Why is conversation so difficult?

I’ve always wondered what you’re supposed to say to a co-worker when you’re in an elevator.

I use one of the following two ice breakers.

• Do you have a busy weekend ahead of you?
• Have you had a chance to travel anywhere this year?

If the conversation progresses, I will eventually ask questions about topics that I enjoy, to figure out if we have any interests in common:

• Do you watch or play any sports?
• Have you watched any movies or TV shows recently?
• Have you read any books recently?

Talking to people can become exhausting. I have to memorize facts about each person. I will change my opening ice breaker depending on the person. For example, if someone likes hockey, I might start a conversation by asking if they’ve seen the most recent Flames game.

Even with friends, I have to memorize many facts about them. I think about a script for a conversation like a computer program. You have to memorize what people like and dislike. You have to memorize what topics are appropriate and inappropriate so that you can ask logical follow up questions. For example, with Ryan, he likes talking about the Flames and Stampeders. He enjoys watching 24, Breaking Bad and Dexter. Ryan insists that I also watch the same television shows because I have similar taste in dramas. Ryan complains that his wife doesn’t enjoy watching those particular television shoes. Ryan hates baseball. Ryan hates the fantasy genre in general (i.e. Game of Thrones, Harry Potter, and the Lord of the Rings). Ryan commented why I never ask him where he visited when he travels. I don’t care when Ryan visits a country unless I plan to visit the same country later on. It’s actually a nuisance for me when Ryan goes traveling. Ryan also gets upset if I update my Facebook status about the Stampeders if he hasn’t watched the game yet.

When I am not familiar with a topic, it is harder for me to ask a follow up question. I once had a co-worker mention that she likes gardening. I do not know what an appropriate follow up question is for gardening. I remember the conversation awkwardly going silent when I could not think of a follow up question. Maybe I should have asked her “do you have a favorite plant?” or “is there a plant you’d recommend for someone new to gardening?”
Emotional people are more difficult for me to talk to. I’ve had co-workers from Human Resources comment that I always went straight to business. The next time I met with them, I had to remind myself to start the meeting by saying “How are you?”, even though I thought that question could potentially slow down the meeting if it caused unnecessary chit chat.
Emotional people also make my head hurt when I think of a negative comment. If I say what I’m thinking, there’s the risk that I could make the other person cry. If possible, I’ll try to avoid saying a negative comment to avoid hurting the other person’s feelings.

I also have difficulty reading body language. For example, when someone folds their arms, how do you know if they’re cold or if they’re upset? It depends on the person (and if they’ve given any verbal clues if they’re cold or upset).

There’s also the issue of how long it’s appropriate to talk about my favorite topic. In John Elder Robison’s Be Different, Robison suggests the following:

• For the first 30 seconds after you start talking, imagine a green light in your head.
• After 30 seconds, the light turns yellow.
• At 60 seconds, the light turns red.

If someone was actually interested, I could talk in detail about topics like movies or sports. I’ve also had people complain that I talk too fast. I’m worried that the other person will get bored if I don’t talk fast and get to the point in less than 60 seconds.


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