I’ve been thinking recently about conversations. Polite conversations. You know the kind I mean; you are at a dinner party with people you do not know well, having lunch with some acquaintances, or maybe you just popped into the local tavern for an ale or two and struck up conversation with some other people doing the same. The circumstances are immense in number, but the basic situation is the same; you are talking with people casually, and polite conversation will evolve into touching on topics of all sorts.
There are a set of unspoken rules to such things, right? They are not written (nor will I attempt to write them now), but they are accepted and understood (to some extent). And while those involved in such discussions are usually aware of the mental composition of ideas in relation to other non-verbalized thoughts, most of what they are thinking is left unsaid. We can’t say everything we think.
There is that filter that I–as well as most people–have which allows me to say one thing and not several others that arose to consciousness but not quite to my tongue. And some of those alternative thoughts remain in consciousness, treading the waters of my mind while waiting to sink or swim as the polite conversation continues to evolve. The presence of these unsaid thoughts, in adjacent position to the conversation perceived in my mind as I listen and contribute, will sometimes form a theme of parallel thoughts that are left unsaid but play like a harmonizing phrase to the conversation shared by the society in which I find myself. That’s how it often is for me, anyway.
But what I long for, what I hope for even, is when those silent themes emerge among the greater score. When, while the orchestra of conversation begins to grow and increase in complexity, the whine of a violin makes it’s way into the background, playing with the theme in a way that is both beautiful and sublime. And, eventually, that violin silences the rest of the orchestra, and plays itself while every ear perks to hear it in its quiet grace. The music of conversation evolves such to set the stage for such moments.
And they often leave us silent.
But that silence is not always appreciation, but is sometimes a tumultuous composition being raised in the the mind of another who does not see the only the beauty of this moment. They may feel discomfort, anger, annoyance, insecurity, indifference, or even a mad desire to hear more and to repeat the phrasing with another instrument–perhaps an oboe–but does not do so.
Oh what beautiful music we humans are capable of playing, but rarely we do. Just like with the real world and music, it is often the monotonous babble of popular tones that drown out most of the world. Subtlety and rarity is left, as Nietzsche commented, to the rare.
Out of metaphor
Enough of music metaphors. What the hell am I talking about?
One of the things I like about such social situations is the uncertainty of what will transpire. The anticipation of either heated argument, genuine curiosity and interpersonal intimacy, or polite indifference or discomfort. It’s almost, well, sexy.
As a person who self-identifies as polyamorous and an atheist, I run into this type of communication anticipation on these two fronts from time to time, and I relish the expectation. It’s not completely unlike meeting an attractive woman and, while talking with her, noticing her body through the clothes she wears, wondering if she is also trying not to let me notice her own interest while I try to thrust away images that my mind creates of the anticipation of passion thus far unrequited. I eagerly watch the facial queues for subtle emotional indicators, body language, and changes in tone of voice as certain subjects are hinted at, caressed, and occasionally penetrated. Yes, a conversation is a lot like the anticipation of sex, which makes good conversation a lot like sex.
Good conversation–and good sex–is about the exploration of the other person. It is about opening up and letting people in while trying to maintain the awareness of their needs as they seek to fulfill yours. It is about saying what you think, hearing what is said, and responding to what is actuallysaid rather than what you wanted to hear. It is about actual communication, and not merely saying your bit and then having done with it.
Wait, I thought I was done with metaphor….
I know, but in a sense is not all language metaphor?
You may find yourself with some people you don’t really know very well, and some talk about current events comes up. Perhaps it is Iraq, the healthcare bill, or local politics, but eventually something will approach a more sensitive and controversial topic. Perhaps it is a comment about the recent discovery of documents that indicate that the current pope was responsible for covering up child abuse; perhaps it is playful flirtation between two couples who meet at a bar and play with some rising sexual tension and making jokes about swapping or some other arrangement; or perhaps it is the discussion of polygamy as a force for female subjugation in some FLDS and Moslem communities, and why don’t you ever see a woman with four husbands rather than the other way around.
And then the voice inside me says well, I know this woman….
And that is the sort of thought, that lonely whine of that violin, which is rarely played.
Some people are wound tight. It may be traumatic experiences with either sex, relationships, or religion. it might just be that some people need to just loosen up a little, but I really can’t generalize while being fair to each person’s circumstances. What I can say is that in my experience some people react quite defensively, even if they have learned to do so quite subtly, to their comfort zones being poked at.
The part of me that is all about free speech, intelligent conversation, and personal growth wants to merely dismiss this as cowardice or emotional weakness, but that is not really fair nor true in many cases. I cannot know the cause of such discomfort or caution in the face of certain topics, but I am almost always interested in knowing what those causes are.
It is the intimacy of it that I love. And it is a desire for this intimacy that has caused some uncomfortable relationships in my life. The reasons are sometimes clear to me, especially in hindsight. I have been a person who has been closed off behind my own fears, defensive and reactive at certain questions, perceptions of criticism, etc. But my desire to grow past this has left me sensitive to the behavior in others, perhaps to the point of projecting it when it is not there? (I cannot say).
Perhaps, but I have trouble imagining that I never recognize it accurately. In at least one prior relationship, I am certain that I was correct in this conclusion, and I think that it was part of the reason that it is a prior relationship rather than a continuing one.
But I’m straying too far from the point.
Some topics of conversation will bore, frighten, or annoy people. And often this is for good reason, but still those reasons are interesting in themselves. And it may not always lead to a meta-conversation, but it may lead in that direction in some cases. But I enjoy the ability to discuss things of moderate or ultimate concern; philosophical discussions, details about personal experiences or beliefs, or passionate defenses and debates about things of personal stake and interest.
It is in these moments of personal insecurity where intimacy grows. There is a vulnerability about it, but that is what makes it rare and (perhaps thus) beautiful. It is scary to trust to open up, especially to people we don’t know well, but there is a certain point where I think it is empowering and powerful to do so. And in such conversations truth may occasionally be born, and we may find ourselves open to new possibilities and expand our boundaries a little at a time.
I may be wrong; there may be a god. I may be wrong; polyamory may be ultimately unhealthy. I may be wrong about many things. So may you, and so let’s actually discuss them rather than sit silently and let those beautiful phrasings play silently in our heads while we try to imagine what melody plays in our neighbor’s head. How often do people assume things only to find they are wrong when they actually talk with other people.
(How many times have I had to explain the definition of atheism/agnosticism or explain what polyamory is about if not a fear of commitment)
How many times has Glenn Beck sat and really listened to a progressive or liberal without replacing their music with his own biases? How many times has Keith Olbermann listened to the music of the Tea Party people? And no, I’m not advocating the view that necessarily some ideal in between opposing sides is always where the truth is. “Teach the Controversy” is a joke when there is no controversy except that which is contrived for political or religious effect. Listening does not compel respect for the idea listened to. Respect has to be earned by reason and evidence, not merely demanded.
And while I may agree more often with Olbermann than Glenn Beck (who I think may be mentally ill), I still listen, really listen, to what is being said. I only hope for the same.
Conversation avoids misunderstanding and mis-communication while it builds intimacy. It works in relationships, religion, politics, and even sex.
We all need to communicate better, including myself.