to talk or not to talk and whether one has a choice

On to the social interaction business, and my apparent ambivalence.

The life and choices I have are quite different from people who have been ‘peers’ of mine, and as I accept my new realities, I find myself grappling with trying to decide whom to interact with, how much, and for what aspects.

There is an entire range of topics I want to share with others but cannot share because the communication gap is too severe. I do not want to put off people and lose the bit of sharing I do have, so I have to choose carefully.

I have realized of late, after losing on a number of  ‘connections’ (people I thought I was connected to), that my definition of sharing and communication is at a very different level from many others.

I have been ‘naive’. I have always assumed that

1) when people get to know each other, they talk of things of mutual interest (so far, okay) and that

2) when they are thrown into closer contact, and have to interact more often, the width and depth of the content and insight of their discussions grows (here I am wrong too often)

This belief of mine means, that I expect that when I meet a person a few times, we may exchange pleasantries, but as we keep meeting each other, both parties would be wanting to, and willing to0, ‘disclose’ more of what is important, and take the interaction to more deep levels.

A useful theory to explain what I mean is the social penetration theory (Altman and Taylor), which says that communications develop from shallow and non-intimate levels to deeper and more personal ones as a relationship develops. This is what I expect in any friendship.

I understand that in the beginning, interactions are likely to be at the –what do you like to eat, how do you cook this dish, which train are you taking, aren’t the toilets at the railway station awful–level. Next, I expect us to move to slightly more personal observations, like–it is awful to see how hard the recession has hit things, last time I went to the market, I saw this thing and…And after a while, I expect we will reach a point where we can say things like: don’t you get scared when you see the way B___ is not able to remember even her name? Is that what life ends up as?

Friendships and relationships, to me, are a process of mutual self-disclosure and discovery and growth, with the depth increasing as comfort levels increase. I move very rapidly from the first level to the deep level, and that is where the problem is; too often I move too fast, or I attempt to reach levels others are not ready for. I don’t ask questions that penetrate, but I do offer self-disclosure that may be scaring people off.

There are, of course, friendships that regress into comfort zones if the opportunities to interact increase too much (an overload on the type of interaction the person is comfortable with).

Here’s a rather old personal anecdote, something I experienced with someone, let’s call her B.

B is an affectionate, well-educated, articulate woman. We have been meeting off and on for years, and as such occasions required, discussions centered around food, cooking, some exchanges on cultural differences, some tidbits on childhoods, lifestyles, etcetera. All nice, all good, all bordering on enriching, but cut short because of shortage of time.

Then, I happened to move closer to B, and this gave occasion to interact more regularly. I expected this to reflect in our conversations and interactions. To my surprise, B moved more and more to ‘food’ and the exchanges we used to have on other topics kept reducing. This was sad, because my food choices were very different. In earlier, infrequent interactions, these differences were not prominent because when you meet someone once in a while, you eat whatever is offered and say it is nice 🙂 But with interactions increasing, I had to start refusing stuff that did not suit me health-wise and taste-wise, and she took every such refusal as an insult to her lifestyle and culture.

This conversation sort of ended my hopes:

B: “How can we interact if you don’t eat what I cook? Food is how we connect with people.”

Me: “Surely we don’t have to eat the same thing to talk together? There must be more to life than food?”

B: “But if we don’t eat together, how can we talk?”

Me: “Can’t we talk without sharing a meal? Surely there are other ways to talk? Food cannot be the only thing in life, can it?”

B: “What else is there? Food is the most important thing.”

Me: “Maybe, but surely people have other things in common besides food?”

B: (pause) “Yes, of course.”

Me: “So, give an example.”

B: (after a long, long pause) “Clothes.” (very long pause)

Me: “Clothes? I don’t understand.”

B: “We wear similar clothes.” (silence, helpless, cornered look)

Well, I admit I wasn’t quite able to connect to B after that.  (I continue to eat food and wear clothes, though 🙂

I puzzled over this for a while. I read up on interactions and looked around to understand what I was expecting different from most people.

Another realization I had was that many people stayed at the same level of communication even when interaction opportunities increased. If they met me for ten minutes and talked about trains from Chennai to Mumbai, then if they met me for one hour, I would get to hear about more train options. I may even get to hear about hotels in Chennai and food, but the level of topics remained utilitarian.

We could not gravitate to other topics–the other person did not want to. If I threw an opening, the person would ‘look the other way’ and give me more about a train, this time possibly a superfast express as a bonus 🙂 For that person, trains were ‘safe’ as a topic, god bless Indian Railways, and their efficiencies and inefficiencies.

This has made me read up more on relational dialectics and interpersonal communication motives. People have different needs for interaction, and seek different types of friendships to fulfill different needs.  An abstract I read (I can’t locate the reference) described the motives as being fulfillment of personal identity, social unity, and entertainment. Six primary motives for communication were listed as: pleasure, affection, inclusion, escape, relaxation, and control. The aspects to look at are, who we talk to, why we talk, what we talk about, how we talk, and the outcomes of such talk. In other words, when interacting, people decide whom they are interacting with for what purpose, and they use different persons to fulfill different needs. The levels of their needs are also different. My take-home lesson: People may not want deeper discussions at all.

