The exact moment it happened was at a large round table in a ballroom of majestic gilt in a grand hotel. Tink and I found ourselves seated next to strangers, so we both plunged into jump-starting a conversation because we like the stories of others. We asked questions, expressed interest and tried to pull out information.
It was painful.
Finally, however, they launched into talking and once they did, it was all about them. They knew more about everything than we did. Once we had them talking, we tried to join the conversation, but found ourselves cut off repeatedly, like students who were interrupting the teachers. They talked over us, dismissed our opinions and cut short our observations. We got the message so we settled in, smiled and nodded our heads obediently.
At that point, I decided that I have far too many of these kinds of lackluster conversations and I’m over the art of trying. Few people are listening these days. They’re just talking. It is amazing how people talk over others. When I try speaking to show that I am interested in engaging, too often the person just raises her voice and talks at a faster clip.
Really, it doesn’t matter if no one wants to hear what I say. I make my living by writing words and talking. If no one wants to hear what I’m willing to say for free, I’ll just save those words and sell them. This reminds me of a story concerning E. Lynn Harris, who wrote romance novels and is generally considered to be the most successful African-American author in history. We were once sitting together at a head table during a booksellers’ breakfast in Little Rock where we both were to speak.
He was lovely and humble and during breakfast, he told me that as a child he believed that God had only allotted him a certain amount of words to speak in his lifetime so he took to saving his words so he could use them at a later day when they counted most.
Sadly, he died suddenly a few years ago of heart disease when he was only 54. When I heard the news, I thought back to that conversation and realized that he had used up all his words much too soon.
I’ve decided E. Lynn Harris was right. We need to save the amount of words allotted to us and use them when they can count most. That would not be in conversation with many people I meet though I will say that some people are so uninformed that they can get themselves in trouble at round tables in glitzy ballrooms.
Such was the case several years ago when the public relations director of a chamber of commerce sat at the table next to a newspaper publisher who runs this column. I sat to his right. She leaned across him and said to me, “What do you do for a living?”
I smiled. “I write.”
“Oh, really? What do you write?”
“Well, for one thing, I write a weekly newspaper column.” I paused then laughed. “Which runs in your local newspaper which, apparently, you aren’t reading.”
I’m sorry. I couldn’t resist. And it does sound harsher in print than when I said it, but I used to work in public relations and the first rule of that profession is to read every word in every publication that services your market. Her face flushed red and the publisher eyed her sternly and shook his head.
In a book I’m reading about Frank Sinatra is a story about what he learned from the great thespian Spencer Tracy when Sinatra asked for advice on acting. Sinatra claimed that the reply would lead him to winning an Oscar at a later time. Spencer said, “It’s simple. Just listen then react.”
Also good advice to use while sitting at big round tables in ballrooms of gilt in grand hotels.