In Praise Of The Real Conversation

I scrolled through my iPhone photos from the past year and found a couple shots of these two guys I don’t know, sitting at a table out in front of a Denver coffee shop, just talking to each other. I couldn’t say exactly why they struck me enough to clandestinely take a photo of them through the window, but it seemed novel: two friends actually having an in-person conversation, no football game on a TV in front of them, no bar full of single people distracting their glances, no laptops or iPads on the table in front of them, no office papers in between them.

If you have a handful of people in your life who are available to do this sort of thing—get together, in person, and talk to and listen to you—I think you should consider yourself quite fortunate. I bet it’s also been a little too long since the last time you did it, and maybe the last time you did, you and that person said something like “we should do this more often.” And then you both got “busy,” like we all do.

But if you’re really honest, you might say to yourself, “I am busy with bullshit,” and realize that scheduling an hour or two to get together and talk to your friend isn’t going to put you any further behind in your infinite quest to get ahead of the busy. You get to remember what it’s like to hear their voice, see them smile, maybe laugh, and see how they’re doing, instead of typing it into a hurried text message. Also, depending on where you get together, they may buy your coffee or lunch, which you can look at as a free coffee or lunch, but I prefer to interpret as a guarantee that I will see that friend again soon so I can return the favor.

Plenty of people have pointed out that we all have a bajillion social media “friends” nowadays, and that they’re not actual friends in the historic sense of the word. That’s of course somewhat true—no one has 500 or 1,000 people who they would invite to a dinner party in their cramped apartment, or ask to help move a piano. But social media allows us to maintain long-distance relationships with very little effort, and in a way, not forget about people. I know that if I want to know something my friend Chris knows, I can text, call, e-mail, or Facebook message him. We can have entire conversations covering lots of intellectual ground within a few minutes on an instant messaging platform. But I don’t like him because of his information. I like him because of who he is in person, when I’m sitting in front of him and he’s telling stories, and making people laugh. His electronic communications remind me of his personality, but can’t deliver anything even close to the live performance. Which is probably true of most of our friends.

A couple weeks ago, Slate named Marc Maron’s 2010 WTF interview with his friend Louis CK the Best Podcast Episode Ever. Of all the interviews Maron’s done in the history of the WTF podcast, the Louis CK one stands out because the two men have been friends for more than two decades, and at the time of the show, the friendship had become strained. Neither man was sure where the friendship stood, so in the show, they covered it: who hadn’t called who in years, and why, and why each of them thought they hadn’t heard from the other one in so long.

One of the best things in the entire two-hour episode comes in Maron’s intro (recorded after the interview was done), in which he asks, in his own way, how often we actually talk to each other anymore:

“In relation to this podcast, what I’ve begun to realize about myself, and about all of us, is that I sit down and talk to people here. I have real conversations with people I either know well, or know kind of. But I do usually share some sort of interest with the people, or we’re in the same business, or we’re creative people, or there’s an understanding there.”

“But the fact and the reality of having an hour-long discussion with someone—how the fuck often does that happen in our lives? I mean, when do you sit down and just talk to somebody for an hour? When do you show up? Because when I’m sitting here, all I want to happen is to connect with somebody, emotionally, around things that are important to each of us, and either be funny, or be honest, or be emotional. Just as long as the conversation is authentic, I don’t really care what’s being discussed. Because that is a rare bit of business, and it’s sometimes exhausting—to listen, to engage, to evolve a conversation. … It is really what being human is about, and it’s an important part of being human.”

-Brendan

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10 Comments

  • Well said and timely. I have a standing coffee or lunch with an old friend every month. We’ve both lived all over the world but we’re lucky he works just a city away from me now. I really value just “hanging out” and having good random conversation with him.

  • There’s something minimalist, honest and simple in the art of conversation. It’s integral and necessary, and yet it’s become a lost art in so much of this frantic, over-connected, hyper-stimulated world we live in.

    Thank you for giving Real Conversation a space to be acknowledged. It’s not to late to reclaim quality time with the people who matter- unless we choose to wait until it’s too late.

  • Every single Tuesday morning, I get together for coffee and green juice with 5 guys. We sit around and chat. No phones. No laptops. Nothing but dreaming big together, chatting about spirituality, parenting, and anything else that naturally comes up when good dudes get together to chat about life. We take one trip a year out to Colorado, just to hang out for a few days, and the times I’ve spent with them, fully present, are what keeps me sane in a very very challenging life. Love this post. So much truth in it.

  • I’ve been working on this lately.

    As a therapist in a college town, I work with tons of young folks. Their generation’s reputation as disconnected screen addicts seems undeserved. Wherever I go, I see them in gaggles, actually talking to each other. If they pull out a phone, it’s to tell a friend to get his/her butt down to the cafe and join the hang. Then there’s my friend from high school — some 30 years ago — who lives two hours away but he feels he doesn’t have the time to get together, even if I go there. This confuses me.

    Last week, I realized that I initiate a ton of bike rides every year — but couldn’t remember the last time I called a friend to arrange a hang. I called my best friend in the area (a bike buddy — just sayin’); we meet this Friday night for New Year’s beers, and I’ve been looking forward to it for days.

  • Well, there’s also a dog in between them! A dog always makes things better, including conversations. My dog is never too busy with bullshit to hang out. Never. Maybe that’s why they are so great?

    Love this: “to listen, to engage, to evolve a conversation”

    Great post and ending to this year.

    Thanks!
    Jake

  • Around here all of the decent mountain biking is 30 minutes to an hour of driving each way. Almost every weekend two to four of us spend that drive time talking and joking on the way up and back. I love mountain biking and for me, one of the best parts is the comradery and friendship it provides.

  • Yes we spent too much time socializing in our techno screens. But I am a biker, seeing these two guys and motorcycle besides made me think of summer time when I ride in group. We stop often and it is the occasion to talk to friends in the gang and also getting to know new people every time. Its awesome.

  • Brendan, you just made me really miss my friends.
    The big problem today is that we are all scattered, my friends are everywhere around the globe and no where near me, I do miss them.

    That was a good reminder, maybe it’s time to go see them, or find a way to do so.
    Cheers

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