By KATE HUNTER
Gosh I hope this rain clears up soon.
My washing’s been on the line for a week!
Let’s talk about conversation: Primarily, conversation topics. What’s allowed and what’s not. Because the menu seems getting smaller all the time. Sometimes it seems weather is all that’s left.
It struck me last week, driving home from our camping trip, how much I love conversation.
If I had to say I had a hobby, talking with people would be it. It’s my favourite way to spend time. And there’s nothing like a camping trip with other families to get conversation going.
Picture it – four women the same age, but with different jobs, marriages, kids, upbringings and and social networks. We weren’t catching up for coffee – we were effectively living together; eating, drinking, walking, washing up and queuing together for composting toilets.
We did not shut up. Except to listen to each other.
When I think about what we talked of, it was all about people – family, friends, colleagues, politicians, celebrities. A fair part could have been construed as, ‘judgey’ – but is that necessarily a bad thing? And is it anything new?
I imagine our female ancestors used to sit around digging yams, nattering to each other, ‘So, I heard that new family the third cave from the waterhole lets their girls go bison hunting!’
‘Well, it doesn’t surprise me. Have you seen the length of their mother’s deer-hide?’
‘Shocking. She’s asking for trouble. And have you noticed she never gives her kids berries? No wonder they’re so bad-tempered. I wonder if she’s had them assessed …’
Gossip is what we do. I believe we’re hard-wired for it. Men went hunting – which didn’t allow for much conversation, ‘Geez! Man, I really don’t want to hear about how she messed up your cave paintings, I’m trying to spear me a mammoth.”
Women needed to fill in long, boring days and nights. They also needed to create and maintain the networks of family and friends that sustain a family. So they chatted, maybe a bit about the weather, but mainly each other, I’m guessing.
Problem is, nowadays our conversations aren’t confined to a single campfire. And people worry far more about what people think of them. Back in the caves, survival was more important than worrying what some blogger in Brisbane thinks about how they raise their kids.
So many things that were once natural to talk about are now off the conversational menu. Interestingly, sex, politics and religion are more freely talked about than ever before but the stuff that’s really interesting – to me, anyway, is off limits.
For fear of being judged judgy, I often hesitate to ask the following seemingly benign questions when I meet people:
1. “Where do you live?” This is a dangerous question, not to be asked. I don’t want you to think I’m mentally pricing your home.
2. What do you do for work?” Has there ever been a more loaded enquiry? But seriously, I don’t care what you earn or what your qualifications are, I’m just interested in what people do. If you work at home, looking after kids, I’m just as interested as I’d be if you were Chief Justice.
3. “Where do your kids go to school?” This is particularly fraught. And of course it’s not what I’d ask someone I found myself next to on a plane, but if we meet at a barbecue, sure. Why not? I’m not evaluating your choices, I’m just making conversation. Maybe our kids know each other?
4. “Where did you grow up?” Once again, this was once a very natural chitty-chatty question. No more. By asking it, I could be trying to expose your voting preferences, I may be judging your family, religion, education. I fact I’m just curious about, you know, where you grew up.
If you don’t ask these questions, how do you get to know anyone? Make friends? Learn what makes people tick?
I’m genuinely interested in people’s opinions. I enjoy hearing their thoughts – even when they’re critical.
One of my friends recently said it’s outrageous my kids don’t play musical instruments. I told her I can’t be bothered. One more chore. She said they were missing out.
I could have got huffy and told her not to judge me – that I haven’t got the time or money to supervise clarinet practice. But we had a conversation, and it was fun. If I’d said, ‘You know, you’re completely right, I’m calling 1800 CLASSICAL now,’ the whole thing would have been a yawn.
Maybe I’m lucky; I’m rarely offended when someone asks me something. I’m flattered that they’re curious. And grateful they didn’t mention the weather.
What ‘safe’ topics of conversation do you stick with when meeting new people? Is anything off limits?