How to Talk Like a Real Human


How to Talk

Like a Real Human

In my career, I'm continually thrust into conversations with people, both strangers and friends alike. I greet them at my church. I see them at speaking engagements. I meet with them in boardrooms. I've spoken with impoverished immigrants, veteran politicians, drug dealers, decamillionaires, children, the dying, and all sorts of strange and wonderful people in between. Regardless of their backgrounds or socioeconomic status, I've found one thing to be almost universally true: People no longer know how to have conversations.

Too often, conversations seem like a fight to maintain interest. But we try it anyway — often only due to a sense of necessity or obligation. We don't want to be rude, so instead we just make each other miserable with painfully trite phrases and asinine observations. People call this "small talk," as if that somehow makes it cute. But it's not. I've never met anyone who actually enjoys it. 

Somewhere in our history, it seems to have become en vogue to be the "strong, silent type." We got rid of the loquaciousness of the Shakespearean, Victorian, and TransAtlantic ideals and replaced it with feigned mystery, moodiness, and silent "depth." People started misusing the "Introvert" label to describe people who avoid talking to others. We've tried to make a virtue out of shyness.

There are a number of problems with this blanket beatification of Nonversationalism. Foremost in my mind is the fact that communication is a fundamental human skill. It should be cultivated — not stifled. And, like every skill, people generally like what they're good at. If you don't enjoy talking to others, it probably has more to do with your lack of confidence and ability than any innate bent toward "introversion." (FYI: The MBTI definition of Introvert has absolutely nothing to do with shyness or conversational skills, so let's stop misusing that as an excuse.)

In the rare moments when I've been able to have conversations with people about our culture's lack of conversational skills, I've found that a lot of people are having similar experiences. We're having a lot of painfully awkward conversations. In our relationships, (mis)communication is often cited as a chief complaint. And the roots are routinely found to be the same array of issues. People are frustrated by the same interactions — even when they can't seem to identify why.

Because this stuff isn't taught in schools, I've put together a few basic points to keep in mind next time you're talking with someone.

1. Ask questions.

People love talking about themselves, their experiences, and those they love. Spend most of "your side" of the conversation talking about the other person and inquiring about their opinions, life, and interests. In addition to being more rewarding for them, it also makes the conversation more interesting for you. After all, you already know what you think.

2. Get in the Rhythm.

A good conversation has an innate rhythm to it. It's equal parts inquisitive and revelatory. As a general rule, try following this pattern:

  1. You: Statement > Question
  2. Them: Answer > Statement > Question
  3. You: Answer > Statement > Question
  4. Repeat steps 2 & 3, indefintately

3. Stick to Topics of Mutual Interest.

The only thing worse than listening to a monologue about a topic that has no interest to you is being the person giving a monologue about a topic that has no interest to your listener. Unless they specifically inquire about it or keep the conversation going, always try to redirect the subject of your conversation back to something that you know is of interest to the other party. Just because you started talking about traveling, and now you're on a boring rabbit trail about a taxi driver named Paulo whom you met in Paris, doesn't mean that you can't get back to talking about something interesting. Just ask a question. Something like "Which city is your favorite?" should get the conversation headed back in the right direction.

If you ever think that you might have been talking about a topic for too long or with too much detail, you probably have.

4. Never Open with Openers.

If you're meeting someone, try to avoid the classic openers. Nothing will remind your new acquaintance of your unfamiliarity more than having to answer questions like "What do you do?" and "Where do you live?" Instead, jump right in and talk to them with the same candor that you would a lifelong friend or family member. Ditch "What's your name?" and go straight for "Been to any good restaurants this month?" or "Why do you think _____ is the way that it is?" or "How do you feel about _____?" You can always get their name and personal info later.

5. Stop Picking Nits.

If someone misspeaks but their intent remains clear, you don't need to correct them. Maybe they said, "Feburary," "acks," and "libarry," instead of February, ask and library. Maybe they made a Freudian slip. Who cares? If you understood them, they've communicated effectively. Unless it's your job to teach them, don't take it upon yourself to be their teacher. It only produces an awkward break in the rhythm of the conversation, makes them insecure, and makes you look like a pompous ass.

The only exception to this would be if a quick, polite correction might help them avoid impending embarrassment (e.g. they're about to give the State of the Union Address and don't know the pronunciation difference between Louisville and St. Louis), but those situations are extremely rare.

6. Say What You Actually Believe, and Assume They Don't Share Your Opinion.

Among life's most mind-numbing experiences is talking with someone who doesn't seem to hold any actual beliefs, preferences, or opinions. Don't be that person. Feel free to say what you actually believe. If you're politically active, it's okay to admit that. If you're a Christian, cool. If you believe everyone should eat organic, don't feel like you have to hide it.

But don't make the assumption that they will share your opinion or perspective. Better yet, assume they don't. So instead of saying, "Only a moron would vote for _____" or "eating meat is so disgusting," just say that you're voting for the issue, that you're a vegetarian, or whatever. You don't have to state your moral ranking for everything.

7. If You Troll Someone, Don't Get Mad When They React.

If you're dishing out hot takes, don't cry foul when someone comes after you. Conversational sparring can be a lot of fun, but don't get in the ring unless you're willing to take a few knocks.

8. It's Okay to Not Know.

You don't know everything, and you are not right all the time. No one cares. If you find yourself backed into a conversational corner or wandering out on a loquacious limb, just admit it and refocus the conversation. Always reserve the right to get smarter and to change your opinions. Give yourself the mercy to be wrong. Swallow your pride and be willing to make a mid-conversation adjustment, should such become necessary.

9. When in Doubt, State Your "Feelings."

Depending on how oblivious you are, you may be shocked to learn that your perception is not universally shared. Furthermore, your assessment and response to any situation is probably not the only logical possibility. So instead of saying what "is," simply say what you're "feeling." For example, "You are lazy" is a lot more hostile, fruitless, and difficult to prove than, "I feel like you could try harder."

10. Self-Deprecation Only Works One Way.

The thing about self-depricating humor is that it can only be self-inflicted. Just because someone makes fun of themselves does not mean that you have an invitation to make fun of them. It takes a lot of trust and security to get to the point in a relationship where teasing isn't risky. When in doubt, keep the snide remarks focused on your favorite person: you.

— John