Small Talk, Big Results
By Chris Rodell
Men's Health

Man to Man

We’re more wired than ever, and more lonely. But the solution is as simple as opening your mouth

February 2008

Neither of the dudes budge when I holler to hold the elevator. Had the door closed with lethal force, I’d now be one limb light. As it was, I made it, caught my breath and, as always, took stock of the situation. Because you never know when an ancient elevator might get stuck for a prolonged period and cannibalism might become the last, least welcome option. I try to make friendly eye contact, a subtle indication that when it comes to meals, I’m better as a dinner companion than I am as cuisine.

I get nothing. A dapper, oblivious executive is robotically thumbing his Blackberry. A Rastafarian delivery man, earbuds buried beneath a rain forest of dreadlocks, is swaying as if he’s being moved by breezes blowing just for him.

I fight the urge to seize one by the lapel, one by the hair, and shout: “Fellas, c’mon! We’re all in this together! Can’t we at least acknowledge each other’s existence?”

Instead, I reach over and push “7,” instigating an upward motion that jars them into recollecting why they got on the elevator in the first place (both had been too self-absorbed to push any buttons). Had I not dashed to the rescue, both men could have stood there for eternity. Or at least until their batteries died.

It’s been a long time since anybody’s pushed my conversational buttons and I know I’m not alone. A 2006 Duke University study titled “Social Isolation in America” found that one-quarter of the 1,467 surveyed adults said they have no one intimate enough with whom they can discuss “important matters.” Another quarter said they were one death away from having nobody in whom to confide. That’s double what it was just 20 years ago.

Sure, we may have 200 friends on our Facebook account, we may send and receive up to 50 e-mails a day, and we may march down busy city streets with our arms raised in cell phone salutes, but the typical content of our conversations -- work and weather -- busts small talk clear down to microscopic levels.

The nation that produced renown bon vivants like Benjamin Franklin, Mark Twain and Bugs Bunny suddenly has nothing left to say.

Stephen Miller, author of the 2006 book, “Conversation: A History of a Declining Art,” he says true conversation is “talk without purpose.” We talk, but we say little -- and that doesn’t even count whether anyone’s listening or not. Most of our talk, even among IM loved ones, is no deeper than the words we exchange with the guy who takes orders for our pizzas. And please don’t misinterpret that analogy as a snobbish attempt to diminish that man’s vital contributions to our lives.

Conversation is the convivial exchange of two intellects set adrift on a sea roiled by playful waves of both the serious and the silly. In his “Hints Toward an Essay on Conversation,” Jonathan Swift calls conversation “the greatest, the most lasting and most innocent, as well as most useful pleasure of life.” Of course, to be fair, he wrote the book by candlelight in 1758, more than two hundred years before anyone had been exposed to the joys of iPods, X-Boxes and three hi-def pay-per-view channels of Girls Gone Wild.

But whether it’s because of our ubiquitous technological distractions or the proliferation of overbearing bores, true conversation is a pleasure few of us still understand. Banter’s been banished and it’s rare to find a forum, either on television or in person, where the philosophical succulence of minds engaged in intelluctual pursuits can be found.

What should be toy, has become tool.

Me, I’m the son of a son of a yapper. The men who preceded me were storytellers. They held court around WWI campfires the night before the Germans charged the trench. They cleaned up that mess and came home to spend their precious free time arguing about women and politics in the taverns and on the steamy front stoops.

I was introduced to the art of manly conversation every time my father took me to a small town barber shop where we had to wait 90 minutes for a 10-minute haircut that cost $5. But it was during those 90 minutes that I learned about being a man. Tony’s Barber Shop in Castle Shannon, Pennsylvania, was where I heard my first dirty joke, where I placed my first sporting wager, and where older men enthused about the carnal opportunities that were in store for a prepubescent boy who still opted for the comic books over the adult men’s magazines stacked on the table.

It was where I learned about the jolt you get when you say something that electrifies a room with laughter, and where I learned that words like “tumor” and “cancer” can make the lips of strong men quiver even when they’re in rooms full of other strong men.

Unlike what I heard during all those scissors serenades, too much of our conventional conversation is like playing ping pong with an 8-year-old. It’s just one tenuous volley after another. Lively conversation must be like Olympic fencing. Statements should be punctuated with bold thrusts and aimed squarely at the heart, and you’re finished if you fail to show up with a good, sharp point.

But it’s worth the effort because there are only two endeavors on the planet each and everyone of us can enjoy without having to be smart, pretty, athletic, eloquent or gifted in any attention-grabbing way. They are conversation and lovemaking.

Think about it. Even the ugliest, most destitute people on the planet can come together at the end of a dreadful day and, hallelujah, they can make love and it can be as individually magnificent to them as the time you conceived your first child.

Don’t believe it? Scratch your memory and you’ll certainly recall a homely woman or two who was as talented a lover as that prom queen you squired to the homecoming dance. Ugly women can be just as satisfying lovers as the most shimmering of beauties.

