My family always finds fascinating the fact that, when I return from meeting new people, I possess all sorts of information you wouldn’t except someone to have based upon such a short acquaintance. “How do you know his GPA?” “Did you ask her about her famous former boyfriend?” “How in the world did you know he used to play professional soccer?” “He actually told you that he commutes three hours a day?”
I know that my kids have this image of me tying people to a hard wooden chair, shining a bright light on them, and hissing malevolently, “Ve haf vays of making you talk.”
They’re both right and wrong. I do have a way of making people talk, it’s simply not coercive. My secret, which I’ve told them repeatedly, is that I am interested in people. More than that, I find people interesting. I ask about their jobs or their schools or their skills (general questions) in a way that makes it clear that I care deeply about what answer they give — and that they usually go up in my estimation when I learn that they have an interesting job (and I find most people’s career choices interesting), a great school (if they like it, it’s great), or an unusual skill set (“That is so awesome”).
Once people realize that they’re speaking to an appreciative audience — and I’m not faking it — they keep talking and I keep learning more fascinating things.
I wish I could get my kids to recognize that having a curious mind is the antidote to boredom and loneliness. I can always engage and I am never bored. If there are no people around, there’s the internet. If there’s no internet, there are books. Heck, even my dog is fascinating.
Although I use the computer every day, I feel singularly blessed that I grew up in a pre-electronic age. Unlike people before the 1920s, who were entirely responsible for their own entertainment, or people in the 20s, 30s, and 40s who had radio, but were otherwise on their own, I grew up in a television age, which meant that I did have pre-manufactured fun available at the push of a button. That was the theory. In fact, we had six or seven channels and that was it. If you missed your Bewitched episode, you had to wait several months to see it on the second go-round. And that was it. You were then on your own . . . but there were always books.
My kids are never on their own. XBox, SmartPhones, TiVo, Netflix, DVRs . . . you name it. Even if they don’t have one, their friends do, so that when the kids leave the house hollering, “I’m go to so-and-so to play,” what they really mean is that they’re not going to play, but that they’re going to stare at a screen in congenial silence. Nothing can compete with the siren song of electronic entertainment — and to me that’s just terribly, terribly sad.