Guest columnist Terrence McCarthy: Is conversation a lost art?

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By TERRENCE MCCARTHY

Published: 03-01-2024 11:11 AM

A book was published recently, the gist of which can be summed up by a line uttered by a character in the Paul Newman film “Cool Hand Luke.” To wit: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.”

The book is titled “Supercommunicators: How to Unlock the Secret Language of Connection.” Its author is Charles Duhigg.

Duhigg posits that conversation has become a lost art. Much of the blame is attributed to social media sites like Facebook, X (formerly Twitter ) etc. Communication via social media is the primary way a lot of people interact these days. COVID also played a role in keeping us humans apart.

But face-to-face interactions are still pretty common. Meeting people on planes, trains and buses. Chatting with folks in doctors’ waiting rooms. Running into acquaintances when taking the dog for a walk.

As I write this, my wife and I are spending a few days on the coast of North Carolina, near but not quite on the Outer Banks. On our first day here two days ago, we had to wait for about an hour for our room to be ready. We sat down in a patio-like area of the hotel, just off a path that leads to the beach. Even though it was far from a warm day in February, it wasn’t cold enough to keep folks from being outside.

As my wife and I and our dog waited patiently to get checked into our room, other guests passed us by. They said hello, and we did the same. The hotel has a reputation for being one of the most dog-friendly places in this part of the Tar Heel State. Everybody we encountered had a dog, or two.

If you have a dog, you know that they are social creatures who enjoy meeting other canine Americans. They sidle up to each other, slowly get to know each other in ways their owners would never even consider doing. Oral communication isn’t usually part of this ritual; barking happens, but not often in our experience.

Sense of smell plays a big part in this dance, and as you probably know (if you don’t know, you may not want to ) the dog parts attracting the most attention are not their faces. That full frontal perspective is what we do when we’re trying to determine what other folks are making of what we’re saying to them. Dogs? The beginning of whatever relationship might develop is at the end.

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If you know what I mean.

Where was I? Oh yes, on the hotel patio. Donna had taken a short walk on the beach, leaving me alone with Oliver, our German shorthaired pointer. As I sat there, a man approached. He had a dog. I said hello. He said hello. He was wearing a sweatshirt shouting out Durham on the front. Durham is in the midwestern part of the state, and is known for being the locations of two universities whose basketball teams have been high in the Associated Press rankings for decades. I’m a huge college basketball fan, and I saw an opportunity to start a conversation with this guy.

“You live in Durham?” I asked.

He said he did.

“Who you root for in basketball, Duke or University of North Carolina?”

“Duke,” he said. “I kinda know Mike Krzyzewski. He lives just a few streets from us.”

Bingo!

I’d discovered something the two of us had in common. My favorite team is UConn, but I’ve been a Duke fan for years. I knew that Coach K had retired two years ago, after leading the team for 42 years. I also knew the coach was a West Point cadet and played for that team. Later coached it.

I brought that up, and looked for signs that the guy I was talking to might be surprised that this Massachusetts native knew so much about Coach K. No sign of that. And the talk about basketball went nowhere. I asked him a few more questions, but failed with those attempts as well.

Duhigg reports that people with excellent communication skills tend to ask 10 to 20 more questions in a discussion than those who don’t have the knack. I can relate. We hit the road a lot. Camping. In our RV. People we meet on the road are almost always nice. But almost everyone we’ve tried to converse with responds with the reverse of what we’d like to hear. No questions, only answers to the questions we toss at them. And sometimes not even that.

Among the skills of the supercommunicators Charles Duhigg shouts out about is the willingness and ability to know when to shut up, listen, and ask questions.

I think there’s much food for thought in all that. But more importantly, what do y’all think about that?

Terrence McCarthy, an Easthampton native, is a writer who lives in North Carolina.