I was wambling about on the internet recently and came across one of those websites where one person asks a question and many anonymous other persons contribute their answers. I’m thinking chat room or message board, but I’m probably wrong. Maybe forum? I’m just an old biddy who stumbles across weird stuff online every now and again. It was one of those places. A whatever.
Anyway, this person asked: Why do human beings make conversation? And somebody else answered to the effect: Why do human beings ask really stupid questions? Presumably this kind of response is like being a Troll, but not quite so vicious. More like a Mocker, or a Moll. Or a Smartarse.
Because it seemed to me that, whether he or she was in fact stupid, this questioner had come up with a good question. Why do we talk to one another? After all, animals don’t. I’ve never heard a tabby cat addressing a ginger cat thusly: Excuse me, O Ginger One, would you mind moving over so that I might enjoy some of that lap-space? No. Tabby will appraise the situation for either a short or a long while. Then, upon concluding that Ginger is both bigger and stroppier than herself, will turn softly and exit stage left. Alternatively Tabby will place a hefty paw on Ginger’s head. If nothing happens as a consequence she will actually stand on said head, then walk all over Ginger and sit on top of him. My lap! she will be saying, just not aloud. Mine, mine, mine!
Ginger will then slide to the floor, conceding the lap. Or he may hiss and spit a bit, then slide to the floor. What are they doing that is any different to what human beings are doing to one another daily – in the workplace, in the street, in war-zones, in conference rooms, on the green or red leather seats of the Houses of Parliament? Encroaching, retreating, negotiating, asserting. All without words.
When I was a child I would often try to imagine of a world without words. It seemed to me that words were unnecessary in all but the least important of situations. If someone is grieving, how can your voice help them? So sorry for your loss. The same thing happened to me. I can’t begin to imagine how you feel. Or you could rest a hand on their shoulder, or sit with them in silence.
How much simpler the world might be if we all woke up one morning and discovered we couldn’t speak. We’d have to look at each other’s faces, get better at body language, start using that sixth sense we all possess but are mostly unaware of. We would develop sign languages, of course – or appropriate the languages deaf people are already using. This would once again be conversing, but less intrusive. If I didn’t want to overhear your detailed, hour long run-down on last night’s televised football match I could turn away. If I didn’t want to be dragged into your marital disagreement in the supermarket queue just because I was unfortunate enough to be standing behind you, I could close my eyes. You and your unwanted information/gouts of stale, second-hand emotion would be gone. The world would be beautiful again.
On another website I came upon a list of Conversation Starters. Good grief, I thought. Why are we so desperate to keep on and on talking at one another, even when we can’t think of a thing to say? Why do we need to exchange phatic pleasantries with total strangers whilst clutching a glass of wine in one hand, a sausage roll and three vol-au-vents on a bendy paper plate in the other? Wouldn’t a smile be enough – to show that no harm is meant? Why are we even putting ourselves in situations where we know so little about the others present in the room that we find ourselves resorting to:
What is your favourite party game? (I can’t remember a single party game. Have I ever even played a party game?)
What is your favourite hang-out spot? (Hang-out spot?)
What’s in your fridge? (Oh…stuff.)
Do you know who sings the song that is playing? (What song?)
What do you think about this weather? (Think about it?)
If you had to give yourself a new name, what name would you pick? (Gloriana, maybe – because then I could dress up like Elizabeth I, wear a tall white ruff and something called a stomacher. I could sit there looking pasty and half-bald and have my portrait painted. Then, if I wished, have the painter beheaded…)
In keeping with the season, these would be Bah, humbug! responses to silly questions. Genuinely rude responses to genuinely silly questions. I’d never use them, of course, because at heart I’m not a Troll – not even a Moll. If I did find myself (Heaven forefend) lingering about in a roomful of people with a glass of wine in one hand, a sausage roll and two vol-au-vents on a bendy paper plate in the other, and someone was attempting to be make conversation with me – however awkward the question and however vague and inadequate my response, I’d hope at least not to hurt their feelings or spoil their evening.
And if someone did ask me an interesting question I hope I’d acknowledge that, and take the trouble to think about what they had asked. Because to ask an interesting question is quite an art. An interesting question is a sign that the questioner has engaged their brain for some time before opening their mouth. Genuinely interesting questions are as rare as rocking horse droppings.
So what would you ask a stranger at a party? On a bus? When stuck in a lift together?