By David Hegg
There is a growing tendency in our society to engage eagerly in conversations with others so long as we get to be the subject of the discourse. We just love to talk about ourselves. When we hear a good story, we are usually quick to tell a better one; talk about your kids, and I’ll cut you off to tell you about mine … for hours. It seems that self-promotion has become a national hobby.
My wife and I used to play a little game when we went out with people for the first time, or attended a social function where we didn’t know very many people. We went in armed with loads of questions about others, about their families, kids, careers, vacations, hobbies, even ideologies and politics. Then we would count just how many times people asked about our lives, our interests, our ideas. Looking back on it, I admit it wasn’t a very nice game but it did turn up some interesting results. We found out what we thought was probably true. People are more interested in themselves than in others. They sparkled in responding to our inquiries, and many of the answers were quite engaging. We enjoyed hearing about them but in the end the conversations were almost entirely one-sided. We asked and listened, and they talked and talked.
Recently, I was at a social function alone, and knew almost no one. The one guy I did know went out of his way to introduce me to a friend of his that I had long admired but never met. My friend made the introductions, and after a very brief handshake, and a stock greeting, he engaged my friend in a conversation about something entirely foreign to me, and when he was finished expressed his good wishes to my friend and then turned to leave. Three strides away he threw me an over-the-shoulder “nice to meet you” and that was that. I was a non-entity, apparently of no benefit to him and so unworthy of any attempt at even the most common courtesy.
Here’s the great problem: I know that I’ve done that to others hundreds of times, and maybe more since I am convinced that, just like that guy, I don’t realize just how rude I can be. And let me go further: I think many of us are riding the rude train as it picks up speed in our society. We are not just becoming a society devoid of the skill of courteous social interaction, we’re already there.
I’ve heard some theories on the erosion of the life-skill of making pleasant, courteous conversation. One theory is that, with Facebook, email, Twitter, and texting, we’ve forgotten how to talk face to face. Another theory is that we are so tight with our own clan and our circle of friends that we seldom have any face time with strangers, and we’ve lost the ability to engage them with sincerity. There are probably more but I am convinced that these theories taken together are merely a smokescreen behind which we can hide the fact that we’re actually a society that is so self-absorbed that we truly don’t care that much about the other guy’s family, successes, or ideas. Besides, if we take the time to listen, we may not have enough time to fill the conversation with our success, our ideas, our magic.
So, what to do? In my case, I going to redouble my efforts to put into practice something one of my staff guys told me: Love the one in front of you. And here I’m not talking about romance, but rather the common courtesy of being genuinely interested in those you meet. This is a virtue we need to develop and it is usually referred to as generosity. And in this case, it is not the idea of sharing your money so much as sharing your time, and your attention, and granting another human being the gift of value through the way you are genuinely interested in their lives and well-being.
Try it. Be generous. Be the one who asks good questions, and doesn’t try to one-up every story, or see another’s tale as an on-ramp for your own monologue. Be an interested listener. And together, maybe we can slow the train of rude social interaction enough for a bunch of us, and our kids, to get off.
David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church and a Santa Clarita resident.“Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.