Yesterday’s post about making the most of what you and a stranger have in common reminded me of this excerpt from my book, An Effort to Understand (Disruption Books, 2021). A number of readers have told me they particularly enjoyed it; maybe you will too. —DM
I call it the Irish style of communication, but that’s just because I think of myself as Irish. It really should just be called “civilized” communication.
Most of us know how it works, because most of us do it every day. But not all of us. Not the Conversational Assassins.
First, Irish communication:
You and your conversation partner say stuff back and forth, looking for points of agreement over which the two of you can bond. Then you use that plateau of agreement to launch into a new topic, on which you both continue to seek cozy points of common interest and shared sentiment.
So, say the city of Seattle comes up for some reason, and I mention that I became fascinated by that town at a young age because I liked the Seattle Seahawks when I was a kid. I was a big fan of their quarterback Jim Zorn back then, and I love their cool modern uniforms now.
Now, suppose you hate Seattle, hate the Seahawks, hate their uniforms, and vaguely remember Zorn. Here’s what you say, Irish style: You say, “Zorn! Wasn’t he a scrappy little left-hander?”
And I say, “Yes! He was tiny, and they were a mediocre team and he carried them on his shoulders during those years.”
And then you talk about your favorite underdog team. And speaking of underdogs, the other person asks if you’ve ever heard his theory about how you can make steady money betting on underdogs who are playing at home? And so on and so forth.
And you keep doing this unless and until you two find something really meaningful to talk about—or you run out of things you care to discuss—or the other person says something so preposterous or monstrous that you are morally compelled to beat him or her over the head with a folding chair. Whichever comes first.
Usually, if you practice this kind of civilized communication for long enough, you both find yourselves drunk on beer or high on coffee and life, and feeling better, for having just turned a stranger into an acquaintance and made your world a little warmer.
Irish communication comes so naturally to me—and to most of us, really—that it can be hard to see it as an actual technique. Until, that is, you run into a person, as you occasionally do, who practices its very opposite:
I have at least a few Conversational Assassins in my life. They are actually warm and caring people. Big smilers and easy huggers. And bright! But they’re utterly horrible to talk to. Because they are the exact opposite of Irish communicators.
Instead of automatically searching their conversation partner’s utterings for commonality, Conversational Assassins zero in on the smallest difference.
So that if I say I like Seattle, I like the Seahawks, I like Jim Zorn and I like the modern uniforms—and the Assassin also loves the Seahawks, Seattle and Zorn—the Assassin will respond by saying, “Oh, those new uniforms are the absolute worst! How can you like them?”
So I’ll change the subject. I’ll mention that I won a free Caribbean vacation over New Year’s, all expenses paid, to a little resort where everybody has their own private cabana and free booze all day!
“What’s the food like?” will come the response. “Did you look into that? Because I went to a resort in the Caribbean once and the food was just terrible.”
They are. Stone cold. Conversational Assassins.
I’ve studied these people. I’ve even dared to confront them about their homicidal tendencies. When I have, the response is inevitably, “That’s what I love about you. You don’t mind a good argument!” Well yes, John Wilkes Booth, Lee Harvey Oswald and James Earl Ray Combined—but I don’t consider frozen yogurt flavors a suitable subject for a kitchen-clearing donnybrook.
Conversational Assassins are not terrible people. They’re just terrible people to talk to, because they gravitate toward disagreement, like moths to a flaming asshole.
Like a lot of Americans, these days.
Don’t be one of them.
If you liked that, there are about 70 more essays where it came from. Order your copy of An Effort to Understand, from Amazon or wherever you buy your books. —DM