A guide to conversational skills for smarties
It has come to my attention, after countless Mensa functions over the years, that there are members who do not know how to hold a polite conversation. Perhaps a few rules and observations are in order. I trust this little essay will be taken in the spirit in which it is being composed. If you are offended, it is because one of your nerve endings has been bruised. If you find this whole topic ridiculous, you are probably beyond hope - you should endeavor to obtain admission to the Four Sigma Society at once.
The pronoun "I", a small and simple word, nevertheless has its uses in polite conversation. It is used to connect the speaker with his1 thoughts, actions, and feelings; to make it clear he is not pretending they originated on Mount Sinai: e.g., "I think everyone with an IQ of less than 120 should be sterilized; or "I spilled that wine on your rug, let me pay to have the stain removed; " or "I am offended by that." It should be used like raisins in a pudding; that is to say, sparingly, lest the entire pudding (by which analogy I mean the polite conversation) crumble into a sodden pile which the greediest gourmand would decline to touch.
The pronoun "you", by the same token, is a word of immense power, but can, if correctly employed, act as both a bond between the parties in the conversation and a lubricant to the swift flow of talk and the retention of both parties' interest in what is being said. Such correct uses include: "and what do you think?"; "How did you feel about it?"; "Has anything like that ever happened to you?" Correct usage dictates that following each employment of the word, the speaker yield the floor and actively listen to what is forthcoming from the party so addressed; this precludes such behavior as getting up to refill one's drink, turning and starting another conversation, or opening the latest issue of Omni Magazine.
Incorrect usages include such statements as "you wouldn't 't know a vug from a hole in the ground," or "you shit-faced lying baboon." Such utterances neither draw the other person into the topic nor do they facilitate the exchange of fleas.
Perhaps the most powerful use of both words consists of joining them in single sentences. "I doubt the validity of your facts," is fair, if it is not accompanied by a glare and stony silence but is meant as an invitation to examine the data. "Say, I really like you," is even more powerful, if sincere. It is also powerful if not sincere, but is not recommended, as people do talk about others, and anyone who becomes knovn as a "con man"² will find his level of social intercourse dropping rapidly.
Speaking of talking about others brings us to the pronouns "he," "she," and "they." They are best employed sparingly, particularly when using them to refer to other Mensans, though Goddess² knows your author is fond enough of this topic. If one would make a rule, it might be: say nothing behind one's back you would not say to his face; though it is admittedly hard to live up to. The wild and hostile use of these pronouns has probably done more social damage than all the aforementioned conversational gaffes combined.
Entrance to an existing conversation should be touched upon. Be aware that you are intruding upon an existing dynamic. It behooves one to spend some time listening to the topic and noticing a little about how people react to each other (e.g. who always/never gets listened to) before diving in. It is also worth considering whether one wants to dive in by changing the subject. Perhaps one of the reasons Mensa conversations are perceived never to go anywhere is that both new and existing members of a given conversation are constantly going off on what appears to be a fact-finding mission but proves to be a tangent. It is sometimes necessary to subsume one's own burning interests to the topic at hand; the satisfaction of taking part in a sustained examination of some subject can offset the need to air whatever might flit through one's own mind at each moment. In other words, sometimes individuals must subordinate themselves to the group, be it only a group in a corner at a party, lest conversation decline to the much despised "cocktail chatter" (which yet has its purposes), in which no thought can be sustained through more than two speakers.
It is unfair to draw someone into a conversation on false pretenses; it behooves each of us to be conscious enough of our own behavior to know when we are about to make demands on the other person's time, energy or patience. If you need to unload because you are particularly miserable one day, it is only fair to warn the person of that need, rather than to carry on a monologue under the guise of a conversation. Issuing such a warning also permits the person so addressed to decline on the basis of their own state of mind (which other people have, too), rather than building up resentment in agitated silence thereby preserving the friendship. Likewise, if you are sure you have the only ideas worth listening to on a technical ("Planck's theorem is a crock"), social ("All rapists should be castrated"), metaphysical ("There is no God'), or political ("All nuclear plants should be closed immediately") topic, it ould be more honest to bring along a wooden box, clearly marked "SOAP," and set it up in a corner of the room. Then all those who wish to listen to a monologue can flock around and be enlightened. Prepare for a small flock.
And if you are one of those people who have spent most of their lives feeling isolated, misunderstood and alienated from others; and if Mensa seems like a glorious, unexpected oasis in the desert of human affairs; and if you are bursting with things to say and hungry for someone to really listen and care; then you are going to have to make one more sacrifice and listen and care right back. The preceding paragraph to the opinionated and overblown does not apply to you, but if you come to Mensa with the thought that at last there are people who can understand you, remember that they are also thinking the same thing, and expecting you to be one of the people for whom they have been searching. Listen, listen, listen: this is probably the best advice, finally, that I can give you.
2 Which, of course, is used generically and is understood to include the male deity.
JoAnn Malina was a former officer and newsletter staffer in San Francisco Regional Mensa. She was well-known for her columns about the behavior of Mensans. An escapee from Chicago, she worked [at the time] as a programmer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
She was a former officer and newsletter staffer in San Francisco Regional Mensa. She was well-known for her columns about the behavior of Mensans. An escapee from Chicago, she worked as a programmer at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.
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