Discover more from Thicket Forte
5 tips for how to have great conversations!!!
Uplevel your conversation game!!!
One. I had to learn how to look at people while talking to them. I grew up largely avoiding it out of a vague sense that it was too intimate a thing to do without permission. To see too much of a person’s skin, to notice the wrinkles in their baggy shirts that don’t fit, to wonder how a person who is 40 could look 30 or vice versa, to admire the curves of their limbs but hopefully not in a creepy way, to silently thank God for the occasional tantalizing hints of bra - was I allowed? Was any of that meant for me to see? When I came to America at the age of six I was ambushed by many invisible rules - what were the rules for what parts of a person I was allowed to look at?
How close to her breasts was I allowed to rest my eyes? Did it depend on how low the neckline of her dress went? Wasn’t I told by online feminists about the “male gaze”? Wasn’t I told that for me, in my maleness, to look at a woman was to hurt them? I definitely couldn’t look at women, I decided as a teenager, especially not at their breasts, unless I was dating them or they were porn stars.
A decade later, as a frustrated adult struggling to dig myself out from under the wreckage of a relationship with a woman who admitted that she had been trying to force herself to be attracted to me and had failed, I paid thousands of dollars to attend a workshop that claimed to teach men how to talk to women. On the last day I was participating in an exercise with a woman in a light turquoise dress who I found so beautiful I could barely stand it, and I was prompted by a facilitator to tell her something I liked about her appearance and how I felt about it. I told her, as honestly as I could manage, that I liked her neck, her shoulders, and her collarbones, and that I wanted to stroke her cheek and worship her; I hoped this would not brand me as a predator. Her whole body flushed and shuddered with pleasure, and she told me shyly and giddily that no one had ever complimented her on her collarbones before and that I had her wanting to touch herself.
Two. There’s a way of talking to people without talking to them, a way of talking to the air, to yourself, to the memory of your ex from five years ago. You can carry out an entire argument for a solid hour without once taking in the presence of the other people in the room, and those people will spend the whole time wishing they were on their phones instead, except for the one guy who’s doing the same thing back at you. There’s a kind of sex that amounts to masturbation using another person as a dildo, and there’s a kind of conversation like that too.
If you ever want to find out how scared you are of taking in the presence of other people, try making silent eye contact with someone for five minutes. One minute is survivable but five minutes for shockingly many people is torture. Some of you may find that the other person’s face takes up so much of your attention that you can’t think, that without being able to deploy words like squid ink there is only the stark agony and terror of not knowing what to do in the presence of the other, of being the wrong sort of person making the wrong sort of face, of looking into another person’s eyes and finding only blank incomprehension where you were hoping to find love, or of finding so much love that it overwhelms the hardness in you and you start to cry and worry you might never stop.
The good news is that if you keep going the agony and terror gives way to relief as you realize there’s really nothing you can do to improve the experience other than to just be there. As the two of you relax into the moment, a little resonance of kindness and openness can build into a whole-face luxurious smile on both your faces that fades slowly if at all, which is not and will never be meant for a camera, and it’s like when a dog comes up to you and licks you on the face but even better. You suddenly remember that humans are animals too, that watching a human could be as comforting as watching a cow getting brushed.
Three. Get another person talking in any way at all and suddenly you have an entire universe to explore. What’s going on with their face as they talk? Their body? Do they seem bored? Excited? Are they as afraid of you as you are of them? Why did their lips twitch just now? When they finished talking and the silence hung in the air for a second or two why did they smile and then completely blank their face?
Where did they get that scar? Is that a tattoo or a birthmark or both? Why did they grin just now like a little kid who got caught stealing a cookie from the cookie jar?
When they kissed someone for the first time did they think it was going to last forever? Where do they like to be touched? Why did they look sad when you asked them where they like to be touched? What do they want you to whisper into their ear as you bite their earlobe? How does that dress they’re wearing feel against their body? Would they like you to take it off?
What will your children look like? Will they be proud of you?
Four. I spent most of the last two years indoors glued to the screens, rarely bothering to go outside except to walk a few blocks to the local Chipotle, put on my mask, and order a carnitas burrito bowl with “a little extra carnitas” so I could idly track how much carnitas they gave me and what price they charged me for it. I was charged four different prices ranging from $7 to $13, and it was a good day if I managed to score the $7.
