I was thinking this morning how much better I am at talking to people than I used to be. This might be a common experience: as we get older, we’re more comfortable with ourselves and acquire better social skills. Along the same lines, I’ve been noticing how rarely young people ask me a question about myself. They may be gregarious and poised, but they usually prefer talking about themselves. That’s true of almost everyone, including me, but it’s noteworthy among the young. I have long conversations with students and other youthful sorts, with awkward pauses aplenty, during which they never break the silence by asking me something. My initiative—asking them a question—breaks the silence.
As I look back, I realize I was the same way. I was exceedingly shy when talking to adults, or even other young people. It never occurred to me to ask the other person a question. I wouldn’t have known what to ask and had no idea what information to volunteer. I was so self-conscious and inward-directed that I couldn’t think of things to say. If I was having a bad hair day or worried about my ugly shoes (or whatever), it was even worse.
Add to this self-consciousness an unfortunate tilt toward intensity. My husband reminds me I was intense in high school, way too intense. If I had thought of questions for adults, they would have been things like, “How does it feel to be so close to death?” which I fortunately had enough sense not to ask.
This reminds me of a Mary Grimm short story I was rereading over the weekend. In “Interview with My Mother,” a middle-aged woman is thinking of all the questions she would like to ask her mother and aunts, serious questions about love and mortality which the older women would probably shrug off. These are the kinds of questions I might have asked, if I thought of asking at all.
The light-hearted comment, i.e., “small talk,” is a better way to go, at least to grease the conversational wheels. I wish I had known how much easier this would get. “Nice shoes.” “So windy today!” “TGIF!” Banal and boring, but also friendly and door-opening.
This morning I have chatted with the people on the elevator (one recited to me the inevitable “amo, amas, amat,” when he saw my Latin text), the custodian waiting for the elevator, a student who suffers from chronic back pain, a former student whom I haven’t seen for a long time, and other faculty members. Well into my twenties, and even further, probably none of those conversations would have happened. It would never have occurred to me to initiate them, or if it did, I would have agonized over what to say and even how to say it. Then by the time I figured something out, the opportunity would have been lost. The person would get off the elevator on another floor and disappear.
Do you find this true in your life? It’s easier to talk to people the older you get?