Last night I went to a dinner party where I knew hardly anybody, and had only made the acquaintance of a few. Although most of the people in the room where strangers when we walked in, it was one of those magical nights where everybody just clicks. People were constantly moving chairs, hopping around the table, keen to lock minds with everyone else in the room. The end of the night, to me, perfectly summed up what kind of dinner it had been: it took us a good thirty minutes to actually leave the restaurant, because everyone was lingering in the doorway, edging down the stairs, talking in the street. Nobody wanted to part company.
Since last night, I’ve been thinking: What made conversation with those people so engaging? It wasn’t that we all shared exactly the same interests, because I was talking with people from all kinds of occupations and backgrounds. We had introverts, extroverts, nerds, artists and number-jockeys. Young professionals, and young unprofessionals (that would be me). So what makes conversation with certain people so damn delicious?
Is it a keen appreciation for intelligence? Is it purposefully playing with awkward sentence structures? (“I want all of the things!”) Is it asking each other “What do you do?” and getting a real answer? Maybe it’s finding out someone has read the same books as you, or that they’ve read books you’ve never heard of. Maybe it’s four-hour debates about whether soft determinism is a real thing.
I think it’s talking to people who are also seeking. Those with curious minds.
“Walk with those seeking truth … Run from those who think they’ve found it. ” – Deepak Chopra
My favourite kind of conversation is the free exchange of ideas. This is the kind of conversation you get with someone who is seeking truth, who is bright and curious and looking around. If I can brashly dichotomize for a second, I think most conversations fall into one of two categories: the exchange of ideas, or the exchange of information. The latter is necessary to human survival, and the most basic use of language; the former involves higher-order thinking.
I find that conversations with people who think they’ve already found the truth involve only the exchange of information. This can be edifying, sure, but such conversations hit a wall pretty quickly. They fall into a kind of “you say something, then I say something” pattern, in which neither person is really listening. They’re like actors who only learn their own lines and their own cues, and don’t engage with any of the other actors’ performances. They’re just waiting to speak.
We all do that sometimes. I know I definitely do – someone will mention Holland or Michael Palin or something, and I’ll think “Ooh ooh! I have an anecdote about that! Quickly, quickly, mustn’t miss the opportunity to tell it!” Something I’ve gotten better at over the years has been to talk less (new friends – yes, I used to be WORSE). I have a motormouth and will freely run it if left unchecked. Now, when I catch myself doing my ol’ primary-school-student, arm-waving-in-the-air, “PICK ME, PICK ME” routine in my head, I ask myself why I want to tell this story. Will it benefit the people listening? Is it something I need to tell for my own personal growth? If the answers are no and no, then I bite down on my lip and sit on my hands. Because if I’m just telling an anecdote that I’ve told before and is as rote to me as the alphabet, then I’m not seeking truth. I’m just making noise.
I want to exchange ideas. I want process, not just destination. I want to really learn about other people, and to riff on ideas with them. Small talk is fine; I’m all for small talk. It’s the sprig of parsley on a fancy entree. But big talk is the main meal. It’s the best.
I think that’s the key to last night’s deeply satisfying dinner conversation. Big Talk. Talk with a capital T. Let’s have more of that, please. I may have compared it to a main meal, but with Big Talk I never get full. Bring on the next course.