Much of the rest of the time I spent on Twitter and playing mobile games, the kind where you collect anime girls like Pokemon even though it is physically impossible for any of them to have sex with you or even give you a hug and kiss you on the forehead. The worst addicts spend thousands of dollars chasing their dream girls but I’m happy to report I limited my spending to a bit over a hundred, which I consider more or less fair value, then quit. I will likely never play them again but I will miss the sweet faces of the girls, their giant swords and/or guns, and their irrepressible cheer in the face of the end of the world.
I didn’t get along well with my roommates, who regrettably appeared to be about as depressed and anxious as I was, but the prospect of finding another place to live and navigating a new set of pandemic preferences was overwhelming, so I simply went months not having a substantive interaction with another person except for the occasional Twitter conversation making fun of deep-sea creatures or handful of texts with girls who lived thousands of miles away who were not attracted to me. Initially it seemed only about as bad as the isolation I imposed on myself during grad school, mostly holed up in my bedroom doing math but not the math I was supposed to be doing and finding new and exciting forms of porn to masturbate to, but eventually it became clearly worse. Even in grad school I would still attend a math department Christmas party or a rationality workshop every few months, and that slow drip of social nourishment, of occasionally getting to be around other human bodies and having an okay time discussing Floer homology or the merits of the paleo diet or which of the many threats to humanity’s future would off us first, sustained me like an occasional dose of vitamin C sustains a sailor. As the months dragged on with no such reprieve and time lost all meaning, and the air became poisonous for two reasons then gradually went back to being poisonous for only one reason, I wondered if I was developing a kind of scurvy of the soul, if future psychologist-historians would study with fascinated horror the unique deficiency diseases of the spirit that I and everyone else I knew appeared to be developing in These Unprecedented Times.
I would try to describe how it felt but one of the symptoms is that I largely stopped paying attention to how I felt. One thing I do remember is that when I stopped talking to my friends for longer and longer periods of time they became less and less real to me. Eventually I found myself drifting without noticing into a dreamworld where I could believe that I had no friends at all, that my memories of my friends were fantasies from a more naive time, that I was born into this bedroom with no space for a desk where the blinds were unspeakably dusty and the books on the bookshelves were not mine and the screens were my only comfort, that perhaps I would die there alone, my lungs filling with fluid because the wrong person coughed on me at Chipotle.
I didn’t know what else to do but wait. The greatest kindness that the screens could offer me during this time was to act as a makeshift cryonic chamber powered by the comfortable numbness of pixels, to suspend my tired and bruised heart until the nebulous future time when I hoped civilization would finally advance enough to be capable of bringing me back to life and curing me.
Five. And then somehow it happened. I had not been around more than ten people at a time in two years and somehow it still felt perfectly normal for four hundred of us from Twitter to descend onto a campground an hour outside Austin like starving people descending on a feast. It felt perfectly normal to be surrounded by people who recognized me on sight and waved and smiled as I walked up to them. It felt perfectly normal to talk to people I had known for years, people I had known for years but only from Twitter, and people I didn’t know but felt kinship with after thirty seconds, about the somatics of patriotism, the human drama of intergenerational trauma, the ethics of treating people so warmly they accidentally fall in love with you, dancing as a descent into the underworld, the unimportance of ontological commitments in practical magic, the supreme power of the sun - it felt perfectly normal to spend every day talking so much that my throat got sore and I needed cough drops and I still wanted more.
I won’t say it was like coming home. Home is not a warm word for me. But I remembered that once upon a time at a makeshift monastery in the Berkeley hills I briefly became obsessed with the lyric “love lifts us up where we belong.” As I kept singing it it became
love is where we belong
which can be read in at least three different ways, all of which I believe to be true. I was thinking about this moment while listening with the crowd to the song my friend Malcolm wrote to close out the weekend, which he and another friend Jess had taught an entire group of us, the chorus of which went
I will be in love
I will be right here in love
so when you are also in love
I will be in love with you.
Conversation can be coming together to find a place to belong, and giving birth to something new there.
It’s okay if you forget to like and subscribe.