The Scene: Our hero, on a break with a co-worker, is discussing a recent string of terrorist scares in which white powder was mailed to schools around the continental US.
“Everyone thinks it couldn’t happen up here,” my co-worker says with an air of authoritative experience, “but if it did, as soon as you opened that envelope, there’d be that moment when suddenly, BAM—you’re in the real world.”
“That’s true,” I agree. “I don’t think people consider serious threats a possibility, though I also don’t really like the term “real world” because, I mean, we all live in the real world—”
In the middle of this sentence my co-worker’s eyes take on a vacant, glazed look, his mouth forcibly curls upward into a smile, and his cheeks crease unnaturally with the strain of listening to something he is so clearly not interested in, for he is annoyed by my insinuation that he has just used a clichéd term inappropriately and could not care less about my interpretation of the phrase “real world.” That’s when he says it, in a long, slow drawl:
More and more often I find myself noticing moments like these when my interlocutor acts on his or her obvious disinterest by either changing the subject or (more commonly) using a stock response. In this instance I am uncertain whether the culprit is simple disinterest or my having chosen to speak at all. Or, is it a fear that I may take the conversation to a place in which my co-worker has no bearing, and thus nothing to articulate? (He would have to be quiet, then, and might become embarrassed if it appeared that I knew something he did not know. After all, he is older than me.)
The stock responses people regurgitate in these situations have no real meaning, but are easy to say and create the illusion that the person is listening or interested in the topic at hand. (To my great disgust, they have also become more socially acceptable.) Common examples include:
Amen to that.
Yeah, I know, right?
Stock responses are often accompanied by a lack of eye contact, forced smiles like the one described above, an overabundance of laughter, or continued involvement in a task or activity while speaking. I believe the majority of people accept these encounters as a conversational norm (particularly in the workplace or when meeting people at parties before the alcohol has worked its desired effect), but we don’t have to let this happen. If we all listened more, made more of an effort to engage ourselves in what other people had to say, and focused less on sharing personal accomplishments, our conversations would flow more genuinely. They would also be more interesting, and talking to others would be more fun. It would be a more dynamic world.
But there are a lot of people out there, and a lot of them are stuck in this conversational rut. Is it too late for some of them whose souls have been dulled by years of flagrantly self-centered behavior? I wish I had the answer.