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How to Talk to People

When I was 24, I started getting the feeling that folks in my peer group were creating a life trajectory of some sort.

It was as though each job they had laid a brick on their path toward a wonderland called The Future, a place we were all desperate to be, even though we had no clue what it was like. It was astounding to me that my friends had (secretly, it seemed??) figured out what they wanted to do, and were making it happen with a tidy CV and streamlined array of interests.

In alarming contrast, I did not have a life trajectory. I had a life sloppy joe.

Any job, hobby, skill, volunteer position, or outfit I tried had absolutely nothing to do with the last one. My resume was a mess. My closet looked like it belonged to ten separate people who had nothing in common.

Those around me seemed to have figured out a sense of self and a sensical career plan. Or at least they were consistent in their haircuts. By comparison, I was totally lost, and getting bangs again.

As an emergency measure, and to give myself a sense of forward-motion, I made a list of careers I was interested in. I thought I could study them one by one by interning or annoying strangers with emails full of questions about what their job is really like, all while working at a coffee shop and trying to patchwork my scrappy life into something…resembling anything.

The career list:
-Public radio host
-Professor of Middle Eastern Studies specializing in Muslim-Christian relations along the Silk Road (I was promptly rejected by grad schools for this one)
-ESL teacher
-Food policy lobbyist
-Celebrity gossip columnist

In my head these were all competing and conflicting dreams belonging to completely distinct people I could potentially become, as though I were a blobby lump of beige clay ready to be formed into shape by a career title, as though my life hadn’t begun yet.

At the time I could only focus on how different these titles were from each other, because choosing one would have to dismiss all the others.

It was like ‘The Bachelorette’ except for Career Paths; which one would elicit enough “strong feelings” in me enough to reject what could have been??

What I didn’t realize at the time, because the color palette of youth is often limited to black-and-white, was that this list was all pointing to the same exact thing: Communication.

I just loved communicating. I wanted to talk for a living. I didn’t know that back then; I really thought I cared about the mission of public radio!

And the reason I loved talking so much is that I love people so much.

I spent years in food service, years abroad, years in friendless solitude, just observing people and taking notes. Because interacting with people have never come naturally for me, I got pretty good at.

None of those career curiosities led to any career tracks, but the more I followed my whims, the more I could see patterns that nudged me into skills.

I didn’t know I was good at anything until I applied for a marketing job with no experience and successfully argued that the through-line from my retail jobs to my extremely short law clerk gig was “I’ve been listening to people for decades, and now I know how to talk to them.”

Don’t get me wrong, people are endlessly insufferable. Learning to talk to other people on this earth is a lifelong journey, and may take hundreds of lifetimes to get right.

The real problem with other people is that they are so human, and everything annoying about us is also so hopelessly human, and if we could just be AI Chat Bots instead of humans, we’d have an easier time with each other!

But maybe my greatest skill is that I can usually work through my rage (most often provoked when a person is chewing loudly in my presence) and still see people as endearing little critters who I love learning from.

So here is my amateur guide to talking to others, after years of observation, conversation, and painfully awkward missteps:

Talking in answers
Any time you’re going to be answering a series of questions (such as a job interview, or appearance on a late-night talk show), keep this in mind: The last sentence is the most important.

When we’re asked a question, our impulse is to begin with the clear answer, then elaborate from there. But what happens then is that you end up rambling and conclude what could have been a much more potent response with, “So, yeah.”

Instead, quickly think about the clearest, most succinct, powerful answer. That’s the last sentence you’re going to say; everything else is just a detailed build-up—possibly rambly! It’s okay! As long as you end with a punchy pithy final sentence, you can afford a couple tangents and at least ten ums.

Talking to someone on a date
Be kind and positive.

No matter whether we had exactly one or ten thousand things in common, I’d always hype myself up for a date the same way:

Be kind and positive.

Everyone wants to be around someone who is kind to them; anyone could use a boost of positivity. It’s nerve-racking to think you have to show up and dazzle with your wit and intellect and new lipstick color, and you really don’t have to do all that!

People hate online dating because there’s a built-in sense of disposability to it; you literally swipe away people who don’t meet your standards, with the same gesture you use to swat away a pesky fruit fly on your pear. On a dating app, it’s easy to start an interaction and it’s easy to leave it. Nobody likes to be swiped away; nobody likes to be left.

