A friend of mine was in a class of really shy people this summer, and the leader finally had them play the ice-breaking game Connect. Heard of it? I hadn’t either.
It’s one of those games where you talk about yourself until someone else in the group finds they have something in common with you, upon which they shout ‘connect!’ and talk about themselves until someone else finds… etc. etc. I gather you can use string, but my friend didn’t report that. What she did report was how much fun it was. She became quite animated as she described the things people had in common, how folks leapt in to state their connections, how everybody became at ease with one another and laughed and enjoyed themselves.
When I got home, one of my friends had posted a video on how to have conversations on Facebook. It contained the advice that’s become so familiar — don’t try to answer someone’s recounting of their experience with anything you think is similar in your own experience. They are not comparable and you don’t understand what it is like. In other words, don’t connect.
As I considered it this morning, I thought that a lot of our current advice about how to converse with one another assumes that we’re mad at each other. It’s advice about how to talk to someone who already expects the worst from you, who will tip over into regarding you as an asshole at a moment’s notice, and who enters into the discussion with deep misgivings about your agenda, motives, and basic cluelessness. In which case yes, it’s probably smart to not tell them about your experiences, or try to voice what you think theirs were like. It’s probably smart to just keep your mouth shut and listen. It’s also probably smart to excuse yourself after a while, and let both participants relax and talk to people they’re not mad at.
But is this how to form relationships? Personally, I have trouble forming friendships with people who are following the rules of good discourse with me, listening so considerately to my stories and not disclosing anything relatable of their own. My friendships are with the people who compare their experiences to mine, getting into deep discussions of mothers and what is it with them, or workplaces and what is it with them anyway, or what each of us liked about our latest vacation, what we ate at State Fair, or so forth. Without that give-and-take of shared, compared experience, I don’t see how I could become someone’s friend.
I wonder if we’re being given a set of etiquette rules that not only assume conflict but prevent friendship. Maybe that’s the best we can hope for, in these tense times. Maybe it’s an artifact of the people laying down the rules; in the video my friend posted, it was a professional interviewer rather than a professional friend-maker. Maybe these rules, like so many etiquette rules, are really telling us how to have a superficial interaction with someone you don’t care about. Maybe the best goal you can have in an initial encounter is to follow the rules and not make a bad impression.
Or maybe what we really need is for some leader in every social gathering to stand up and give us permission to connect.