How to make conversation around the Christmas dinner table

Festive party season is upon us, and with it comes ample opportunities for conversations with strangers, friends and family, whether awkward or meaningful; short or long; under the mistletoe or, as omicron spreads rapidly, over Zoom. Trouble is, humans aren’t always great at talking.

Berlin-based Bloomberg Opinion columnist Andreas Kluth spoke with Bobby Ghosh about how to have better conversations. This is a lightly edited version of their conversation.

Bobby Ghosh: Why don’t you give me a sense of how two years of Zoom conversations during the pandemic have changed the way we talk to each other.

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Andreas Kluth: They’ve made something that we didn’t do very well, worse. We aren’t very good as human beings at having good conversations in the first place, and then everything switched to Zoom, where body language often gets lost and signals get garbled. That’s important because the reason we are bad at conversations in the first place is because we are deliberately sending the wrong signals and bad at reading the other person’s signals.

I should add that, compared to other primates and animals, we’re very good at conversations. But then the reason why we’re miserable so often is that in the actual conversations we have, we’re frustrated.

Bobby: Let’s get into that a little bit. This is pre-Covid, just one of the ills of modern world?

Andreas: Yes. We evolved conversation, which takes a lot of brain power. It’s like a higher form of grooming and allows us to connect and form bonds with others. Conversation isn’t just trading or exchanging information, we want to do things like gossip and feel good together so that maybe we can keep each other safe.

The first research I came across earlier this year explored what goes wrong: We don’t know when to shut up. Between 1-2% of all conversations end at the right time. 99% of conversations are either too long or too short. That’s whether we’re talking to family and loved ones, people we know or complete strangers.

Bobby: I would have thought that we are better at small talk because we all have a number of comments and sentences constructed in our head for small, short, quick conversations.

Andreas: The problem with all conversations and very much including small talk is the fact that we do not read each other’s signals well. Now the real question is why? The answer is we’re so anxious about causing offense that we subconsciously, but deliberately, send the wrong signals. For example, I’m so afraid that you might be bored that I might signal that I’m ready to leave the conversation to avoid boring you even if I want to keep talking.

Bobby: Is this a relatively new phenomenon, or have we always been bad? Was this the case in the era before cell phones and television?

Andreas: Yes. I think it’s just baked into human nature. Essentially, conversation is a very much higher form of grooming, the point of which is just to form a relationship. If you’re forming a relationship or maintaining it, you have anxiety about damaging the relationship. I would like to see research on whether there’s a correlation with people who are more secure having better conversations. I imagine the more anxious you are socially, then the worse your conversations will be.

Bobby: If we’re bad at doing this face-to-face, then of course it follows that doing this over Zoom makes it worse.

Andreas: Yes. I asked researchers what they had observed during the start of the pandemic and they said it’s made everything worse because we now have even fewer clues. If you think of Zoom calls, people’s eyes are moving and we see each other, but we never know who’s looking at what. So we read each other wrong.

Now, I personally have a slightly different perspective. These online conversations are good because they have a built-in termination point. If you’ve just taken a bus across town to meet in a cafe with someone, you can’t just get up and leave. But Zoom calls are easier to end at the right time.

Bobby: You famously describe yourself as an introvert and curmudgeon. I would think of myself as an extrovert and curmudgeon. Maybe some signals not being sent over Zoom might not be a bad thing, if a person is being rude.

Andreas: That’s possible, but very few conversations are frustrating because the other person was actually rude. It’s usually more the length and also the quality of the conversation. You want to get into a conversation to groom, to bond, but also to connect, to feel closer to somebody. But often we don’t end up feeling that way because we tend to stick much more than necessary to small talk as opposed to something slightly deeper or more meaningful. And again, why do we do that? It also goes back to anxiety.

A study got people at a conference and grouped them together. Some had to have conversations that were just small talk and some had to have slightly more meaningful conversations. For instance, they discussed something like “describe a moment when they cried in front of somebody.” Beforehand, those groups thought it’d be cringeworthy or awkward. But afterwards the people who had the more meaningful conversations were much more satisfied. They felt much more connected and they discovered that it wasn’t awkward.

The researchers went one step further and asked, why did you think it was going to be so awkward? Apparently, we are afraid that the other person isn’t going to be interested in us. In general, we underestimate the interest that other people have in us and what we feel and what we think.

Bobby: Are we better at small talk with friends and family?

Andreas: The research says, no, not at all. We still misjudge each other. Now, trying to get out of a conversation at a time of your choosing is hard when you’re having Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, because you’re just stuck with Uncle Bob or whoever. Small talk is not so much a fault, it’s more of a security blanket. Why make small talk with an uncle, a cousin, a spouse, a daughter? It’s because we’re probably a little bit anxious. One of the most intimate things you can do is to be silent with someone. If you’re in a family setting and you keep on the small talk, you’re probably trying to keep a conflict from reemerging.

Bobby: To that point, because of the additional anxieties caused by omicron and new travel restrictions arriving every day, vacations are a lot more stressful than they used to be. Presumably a lot of that stress then hangs over family occasions.

Andreas: It’s hard to make conversation and feel comfortable if you’re worried about the other person’s breath, right? If I distance myself slightly, will they read that signal wrong? Or if I unintentionally come too close, you’re going to make the person uncomfortable. And sometimes we may even be there shivering because the windows are open and we’re masked, with all the evolutionary baggage on top of that. Congratulations if you survive that conversation.

Bobby: Before we go I wanted to put you on the spot and ask you if you can provide any guidelines on how to make good conversation?

Andreas: Be more confident about sending the right signals, meaning your true feelings. If you’re not comfortable, if you’re bored in the conversation, find a way out. If you are interested in the person, signal it. They need that reassurance. The second thing is to be aware that you’re probably unnecessarily afraid that you’re boring. Then I think conversations can be better and we’ll feel less alienated in daily life. There’s an inevitability to these anxieties, but awareness is a powerful weapon.

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Andreas Kluth is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. He was previously editor in chief of Handelsblatt Global and a writer for the Economist. He’s the author of “Hannibal and Me.”

Bobby Ghosh is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He writes on foreign affairs, with a special focus on the Middle East and Africa.

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