It’s so refreshing to be with a kind person (and to be kind) on a date. It mitigates much of that disposability anxiety.

It reminds me of what my yoga instructor said of when she first started teaching and she was so nervous that students wouldn’t be impressed by her. Then she realized that everyone just wants to feel good. And that’s probably true of most of the things we do; we just want to feel good.

I used to think I had to lead with dry humor on a date, because that’s what 90s movies trained me to do in order to get a man to fall in love with me. But now I’m thinking that was probably more about how Liv Tyler looks in a miniskirt than her deadpan joke delivery.

In reality, most people going on a date just don’t want to feel entirely disposable. Leading with affectionate curiosity and enthusiastic listening is actually pretty rare, and always appreciated.

Talking to someone who is in despair
Look in the Sympathy Card aisle and you’ll see a lot of cards about sadness. Actually, you’ll see a lot of cards about a certain genre of sadness: the soft and whimpery one, symbolized by drooping flowers and downtrodden doves—beautiful things that are saggy with sorrow.

And that’s one way to grieve, sure.

But the underrepresented expression of despair in sympathy cards and “I’m sorry for your loss [heart emoji]” text is anger.

I thought about that when I wrote a card to a friend who lost her young husband unexpectedly over the summer. Like everyone else, I had zero idea what to say, so, like everyone else, I looked through cards written by people who are paid to know what to say. They all sounded dumb.

So I did some more thinking. I remembered when my mom’s husband died, her friend took her hand and said, “It’s not okay that he’s gone. And it’s never going to be okay that he’s gone.” And I remember how powerful it was to hear that, when we’re so often clobbered with messages of the exact opposite.

I wrote to my friend that I was furious on her behalf, that this was unfair, this sucks, I hate this, I am shaking my fists at the sky. He didn’t deserve it, she didn’t deserve it, their kids didn’t deserve it, and what kind of world are we living in where this would happen to you guys?

A friend told me that her miscarriage support group was instructed to scream expletives as loudly as they could in one meeting, which really makes sense to me as an expression of grief. When I’m reminded of my stepdad’s death, I always let out an exasperated grunty “UGHHH!” rather than shed a single tear.

When bad things happen to our beautiful worthy ones, it’s so frustrating, but frustration is so rarely acknowledged in public grief. When the dear young widow in my life got up and gave a eulogy for her husband, she boldly read out loud from a letter to him, “You would be furious if you knew about this” and “Parenting without you is really fucking hard.” It was so real.

Most people don’t want to be told that they’re strong, simply for surviving. As someone in my comments section once wrote, “People kept telling me I was strong for going on after my mom died, but what was I supposed to do? Also die?” Usually, “strong” doesn’t fit right when we’re actively falling apart.

Rather, it feels really good to hear “I hate that you have to be so strong right now” so the person has permission to do all the apparently un-strong things they want to do: scream, pound things, resent others’ good fortune, pull the blanket over their head like a ghost and eat a sheet cake in silence.

Talking to people who aren’t as smart as you
I’ve been volunteer dog-walking for a year now through PAWS. The greatest gift has been getting to know Anna, an elegant artist in her mid-70s whose overwhelming book collection lines all the walls of her apartment in neat rows. She’s a dilettante, designer, and academic, but her most noted characteristic is her warmth and care for people.

“I’ve been an intellectual snob my whole life,” she tells me over coffee in her smooth London accent, “But now I’m the happiest I’ve ever been, because I said goodbye to all that.”

She means that she started letting people in, even if she supposed their IQs didn’t match hers. And she let those people be her number 1 priority, over literature and academia, because friendships are fleeting, unlike books.

And recently when she had a health scare, she said that it further cemented what she says she learned too late: Don’t waste time thinking you’re better than other people. Be good to them and let them be good to you.

During the health scare, countless people came out of the woodwork to care for her and love on her the way she so deeply deserves. After she came home from the hospital, she looked like she won the lottery: “This is the very best time of my life, because I care more about people than ideas.”

She reminded me to keep finding commonalities, keep being delighted by people. There is no room for arrogance, intellectual or otherwise, in a warm rich good life.