Another observation, a recent one: not all people talk to exchange ideas, sometimes they talk compulsively to be extroverts. Similarly, some people don’t always listen to understand, they listen to gather tidbits they can talk about to others. It’s like hoarding tokens. So, such a person always sounds knowledgeable in a short conversation, well informed of other persons and their activities, and I used to consider that they genuinely knew and cared about so many people. (I often felt pretty inadequate in comparison) Then I realized that any conversation longer than ten minutes was always more of the same thing, and that often, if I said something, the person was so keen to sound knowledgeable that she would interrupt and add something that showed how well she was connected (and thus miss a better token I might have handed over to her 🙂

This is not to say that everyone wants to talk only of trains or food. Definitely not. , Even people who insist to talk of only food and trains to me may be talking of other stuff to others. My problem is, I lack the ability to distinguish the implied scope and depth in time, and that I have not found enough people wanting to go deeper fast enough to match my needs. I have probably been seen as pushy/ intrusive/ imposing by those I used for my self-disclosure, even if I asked them nothing  🙂

So, where am I now?

I rarely meet people. If they are the type who want to stay at a safe level and have lots of people to talk with, I find the mismatch too high to sustain the interaction. It doesn’t seem worth it to me (squandering the little interaction time I have), and it doesn’t satisfy them. I have very little need to talk about food and trains and other topics at that level, and I want to quickly move on to other topics, and they just don’t. I find this increasingly becoming a problem the more confined my life situation makes me.

Online communications, hmm…

I find online communications tricky in a different way. In an e-mail one gets, or a yahoo group interaction, there is little hope of knowing the true reaction of a person. When someone does not reply, the person could be busy, uncomfortable, or plain pissed off. There is no body language type of cue. Again, friendships can be at several levels, but the problem here is, there are even fewer cues to know how/ whether to move the friendship in a direction. Consider, for example, a reconnect with someone I may not have met for twenty or thirty years. I was a different person when I knew that person, and both of us have changed. Besides, what we knew of each other at that time may have been incomplete and the interactions guarded. My comments or observations can alarm the person enough to make him or her move off–on the other hand, very surface level talk may not be interesting enough to sustain a friendship. I have no model to use in such interactions, and that slows me down and makes me hesitate.

This reminds me of a Steve Pavlina recording on loving relationships I heard recently, where he and his wife Erin talk of how quickly they moved in their friendship to levels beyond the superficial. I guess if one wants enduring and enriching friendships, risks must be taken.

So now, off to catching up on at least some of my e-mails…

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About Swapna Kishore
I'm a writer, blogger, and resource person for dementia/ caregiving in India, and deeply concerned about dementia care in India. On this blog I share my own caregiving journey, my experiences as a resource person for dementia care, and musings on life, aging, dementia in India, and such sundries. More about me and the work I do for dementia care in this set of pages:

4 Responses to to talk or not to talk and whether one has a choice

  1. austere says:

    I’ve had this issue as well- to be honest, I’ve been the food person. 🙂

    Individuals have limitations on how long they can sustain a conversation at any given level. My ability could be 60% at the basic level and 40% at the ahem advanced level (I admit to being generous here).

    Stretch as I might, there is no way I could keep a conversation at say 80% finance/psychology/politics and 20% pfaff. What then?

    Aren’t both participants in a conversation supposed to be open with going more than half the way?

  2. swapnawrites says:

    I finally scrolled down and saw I could post a reply 🙂

    Yup, we all need a mix of topics, light and er, heavy. Food, movies, fashion…we need them as well as serious stuff. The mix % should ideally be something suitable to both.

    In some cases, though (such as anecdote with B) there is no mix. B, for example, was 100-0 and inflexible on that. If I was interacting with ten people, and one was food-predominant, that may be okay, because I had others to talk to about other things.

    The problem here is of incompatibility, combined with scarcity of time, if that makes sense…

  3. Jenue says:

    I’m a little sorry for B. It seemed that she enjoyed your company and was making an effort to connect with you on your level. I’m curious, when you noticed that she was having trouble answering your question why didn’t you help her out? The conversation might not have been so awkward.

    It’s also possible to enjoy someone’s company without deep and meaningful conversation. One can just appreciate the warmth of another person… even when time is scarce. I think most people have something to offer, especially when you’ve already established compatibility. You just have to find it 🙂

  4. swapnawrites says:

    I’m still mourning the B I knew–the one who was affectionate and shared her thoughts with me. But the tragedy was, when we did have more time to spend together, she forgot the past, and reduced me to a mouth to be fed 🙂 Despite my several attempts to explain that we could talk even if our food choices were different, she made shared food tastes a condition for communication. To me, that’s an imposition, and does not show any love, connnectedness, or even respect. The conversation I reported was part of one where I her for her view of what we could share, and I was shocked that she could not remember any other area we could talk about.

    But yanno, my take on food is a bit different, and that’s got me into ‘trouble’ before…

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