diamond geezer

 Wednesday, May 23, 2018

One thing you get to hear a lot of when riding on buses is other people's conversations. In particular you get to hear prolonged sections of other people's conversations, without being involved in them yourself, which is a relatively unnatural state of affairs.

I am always amazed by how much people are willing to divulge on public transport. They list what they're having for dinner tonight, they explain their aches and pains in detail, or they slag off Jennifer from Accounts. Of course what I forget is that when I'm on the bus with a friend we're usually having similar conversations, and so engrossed that we never notice those sitting nearby can hear every word.

One particular conversational tranche I've heard a lot on buses is what I like to call the "So I said, so she said..." exchange. Someone, usually female, launches into a full replay of a conversation they had with somebody else, either because it's somehow shocking or because they're very proud of how it went. "So I said I was out with my friend Ella, so she said Oh you're friends with Ella now are you, so I said Yes I'm friends with Ella now, so she said I can't believe you're friends with Ella now, so I said Shut up, so she said That cow, so I said... etc etc". It's as if the speaker has no imagination whatsoever other than to replay her conversational greatest hits, and the listener simply sits there and soaks it up. I hear it a lot.

It's not a very complex form of conversation, "So I said, so she said...". It's more informed than just grunting, but not so illuminating as a verbal disagreement about the state of the planet. So I started wondering precisely how not very complex "So I said, so she said..." is. What if there was some kind of sliding scale for conversations, ranging from not talking to having a considered reasoned argument.

Here's the ten-point scale I've come up with, a draft Conversational Hierarchy.
Zero has to be mute silence, the act of not conversing at all.

One is where you're not really listening, or interested, and simply mutter occasionally as the other person drones on. "Yes... oh yes... hmmm... hmmm, yes... yes". It's not really a conversation at all, merely one-sided oratory of no interest or importance. We've all been there.

Two is where you simply say what you see. "Sunny again isn't it?" "That woman's coat's very red." "Starbucks has an offer on." "Look, a pigeon." This kind of observational conversation makes the world go round, but it's not in any way deep, so doesn't deserve to be any higher up the hierarchy.

Three is where "So I said, so she said..." fits in. It's also the place for any form of conversation that's simply remembering something which once happened and recounting it. When we bathe in the rosy glow of a collective memory, or tell an anecdote, or simply mention the name of that TV programme from the 1980s that makes everyone go "aah", that's the art of recollection.

Four is where you slag something off. A lot of people's conversations are mired in the negative, how they don't like the way something's done, how something political pisses them off, or how awful it is that a certain event has happened. Nothing constructive is ever suggested, only nitpicking and downsides, and such thinking gets us nowhere.

Five is the bread and butter of passing on information. "We got back from holiday on Saturday night". "Turn left at the end of the road." "Have you seen this cute video of a skateboarding puppy?" It's the best description I can come up with for middle of the road, everyday conversation, so 5 out of 10 feels about right.

Six is the opposite of 4. Six is where some good comes out of the conversation, where something positive is said, and the sum of human happiness is increased. Life would be better if more of us managed to talk less about (4) problems, and more about (6) solutions.

Seven is where the conversational gets emotional. It's about feelings, and personal stuff, where at least one person in the conversation opens up about themselves. "I've been nervous about that for some time." "I love it when you do that." A 7 conversation is always going to be more meaningful than a 6.

Eight is where creativity makes an appearance. It's where the act of conversation causes something new to emerge, like an original idea or fresh connection. It's solving a problem, coming up with a witty response rather than relying on a library of polished repartee. The world needs more 8 conversations.

Nine is where an opinion is changed. The power of speech can be such that a good conversation opens your eyes to new possibilities, and alternative ways of thinking, maybe even nudging you along a different path. "I hadn't realised I came across like that". "You're right, the bathroom would look better in pink."

Ten is the ultimate in conversation, which I've deemed to be the classic reasoned argument. When evidence is provided, and conclusions follow on, when structured debate occurs based on rational thought, that's the top of the shop. I suspect the Ancient Greeks would have agreed.

Like I said, it's only a draft, and you'll likely disagree, and I'm sure modern psychology has already come up with a better hierarchical structure. But it's an idea, and it does help to explain why I believe "So I said, so she said..." to be such a vacuous form of everyday conversation. If you have any thoughts, and want to express them in the comments, anything above 4 would be appreciated.

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