We humans are social animals, and conversation is part of the fabric of daily life. So why can it sometimes be such grim going? Because we’re losing sight of the unwritten rules. Here are Machell’s fifteen simple ways to keep us talking without tearing our hair out:
1. When asked ‘how’re you doing’, stick to the only two legitimate answers: ‘fine’ or ‘alright’ before a throw-away ‘You?’ Be sure to show your lack of interest in the enquiry: this really is not the time to discuss the crushing reality of existence. (And as for ‘How do you do?’, that’s just a polysyllabic alternative to ‘Hi’, not the earnest enquiry of a genuine friend.)
2. Never put yourself in a position where you could even think of saying ‘pardon the pun’.
3. If you fail to hear part of what someone has said, style it out with a smile and nod; if after three seconds you find yourself looking at a puzzled face, furrow your brow and guess the opposite answer: ‘No, of course not.’ After navigating this difficulty, be sure to plough on regardless, even if you’re wholly at sea with what is being described / praised / castigated. Do not ask for a repeat.
4. Don’t interrupt someone unless you have something so funny to say that the other person will have to stop and laugh anyhow. This being real life, they probably won’t, so know your limits.
5. No, ‘specifically’ does not have a silent ‘s’; and ‘have’ does not become ‘of’ when it follows ‘could’. Of course, if you hear a word be mispronounced, do the polite thing: don’t point it out but instead reintroduce the word correctly pronounced three to five minutes later. If this provokes comment, profess ignorance that the word had come up before.
6. Pedants have their place, but not in an anecdote. Keep minor corrections and clarifications to yourself: if by 5pm the following day you still think that they matter, proceed to communicate them by letter.
7. Good conversation is made up of questions; if you haven’t asked one within two minutes of speaking, stop yourself and get a grip. If you somehow reach the five-minute mark without a peep from your interlocutor(s), really, stop talking. If you’re still minded to rant or rabbit on, just leave. There’s nothing worse under the sun than the inveterate whiner.
8. ‘Literally’ should be avoided, unless you’ve got the paperwork to prove that you do mean what you are saying to the letter.
9. If a yawn bursts into the otherwise scintillating flurry of conversational exchange, suppress it at all costs: try picking an expression appropriate to the last phrase you hear, and then tense that out as you stare intensely into their eyes. The quivering results could well be awkward; but never pander to the mouth-gape.
10. It’s crude to split an infinitive but infinitely cruder to openly point that out.
11. Ensure that no more than two successive sentences begin with the word ‘I’. This is a conversation.
12. If you hear ‘less’ used when ‘fewer’ is required, look crestfallen, drop your shoulders, and mope off into the distance without comment. Turn off your phone for two days to add effect.
13. If thrown into small talk with a stranger, find any feature whatsoever of the current weather that can be described adjectivally: ‘rather breezy out’ or ‘this drizzle’s persistent’ are good. Do not overplay your hand: ‘those clouds portend our doom’ or ‘this temperature agitates the loins’ are not. If the weather, as so often, is utterly featureless, feel free to comment on that, and tut ‘one of those days, eh!’
14. If you hear the subjunctive used – and it is not deployed in faux-piratical fashion (‘aye, there be monsters’) nor wrested from the National Anthem (‘God save the Queen’) – gauge whether it’s appropriate to share a celebratory lo-five.
15. When all talk is said and done, assess the situation: do you need to say goodbye or goodbyes? If the former, a meaningless ‘See you’ or innocuous ‘bye’ can do the job perfectly well; if the latter, steel yourself, take a deep breath and work through the valedictors one by one, ensuring that you kiss, squeeze, pat or shake the right part in an age-, sex- and status-appropriate fashion. It’s a veritable minefield. Oh, and before you even think about exploding it, ask yourself the honest question: ‘am I genuinely a fist-pumper?’