Wednesday, April 11, 2007

conversational style

My mom’s life was so filled with fascinating stories that she could talk all day if the listener did not provide resistance of some sort—she saw her stories as an invitation for a matching story from the other party. Therefore she was absolutely deadly to polite people. Her signal for you to interrupt her stream of tales was a shake of the head and a “but, uh…” If you failed to take advantage of this verbal sparring opening, you’d be pinned to your chair for the next twenty minutes by her next tale.

Scott used to throw her off rhythm by summing up her story with a funny pun or wordplay, and she’d laugh hard enough to give him a breather, to think about what he would like to say or a story he would like to tell, or an interesting question to get that story to go someplace new. She flat-out adored him, and they spent many hours laughing at or about me. (I am Not Easy to Live With, at times, which makes for good story-telling. Thank goodness it’s good for something.)

My husband and I once saw Mom at work on a polite couple for hours, waiting for them to tell a story to interrupt her stream. We were just outside the room, taking in the sun on a warm day and laughing ourselves to tears before sparing them by inviting her for a walk with us. “They are so quiet!” she said, exasperated. “I couldn’t get a word out of them!”

Scott has not yet mastered the interruption-fest of the rest of my family, shouting and guffawing over one another. When an Italian-American friend told me, “in my family, if we don’t interrupt you, that means we’re not listening. Interruption is our way of showing we care. Interruption is participation. If we don’t try to one-up your story, that means you’re not trying hard enough. And if you don’t use hand-gestures, you’re not going to get a word in edgewise.” I nodded enthusiastically. “You don’t have to be Italian for that!” I find the rules of engagement for civil conversation are just brutal on me— waiting politely seems like spectating in a world where I’m accustomed to being one player among many. I’m working at it.

1 comment:

Iris G said...

What a lovely story! I totally agree with your Italian-American friend-- interrupting someone close to you means that you are listening (affectionately)!