It pains me to know that while I was ardently taught the art of oration for years and years in school and university, the art of conversation was left way behind. Perhaps it was the omnipresence of the action, the idea that we conversed every day that made it too mundane to be considered a skill to be taught or most importantly a skill that can be learnt. Back in school I looked longingly at my friends who got on the podium to deliver magnificent speeches and today I longingly look at the ones who outmaneuver themselves in the art of conversing.
But maybe all isn’t lost, and for the ones who are a little awkward at conversations like myself, there’s still hope.
For me the most daunting task of starting a conversation is the the ice breaker.
What do I say?
“Hi, I’m Alfa. And I am fond of cats!”
Or maybe not so great. What if the other person is allergic to cats! or even worse what if a cat attacked her/his favorite pet mouse a long long time ago! Ah possibilities!
But if the other person also does love cats, then the conversation might be going somewhere. (Phew, thankfully!).
But well, not all conversations begin that way, and cats are not the second thing I blabber about right after my name. I read it somewhere that a conversation is like making a sandwich. You add an ingredient and then slide it over to the other person, the other then adds something and slides it back to you. As long as the sandwich keeps sliding, the conversation continues.
Leaving sandwiches aside, over the past few months, I have noticed an interesting pattern. And yes it has to do with Harry Potter (I’m known to spread the Harry Potter fandom at work, so well). After getting a little comfortable with people, I usually end up asking, “Have you read/watched Harry Potter?” Sometimes I get asked the same question.
You might have guessed, when the answer is a YES, conversing becomes a lot more easier, just like that. I can somehow take a breath of relief. I know I can add in a little Harry Potter reference to the sandwich to keep it sliding and hopefully the sandwich would come sliding back at me. And more often than not, the sandwich has come sliding back, and then forth.
One time I had to sit down next to a person who I barely knew. I wanted to speak and say more than Hi to settle the awkwardness in the air, but I didn’t know what to say. Out of the blue someone in the side chanted the magic words ‘Harry Potter’ and I immediately asked, ‘Do you like Harry Potter by any chance?’ I was really skeptic to be honest.
‘I’ve watched all the films 5 times,’ was the reply. Totally unexpected. Turns out the other person also liked cats, and we ended up talking about Minereva McGonagall and her transfiguration power. (Spoiler for muggles: McGonagall can transform herself into a cat.)
And just like that a difficult silence turned into an interesting evening of conversations.
Last week I met a few juniors at a program and we sat down after the event for dinner. Being the older one, it was on me to initiate the conversation. I asked them what they liked and three of them said books. Dan Brown was a favorite among them. One was reading Sapiens. We talked about The Da Vinci Code for a while and then I asked about Harry Potter. The girl who was sitting to my left happened to be a big fan. ‘I absolutely love Snape,’ she said. I could sense that she had resented this particular character for a long time before coming to realize his role in the books.
We even had a harmless giggle when we noticed someone in the crowd who we both thought resembled Draco Malfoy (a character from the books). (No harm intended to the person in the crowd!). (I myself was dressed in a long robe, looking like a witch!). The air was already relaxed and I could breathe and continue naturally.
A big chunk of ice breaker had been eased by a literary masterpiece. No wonder they call Harry Potter a work that has touched generations. I am well aware that this does not work all the time. But then again, there’s probably nothing that works all the time.
I have slowly been realizing that these snippets of conversations have been helping me become more confident at initiating and keeping conversations alive. I will eventually have to move out of my comfort zone and into the unknown filled with spontaneity and risk. I hope there will be a day when I will be able to spark a conversation with natural ease even when I do not have magic cues, till then I will have to keep trying to get the magic spell right.