll probably never get over, that tends to limit the scope of conversation. The fear of an invertent conflict between, say, my deeply held agnosticism vs some random party-goer's deeply held catholicism, tends to keep me talking about the weather instead.
    So if you would like me to be less boorish, we could probably come to some kind of arrangement. But you'll have to pick the conversation topic. :)

  7. Rus, I'm sorry it took me so long to respond. Movable Type is stupid, and didn't tell me about your comment.
    The funny thing is that both of my real-life examples (I fabricated the alligator one, without even realizing at the time how apropos that was) actually came from people I like a lot and--notably--find very amusing. In fact, I think you're so funny that I often wish I had a notebook with me so I could steal your lines for my writing. =)
    But I've also really enjoyed the times when we've had more earnest conversations (which we totally have, and I don't even remember who picked the conversation topic).
    I can sympathize with being a social target, as I was a pretty sensitive and gullible kid. I felt somewhat competent to write this guide because I've learned to off-road as an adult--so I can hardly throw stones at others who do the same! I wonder how many off-roaders have a history of being teased themselves, and developed these rules or similar ones as coping strategies. (Thereby perpetuating the cycle?)
    That said, I do want to stress, as I mentioned in response to Mike, that I truly appreciate playing improv comedy theater with friends. Besides just being plain fun, it teaches me to think more quickly and creatively.
    And for the record, the off-roading metaphor and the idea for this post originated at a big family dinner in Seattle, not as a result of dealing with you. =)

  8. "Is there anybody out there?"January 21, 2011 at 8:38 AM

    This is an amazing post for two reasons. First, I am amazed at the “detail” you’ve included although you admittedly “winged it” when developing your “rules”. Secondly, I cannot believe that you have been to the same parties as me and we’ve never met!
    The rule which I find most “applicable” to my situation is the “go with it” principle in that I have been “forced” to follow this principle for the last 25 years. My wife is a teacher and when attending a “teacher laden” party, there are numerous people present who have attended a “respect-related” workshop with some of the individuals having attended the workshop 20 or more times! Unfortunately, I have found that the more times people have attended the workshop, the more disrespectful they are in a social setting. It’s as if their attendance somehow excuses them from practicing common “conversational manners” that even a fourth-grader should know. (BTW - I attended the workshop last year and found it to be fantastic, but it is only worthwhile if you "walk the talk".)
    I used to go to these parties and someone would ask, “So, what have you been up to?” and as soon as I would start to tell them about my latest vacation or whatever, they would immediately interrupt and say, “You think THAT’S something, listen to this . . .” whereupon they would start providing a virtual essay about THEIR vacation. As I have a real "issue" with hypocrisy, I used to get “bent” about how these “masters of respect” were so disrespectful. However, I finally learned to quit worrying about their lack of respect issues simply because it wasn’t worth getting “worked up” about! I finally realized that the reason many of these people initiated a conversation in the FIRST place was simply to provide a launching point for what they wanted to say. Additionally, I quit trying to "reintroduce" my topic because, as you noted, if someone isn’t interested the first time, there’s no need to “try for a second round”. That being said, I cannot wait to employ “Rule #3” as it will hopefully help to somewhat “level the playing field”. THANKS!


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