The Art of Conversation

“The art of conversation isn’t hard to master

though looking back at each attempt

I see nothing short of small disasters.”

– Jeff Howard, head narwhal

Some of my earliest memories are of my mother hunched over her computer. She existed for most of the time in a dark green room, books literally stacked to the ceiling, paper covering the floor, and dim light casting shadows on her strained face. This room, her study, her happy place. I looked in on her sometimes, curious about what could possibly be so entrancing, but also longing for her to just come out and play. I was fascinated that something should hold her so deeply and wanted something to have that strong of a hold on me.

For my family, creativity was always something private and serious. Both my parents are authors. The constant struggle to express their thoughts took an almost divine precedent over everything else.

I think it was inevitable that I should love to write, too. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been a writer. A lot of my work exhibits a five-year-old’s gently plagiarized fairy tales or a middle-schooler’s melodramatic/butchered dystopian fiction, but I am a writer, nonetheless.

If writing is my passion, speaking is my misery. I struggle to communicate verbally, ironic for someone working at a communication center.

As I grow older, it gets harder to talk. I love the idea of having caffeine-fueled, fast-lipped, eloquent conversations like Rory and Lorelai of Gilmore Girls​, but I can never seem to do it. Even when talking to my own family, I have to labor over my words. I carefully plan out my sentences, but the minute I want to speak they disappear. This makes me very nervous. It’s hard to get your personality or your thoughtfulness across when the words just slip away.

I became aware that talking was arduous for me in the seventh grade. For the first time in my life, I had to write a long persuasive essay and recite it in front of the high-school principal. I remember going into the presentation confident; I had an acceptably mediocre memory, so how hard could this be? During the five-minute ordeal, I became aware of my shaking voice and my sweating hands and my feverish forehead. I didn’t know what was happening. My performance anxiety was usually reserved for things I was terrible at, like acting in school plays. I rushed back to my seat, pink and perspiring. This was the first time I noticed my struggle to speak, and since then, it’s felt like every conversation is a performance.

After this incident, I jumped into writing and stayed far away from speaking. I realized that unlike speaking, writing can be personal and slow. You can spend hours writing just for yourself. If you spent hours speaking to yourself, you’d quickly be carted off for therapy and an analysis of what your parents did wrong.

Writing is safe. It’s not safe in the sense that it’s necessarily relaxing or easy. In fact, I think it’s challenging and stimulating and even scary. It’s safe because it can be edited. There is time to think about all the options, pick the best one, and then visualize the phrase.

When you speak, you have to commit to whatever comes out of your mouth. There’s no going back. There’s no editing to make the words more direct or funny or interesting. For me, the idea of that much commitment to immediacy is terrifying. It’s an issue of too much possibility. There is an impossibly large reserve of phrases for each conversation. Instead of speaking the words on the tip of my tongue, I get caught on the ones that might be more perfect. In those few seconds of hesitation, I lose myself somewhere between that slippery, perfect word and the one I originally had.

As a consultant, I’ve learned to use this speaking anxiety to strengthen the way I write. I think part of my problem is related to the fear that people don’t actually want to hear what I have to say. I assume they must know more about the topic than I do, which is silly. As a result, during CommLab sessions, I make sure to ask the student a lot of questions. I want them to know I’m interested in what they have to say. I ask a lot about what they mean and what they want their reader to know. Even if I think something could probably just use a quick word change, I ask how they want to get the concept across and what tone they want to set. This way, they have time to think about all the implications of their words and how subtle differences affect their reader’s understanding.

Another thing I emphasize is slowness. I think people of the 21st century, and especially people at Georgia Tech, prioritize speed. We value efficiency over reflection and answers over questions. I think writing and speaking are often seen as means to get out information as quickly as possible. They’ve become mechanized. Probably, the feeling that I had to speak perfectly and quickly in front of a room of people was a huge factor in my seventh-grade blunder.

If we treat communication like it’s a machine, we lose its beauty somewhere along the way. It shouldn’t be just another tool to advance the economy, but an art that takes thought, time, and deliberation. Even at Tech, where it’s important for scientists to convey information quickly, it’s equally as important to convey it clearly. It’s calming and helpful to slow down and think through all of the options while recognizing that there isn’t a perfect way to get anything across.

As a liberal arts student working at the CommLab, I love reading work from STEM students. I usually ask them to explain what they’re communicating to me, a non-STEM major, and it forces both of us to slow down and re-examine the concept from an outside perspective.

Working at the CommLab has taught me so much about language. Coming into the center, I thought I would only be somewhat able to help my peers with things like grammar. Now in my third semester here, I’ve spent countless hours talking with my brilliant peers about the mysteries of language. Compassion, not perfection, is the true destination of literacy. Through listening, slowing down, and learning from my fellow students, I’ve become more confident in my own literary skin.