Or so I’m told.

And that’s the way it is with chat. I know because I’m on an endless quest to find the most interesting conversationalists on the planet. And three of the very best have little in the way of background or education in common.

One commonality: two of them, one a bartender, the other an attorney, have the distinction of being Guinness World Record holders. The third has no real education, is habitually unemployed and has no foreseeable prospects.

John Clouse is the world’s most traveled man. He’s been to 314 of the world’s 315 countries, islands and territories (a number that keeps shifting due to border disputes and geological hiccups). I interview the seven-times married Evansville, Indiana, attorney every chance I get because I’m convinced it is impossible for this world-class conversationalist to say anything that isn’t spectacularly colorful.

He swore during the hell that was the Battle of the Bulge that if he ever made it out alive, he was going to live an utterly original life. He’s animated, opinionated and people come from miles around just to hear his stories. But one of the keys to making him -- anyone, really -- a great talker is his ears. He’s a great, intent listener. You’ll be eager to hear him tell you about a visit to Lake Navasha, Kenya, a place he’ll swear must have be exactly what the Garden of Eden looked like, and he’ll be just as eager to learn what part of Iowa you’re from --- and if you ever met this really great lesbian he knows from there (the man gets around).

Yet, guaranteed, he’s ridden on airplanes dozens of times next to strangers who’d rather immerse themselves in laptop distractions than chance to introduce themselves and ask, “So, business or pleasure?”

I taught a 2006 nonfiction writing class at Point Park University in Pittsburgh and the final examination was Angelo Cammarata. Tell a group of 20-somethings their final grade will be based on a two-hour, full-class, question-and-answer session with a 93-year-old man and three-quarters of them look like they want to heave their holstered cellphones directly at your head. I told them nothing about the man as he nimbly took his seat.

I sat and listened to 15-minutes of perfunctory, awkward questions about where he lived (“West View, north of Pittsburgh”) and what he did for a living (“I’m a bartender”), before one exasperated student finally blurted out, “Just what makes you so special?”

That’s when the place began to fill with magic.

“I’m in the Guinness Book of World Records for World’s Longest Serving Bartender,” he said, grinning. “I poured my first beer at midnight on April 7, 1933, the exact moment Prohibition ended. And I’ve been pouring them at the same bar ever since.”

Most people will make little more than polite conversation with someone that old, even someone whose twinkling blue eyes hint at lively mischief. Not when a final grade’s on the line. They found out he’s been married a whopping 68 years, that the Great Depression wasn’t all that bad and that legendary Negro League slugger and Cammarata customer Josh Gibson was a pretty cool dude.

He was buoyant as students asked him about the best years of his life (he endearingly said, “from 40-75”), if he’d ever thought of leaving his wife (never), and if he ever wishes he’d have gone into a more lucrative parallel profession, psychiatry (heck, no!).

He told us about how the word “pub” came from “public house,” a neighborhood place where everyone was welcome and how, pre-TV, people would sit around a piano, sing songs and drink beer. And they would talk and sing until the wee hours. And that’s about what we did after class. We all went to his bar and he poured us all beers. We sat and talked. Students still come up and thank me for a memorable night.

That was the night 19 youths learned to shred their preconceived notions of what one shuffling old man might mean to them. They learned there’s gold inside of each us, and like the gold long sought by treasure hunters, it doesn’t just sit there on the surface. You need to dig it out, and when you do you have something to cherish forever.

And that brings us to the third person in this little trio of conversationalists. She’s the slacker, the one whose very existence drains my paycheck, but who never fails to hold my interest because she brings to the table the two essential aspects of lively conversation. Wonder and imagination.

It took her more than a year to speak a complete sentence to me, but today I know there’ll never be a game as consistently entertaining as trying to instantaneously compose truthful answers to questions like, “Are there some dinosaurs we could pet?” or, “If I learn how to fly to the moon, will you come with me?” Some people think she’s shy, but to me she’s utterly vivacious, hilarious and, at 6, already one of the world’s great conversationalists. And those are some of the same reasons why I fell in love with her mother 15 years ago.

You could do a lot worse than bringing a pretty pink pail full of that sparkling innocence to your next adult conversation. There’s a reason why characters like Forest Gump and George Bailey -- not to mention Santa and Jesus -- have a timeless appeal. Each talks to us in simple words and, at heart, each carries hopeful messages that we’re all in this together.

It’s something to think about the next time some stranger gets on an elevator and tries to put a tiny crack in the Berlin Wall of incivility we’ve all erected around ourselves.

And just what makes you so special?

I think about that exasperated kid’s question every time I’m introduced to someone new. That, in essence, is what we need to find out from each other. Said with just the right searching tone, it makes a dandy pickup line, too.

We need to put away the games, unhook the earbuds and all the otherwise innocuous little accessories distracting us from any soulful eye contact. We need to sit down, look each other in the eye and find out just what makes each of us so special.

Try it and see for yourself. You’ll start scoring in ways no X-Box could ever calculate.

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