Talking to people who are smarter than you
A couple weeks ago, I went to the symphony. It’s exciting to go to the symphony because you get to enjoy imagining the life of a full-time bassoonist, and because you get to wear evening gloves which is a real thrill.

Other than that…I struggle with the symphony. I don’t think my ears were designed for it. Unless they’re playing the hits, much of classical music just sounds like noise to me (see also: most jazz, rock), and quickly becomes irritating.

So if anyone were to ask, “How was the symphony?” I would freeze up and stutter, because I actually have no idea. Ask those with more advanced ear architecture!

But here’s where an opportunity swoops in: Because this music clearly wasn’t made for me, I have to work extra hard to appreciate it. And because I have to work extra hard, I actually have a lot to say!

I have no hope of making any brilliant point about the dramatic intensities followed by playful melodies, and nobody wants to hear that from me.

The only thing I have to offer is what the music stirred in me, what colors it made me see, what it led me to think about, and even which parts I found unbearable.

With most arts, laypeople are made to feel like there’s a right and wrong way to experience the work at hand. I have certainly felt that way while staring at a large white canvas splattered with grey paint entitled something like “Dreaming of Her.”

It’s a treat to hear an expert illuminate a piece’s background or the artist’s particular talent, but it’s also a gift to hear from a beginner’s mind about how they experience a painting or a sonata.

I realized early on in my Medieval Philosophy class that I didn’t not have the correct brain workings to understand the logic battles between Aristotelians and Platonists, but I COULD write about the babbling creek near my school and how the sound made me feel and my own take on beauty.

And I like to think I added a little Mari Zest to that class, or at least elicited some sympathy when I read my final paper. Which leads me to…

Talking too much
I just found out about Beautiful Mess Effect, and I love it.

It means that, after a moment of vulnerability (or during a vulnerability hangover, when you’re in the throes of Why did I say all that!??), YOU may feel like a crumpled ball of embarrassment.

But take heart: OTHERS (the ones you told all about your childhood trauma and your foot fungus) actually see you in a more lovable light. People have sympathy for a mess!

The researcher compiling this study wrote, “We love seeing raw truth and openness in other people, but we are afraid to let them see it in us. Vulnerability is courage in you and inadequacy in me.”

When you dance like nobody’s watching, and afterwards realize everyone was watching, you may want to sashay-shantay out of the room and mercifully unfriend everyone at the party before they have to do it themselves. But most likely, your approval rating in the room just went way up!

The day after the gathering when you’re wondering WHY you had to bring up your cat’s funny new behavior when others were sharing baby photos, you may lean on the old platitude that ‘nobody is thinking about you.’

Well, chances are people are thinking about you, but they’re thinking about you as a courageous cutie who dared to put yourself out there, even if you said too much and all the wrong things.

Talking about your opinion
First, you are always allowed to have an opinion.

If the internet’s been telling you otherwise, I’m here to set you free: Opine all you want.

It’s a gift to have a mind and get to privately retreat there with all our (correct, of course) opinions even if we don’t know a single thing about the issue at hand.

But when it comes to talking about your opinion, I’ve found that it’s rare to be taken seriously unless you really understand the issue.

And I’ve found that you can’t really understand the issue unless you can generously argue for the other side, the one you don’t agree with.

I can do this for maybe two political issues, neither of which I care much about.

For many of us, it’s terrifying to imagine immersing ourselves in the perspective of those other people when the issue at hand stiffens our bodies and gives us a big emotion lump between our lungs.

Moreover, we’ve all read many messages at this point urging us to not engage with the other side, as though withdrawing our communication will ensure they take the self-initiative to start studying some social theory and Instagram carousels and ask to join our team so we can finally admit we’re related to them.

I get that!

Emotion is a strong and soft thing, and is somehow most powerful when we are moved to action or angered into inaction. It would be VERY hard for any of us, unless we are exceptionally good at compartmentalizing (shout out to surgeons and engineers), to thoroughly investigate our opponent’s arguments and somehow study them with empathy.

But we’re kidding ourselves if we think we’re properly equipped to argue our point in a potentially transformative way, if we can’t genuinely assume logic and relevant life experience to the folks we disagree with.

