My Word's

an occasional column by
Marylaine Block
vol. 6, #10,
June 7, 2001


I always told my son I made enough money to provide the three essentials of life: food, shelter, and books. But now that I do most of my work in the home my son has left, I realize that conversation is every bit as essential to life. Small talk and big are no longer built into the fabric of my days, a byproduct of the daily grind of work. I can't get them automatically from those who share my household -- cats may be good listeners, but they don't laugh at my jokes and they're lousy conversationalists. Just as I have to go out on expeditions for groceries, I have to make deliberate expeditions in quest of the good talk I'm just as hungry for.

It's not just me, either. Why else would cell phones have spread as fast as they have, over 400 million sold last year alone? Those people walking around oblivious to the world around them, ears glued to their cell phones, can't all be making deals and scheduling business appointments. No, when a new product takes off that fast, it has to be filling a vast unmet need. And I think what we longed for, maybe didn't even know we needed, was conversation. Not just the nuts and bolts talk of everyday life -- please pass the cereal, would you mow the lawn, the plumber's coming today -- but real talk, about ideas, about our passions and enthusiasms, about the things and people we care about.

What did we need more, I wonder, to talk or to listen?

Certainly we need to talk ourselves. But if that was all we needed, we could ramble on for hours into a tape recorder, or scribble our thoughts in diaries. We need people to hear us. Listen to the outpourings on talk radio, all those people longing to be heard, so many of them angry, convinced that NOBODY LISTENS TO THEM. It's the essence of powerlessness, isn't it? That we talk, but people with power over our lives don't hear or care, not the congress that insisted on impeaching Clinton regardless of opinion polls, not the businesses that put us on infinite hold in voice mail hell or offer us preprogrammed e-mail responses for every kind of problem except the one we actually have.

And we need people who laugh at the same things and care about the same things we do. One of the web sites I always recommend to people when I'm doing internet training is Because it has human guides to an incredible variety of topics, who will steer people to the best information and answer their questions, and because it has forums and chats for likeminded people, it is more of a home than a web site, a home, for people who thirst for somebody to talk to about their private passions. We all have them -- bagpipes, Emily Dickinson, romance novels, rugby, whatever -- enthusiasms we don't even try to talk to friends and relations about because when we do their eyes glaze over.

I think that's what many of the chat rooms and listservs are all about, too. We need response, a soothing voice on the other end of the line, a person who hears and sympathizes. And of course it's great when people agree with us -- someone once suggested you could make a fortune by opening a phone service called 1-900-U R RIGHT.

But you know, I'm a writer, and much as I enjoy people saying nice things about my work, the least rewarding compliments I get are the vague, general notes of enthusiastic agreement. They're like cotton candy -- sweet, fluffy, and totally lacking in substance. I'm glad you liked it, but WHAT did you like? How did it affect you? What ideas grabbed you? WHY did you think they were right? Did they match some experiences of your own? What did my ideas start YOU thinking about?

I'd almost rather have people argue with me, dissect my arguments, tell me where I went wrong, because then at least I know they really paid attention to my arguments and my words, as much attention as I paid in choosing and ordering them. For me, writing is tossing an idea out, like a stone into water, and waiting to see the ripples, because they're so much bigger.

I can't learn from me. I need to hear and read what other people have to say. I need to think about their ideas, learn from their experiences, digest their knowledge to know the world better. I need somebody to laugh at my jokes and tell me their own. It's only when the new stuff and the old stuff and the funny stories churn together in my mind that I come up with new ideas. When I'm cut off from conversation for any length of time, I start to feel old and stale and my brain starts to shrivel. Reading is an OK substitute for a while, but then I need to talk to somebody about what I read, and see what they think about it.

But there's more to talk than minds speaking to minds. I have some really rewarding e-mail friendships, people I can talk with about almost anything. Ultimately, though, when you come to love somebody's mind online, you're going to want to meet them for real. You can pack a whole lot of emotional support into words online or by phone, even hug somebody with your words. But you can still hug somebody better when you can wrap your arms around them.

I'm willing to bet that the person you fell in love with wasn't necessarily the prettiest girl or handsomest man you ever met, but the first person you ever met that you could really talk to, the one person who listened, thought about what you said, and answered you, the one who understood your jokes, the one who moved into the circle of your arms to hear you better. And if you're like me, when you lose somebody you love, what you miss the most is the good talk; you are reminded of the loss every time you come across a joke they would have giggled at, a book you want to share with them, an idea you want to hear their take on.

Conversation is like a proof we exist. I am heard, therefore I am. I am heard, therefore I am worth hearing. I am heard, therefore I am loved. I listen, therefore I think. I listen, therefore I am a friend. I listen, therefore I care.

It's more than just ideas we are sharing when we talk. Conversation is love you can hear. Don't take it for granted, because someday it won't come to you without effort. You'll retire, your kids will leave home, the house will seem unbearably quiet, and you too will have to go out in quest of the staff of life -- good talk.

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