I’m always fascinated by people who have a way of making anyone and everyone feel as though they have known each other for years. My roommate in college during freshman year was this way. This worked out rather well for me, as all types of people would come knocking on our door, reducing the amount of effort I had to make to meet new people. I was dismayed to find, however, that just because people showed up at our door didn’t mean that I was going to know how to connect well with them myself. Compared to my gregarious roommate, I was shy, awkward. There is something to be said about the art of conversation.
There is, in fact, much to be said about the art of conversation. But at the heart of every genuine exchange between two people, at least those exchanges that are free of hidden agendas, is the desire within a person that says,
Find me here, where I am, and know a bit of me.
I think of the deaf patient I met who could ‘listen’ by reading what people wrote out for her. A slight inconvenience for a busy nurse? Undeniably, yes. The temptation to dismiss the value of that extra effort was real. But it became so readily apparent that she was significantly more at ease when I took the time to explain to her what I was about to do with the syringe in my hand, or why I needed to uncover her and probe at her in such personal ways. The written conversations were important in recognizing that she was very much present, in her quiet world, fearful and anxious about her condition, needing as much explanation and reassurance as any other person would. Would it hurt? How long was this going to take? Is this ok? Am I ok? Her nods and brief written replies let me know that she was ok. Less anxious. Increasingly at ease with me as her nurse. And I in turn became increasingly at ease with her. I found out a bit more about her, as she did about me.
I think of the elderly woman I met years ago during my years of research in nursing homes. The one who meant to tell stories about her son’s new baby, who meant to say “It’s nice to see you today” or “I feel sort of lonely today,” but when she opened her mouth to form the words, all that ever came out, in varying inflections, was “Doh doh doh doh doh doh.” That fateful stroke robbed her of all vocabulary but this one solitary word. She was, however, sharp as a tack and could understand everything being said to her. And so we had our conversations. I told her stories that I thought she might find interesting. I tried to remember not to ask questions requiring more than a “yes” or “no”… or in this case, a nod or a shake of the head, accompanied by “doh” with the appropriately corresponding inflection of her voice. I flinched when she would clearly be asking me a question, “Doh doh doh doh doh… doh?” and held my breath when I answered yes or no, hoping I had answered appropriately. Her shock at my response to one of her questions told me I had clearly misunderstood what she had asked, and so I quickly corrected myself, and she seemed sufficiently satisfied. Oh the adventures those conversations were! She wanted to be found and known beyond her limited vocabulary. And she was wonderful. I miss her.
I think of the recent immigrants who were uncertain about visiting a new church, our church, for fear that their English was too poor to connect meaningfully with anyone. They wavered for a while about whether or not to come visit. They smiled and nodded politely at people who talked at otherwise normal speed, but the translation process in their minds could not keep up. The ways they subconsciously brightened up when people spoke slowly, simply, or with a few phrases of their native tongue, revealed their relief at being freed for even just a moment from that gnawing sense of isolation. Please find me here inside my not-yet-bilingual world, and know a bit of me.
It has taken me a long time to understand, much less appreciate, the ways I am wired as an introvert. I love to sit back and just listen to people talk, but don’t tend to interject very often. I am handicapped with chit-chat. I feel uncomfortable entering into large gatherings of people I don’t know very well. I get nervous when I tell stories in groups, even in groups of people that I know and love. I tend to be rather reticent about volunteering a lot of personal information on my own initiative, but curiously I love being asked questions and tend to warm up to inquisitive people much faster. I too want to be found and known a bit by others.
There is so much to be learned from the art of conversation.