When I was young, I’d sometimes come across a distant cousin. An adult before I was born, Mark always scared me and my sisters. Not in a menacing way, but quiet men are generally regarded with discomfort and suspicion; Mark was no exception.
I wouldn’t care to speculate as to the reason that Mark or my grandfather–a slightly more gregarious man–weren’t very talkative at family gatherings, but I’m willing to consider my reasons for the same.
Part of it is just innate. I’m an introvert, and no one who’s known me in the last five years would quibble with that description. More than that, though, I’ve accepted that orientation and embraced it. I hadn’t really done that before my 20th birthday. Back then I’d feel like I owed it to the world to act like I was as extroverted as everyone else seems. I am not.
And I’ve stopped believing that I owe the people I’m talking to an approximately even exchange. Their bit of gossip met with one of mine. Their anecdote about a minor misunderstanding reflected with a similar trivial annoyance. I no longer play that game. If I feel there is nothing useful I can say in response to your comment, I will not say anything more substantial than “Yep”. I’m responsible for my own satisfaction, and you for whatever hurt you feel in response to my silence.
It’s impossible to say any of this without sounding judgmental, so here’s the big one: most things people talk about most of the time are either meaningless or (potentially) harmful. I’m probably interested in 5% of the conversation that comes my way when I try to converse as others do, so why should I engage with all the filler and the gossip?
By filler, I mean all the inane things we say to each other in pursuit of some illusion of rapport. It’s the chat about the weather, the gentle razzing about each others quirks, much of what is said about politics, the economy, celebrities, and the latest headlines. Very little of this provides value for me (or I’d venture, most modestly informed people), but it’s a large portion of what people say to each other.
By gossip, I mean just about all talk about the status of anyone (present company included). Employed? Promoted? Overweight? Engaged? Divorced? Pregnant? Moved back in with the folks? Has a beautiful loft downtown? Is a very popular city councilman? Is at war with alcohol? Or the neighbors?
Undeniably, some if this talk is interesting, valuable, and necessary. It can absolutely be useful to know people’s statuses. “Oh, you’re back in town and out of work. I’ll forward any job leads I find.” This type of behavior is absolutely laudatory if done with good intention.
But I can never avoid the feeling that the majority of gossip-y conversation has baser motives. So often these discussions have the qualities we more frequently associate with gossip: pernicious, valueless, and covertly damning. People seem, generally, to be concerned about the status of others not to discover how they can make someone’s life better, but to find new information with which they can judge both those discussed and themselves. And that’s something I find hard to abide.
I would add that judgments we make can be both positive and negative, but I see both as pernicious. If she just ended a marriage you all thought was doomed from the start, both your gratification at your correctness and your tut-tutting at her initial foolishness are clearly harmful. But even if you’re impressed to learn of his business success, you’ll still probably end up either resenting him his success or resenting yourself its lack.
The only talk I find consistently valuable is knowledgeable discussion from people with real understanding on topics they care about. That these topics interest me is nice, but not necessary. Knowledgeable and passionate people are usually enough to to keep me rapt. And any talk for which that isn’t true is probably a waste of time.