It’s such a cliché of situational comedy, isn’t it? No sooner are the four little words “We need to talk” out of a woman’s mouth than the man in her life is hot-footing it out of the door. Over the years, this phrase has almost become shorthand for pointing out the essential difference between the sexes.
Women like to talk about all sorts of things: their feelings; what happened at work that day; how well the flowers are doing in the garden. And yes of course, there’s that old chestnut that has men running post-haste in the opposite direction: where is this relationship going?
Men, we are reliably informed, don’t like to talk. They’d much rather watch some television, read the papers and get stuck into the beer. The only sound you get out of them at the end of a hard day is the odd contented burp or two before they settle down for the night.
A strictly unscientific survey conducted within the ranks of my female friends tells me that this is probably as true in real life as it is in endless episodes of Friends, Boston Legal, Will and Grace and what have you. (Remember the time Ross agrees to send out a holiday card with Mona only because he doesn’t want to get into a conversation about where their relationship is headed?)
But if you ask me, the sex wars are the least of it; the malaise goes far deeper. It’s not just that men and women don’t talk any more. It’s not just that our children would much rather instant message each other on the Net rather than have a face to face conversation. Or even that the only time we seem to connect with friends, family and colleagues is on social networking sites.
The problem, to my mind, is much worse than that. It’s that as a society we seem to have lost the art of conversation.
Meaningful conversation, that is. Not the kind that revolves around where you live, how well your kids are doing at school, or where you intend to holiday this winter. That kind of superficial chit-chat is not beyond even the most socially challenged among us. All of us can rub along this way quite nicely. Just don’t ask us to go any deeper.
It has now become conventional wisdom to blame our social isolation on the myriad ills of the modern world. Sure, we may be more connected than ever before, with mobile phones and the Internet at our disposal.
But we are also more disconnected as a result. There is a certain emotional distancing that occurs when the only communication you have is through a computer. But that’s just part of the problem.
The truth is that most of us are too scared to talk about stuff that really matters to us. It doesn’t help that we have been told that it is rude to discuss certain things in social situations. Religion is one hot potato and politics is another. So, that leaves the two things that matter most to us – our relationship with our God and our State – out of the conversational mix.
So what does that leave us with? Money, sex and celebrity. So, is it any wonder that most dinner table conversations revolve around how much you made (or lost, more likely, in these troubled times) on the stock market, who is cheating on whom in your immediate social set, and whether Saif Ali Khan and Kareena Kapoor will last as a couple?
Seriously, is this the best that we can do? I’m not saying that we should have complicated theological discussions on the cocktail circuit or even come to blows over the BJP’s prospects in the next election over dessert. But is there any harm in going beyond superficial niceties once in a while and actually having a real conversation with someone?
Instead of throwing a quick question “How was school?” at your kids when they come back home, how about engaging them in a discussion on what they learnt in, say, history class. How about studying their set texts not so that you can coach them for the exams but so that you can discuss the social issues that arise from the reading of, say, To Kill a Mockingbird?
It’s all very well to make the obligatory duty call on ageing parents to check how they are doing. But wouldn’t it be nice if you could actually talk: about their emotional loneliness; their childhood memories; their memories of you as a child; their intimations of mortality. If that’s too much intimacy for you to tackle, well then, just talk about your life, all those details that seem mundane to you but could provide them with a window into a world from which they often feel isolated.
And surely, with friends we can do much, much better. Let’s try and actually mean it when we ask someone “How have you been?” If they seem unhappy or unwell, let’s ask them what the problem is. Let’s go beyond platitudes when it comes to consoling a bereaved friend. Let’s not shy away from sharing our feelings and fears from one another.
Let’s talk. And the rest will follow.