Perhaps it’s inheritance from Western Colonialism that nurtures the unhelpful habit of preparing to dominate a fight with witty comebacks and iconic disses. That response will only show the public that you have WON, rather than allow you to find common ground with someone you think of as the enemy.

Society rewards domination over peace, so I understand if you want to win. Just know that if you feel like you’ve won, you didn’t actually have a conversation. Winning isn’t the point.

The point is that two people are able to learn. And it’s really really hard to learn if your #1 goal is to get the other person to your side so they can be acceptable company to you.

I know there are topics that I’m not going to learn about in this lifetime because it would be so emotionally distressing to argue about them; I also know I have friends who I’m not going to learn from because it would be too emotionally distressing for them to engage in a conversation with someone (me) who doesn’t share their opinion. And this is all normal and okay. We SHOULD be very emotionally invested in our values!

Yet if we’re ready to embark on a meaningful, mutually-beneficial dialogue for the sake of genuine understanding and building common ground…we gotta do some generous research. I know it’s not fun. But if we’re going to have a fighting chance at unity in a world that seems determined to split us apart, we’ve got to start really truly genuinely listening. Yes, to people we don’t agree with.

Talking in long-term friendships/relationships:
“You guys seem so solid and happy; what’s your secret?” I asked of my friends who have been married ten years, together much longer.

“A lot of forgiveness,” one said, then added, “I read that on Instagram. But I think it’s really true.”

I’ve been thinking about that since, when it comes to all the long-term relationships in my life, from friends to family members to my dry cleaners.

When we have a relationship with someone that spans many years, there are going to be many things that bug us over time about them (excruciating to think about the reverse of this, but it’s inevitable!).

And when it comes to one of those beautiful weathered relationships that sink in like a plush well-worn armchair or creak like the floors of a stunning old mansion…lots of letting it go is key.

Many years ago, I was at a wine bar with my friend—let’s call him Snoop Dogg—who responded in what I thought to be a flippant, even callous, way to something tough I had just shared with him.

I didn’t tell him at the time (classic me), but I carried his careless comment around with me for years like a small stone that weighed down our friendship ever so slightly—not detrimental, but annoying.

Then one day I reminded Snoop Dogg of his long-ago comment, and he was shocked. “I said that??” asked Snoop. “Why would I say that? I guess at the time that made sense? That’s not how I feel now!”

And the stone disappeared into the ambient ethers. I felt foolish for not letting it go earlier; Snoop had demonstrated how consistently empathetic he was, but I was hung up on one teeny sentence rather than the totality of his being, and our vast friendship.

During my illustration project, I got a fair number (or unfair number 🙂 of criticisms in my Direct Messages about specific illustrations, often willfully misunderstood for the sake of someone’s online catharsis (DMs are where a lot of people go to let off steam).

Whenever the critique (or rampage) focused on one particular post or even specific wording within a post, I would encourage the viewer to take a peek at all the surrounding context, of which there was a LOT.

With all the work I’ve done, surely I’ve clearly communicated my values over much time and in many different ways. One misstep or misinterpretation doesn’t diminish any of that. There’s an entire portfolio of evidence.

The beauty of long-term friends, with all their complexities and contradictions, is that we have a LOT of context for them—maybe even multiple portfolios.

A slip-up here and there should never be collected in a pouch of stones to clatter around during every conversation moving forward.

I was just reading about the power of wandering around aimlessly. From Barbara Ueland in If You Want to Write:

The imagination needs moodling—long, inefficient, happy idling, dawdling, puttering. These people who are always briskly doing something and as busy as waltzing mice, they have little, sharp, staccato ideas…but they have no big ideas.

I think of long-term friendship as a ‘big idea.’ It’s intricate, time-tested, challenging to grasp, but heaven to explore. It continually transforms with fresh energy and new experiences, and it moves others over time. It’s also fueled with a lot of happy idling and dawdling; it’s not something that can be captured or created quickly.

Every small idea can be proved or disproved, dismissed or disagreed with easily. But a big idea, like a large friendship, can withstand plenty of disagreements….so long as there’s a lot of forgiveness.

Mari Andrew Friend Diagram

Reposted with permission from substack.mariandrew.com