Have you been at a social gathering recently? You probably met some friends, were introduced to some strangers, and participated in several conversations.
Some of the conversations may have been interesting and informative, some animated and enjoyable, some totally one-sided and more in the nature of one person holding forth and the others listening … and then there may have been a lull in the flow of words and many may have pulled out their cell phones (if they had actually put them away into their pockets or purses in the first place) — and you know what happens next!
The thread of the conversation is discarded. Someone reads out a “forward” or a scrap of news they think is interesting or a joke they feel will be entertaining and there is no longer a free flow of ideas. Everything becomes second-hand — and you could as well be watching television or buried in the newspapers or a book or a magazine. Conversations were different in those long ago decades — you may call them the Dark Ages or the Golden Years, depending on how you look at it — before mobile devices and social media became a part of social interaction.
As youngsters, we were told that it was rude to read a book or a magazine or huddle in a corner for our own private conversation when we were in company. “Listen to what is said, speak politely, be mindful …” we were told.
We naturally did not want to follow these instructions, especially as we were also required to be neatly attired and well-behaved, but we had no options offered to us — and no bribes or bargaining chips either. So, like everything else in those long ago days, we just did it.
And in the process, we learnt some valuable lessons from the people who socialised with the family.
Among the most memorable — and admirable — was a senior couple in their eighties at the time when we were merely “tweens”/teens. When they visited us or we visited them, there was always something interesting that happened. We could meet up with their grandchildren or nieces and nephews. We could be treated to regional fare that was never served at our table. We could find ourselves the beneficiaries of a book or artefact. And we could always be sure of their genuine interest in us. Despite their age, they remembered little things about us and we knew that they cared about us.
Their conversation included us in a casual and unforced way. They related experiences from their years in the districts during their career in the administrative service — and we could relate to those incidents because we too had similar ones in the small towns where our father was posted. They asked about our doings and we found that we could easily share our adventures with them without fear of judgement or criticism or lectures on how we should have reacted or what we should have done.
They were the epitome of grace — and through the years after that, we encountered others like them. Inclusive, intelligent and caring conversationalists who drew others out of their shells and had the knack of making them feel comfortable.
We assumed that these qualities were a natural part of being adults — until we reached adulthood and in our own journey through social interactions at various stages, met many people who were quite unlike them. Graciousness, we realised, was not a ‘given’. Just because someone has ‘grown up’ or grown older does not necessarily make them good conversationalists.
We have to work at it.
And leave our fixed ideas, our over-inflated egos, and all those distractions from gadgets behind for a little while and have a sincere interest in others.
—Cheryl Rao is a journalist based in India.