‘What to Talk About’ Proposes to Tell Readers Just That

In the Magazine
Help for those horrified by the prospect of making conversation Chronicle Books

Tech got your tongue? Have those little moments—waiting for the bus, the elevator, the train, a friend—when your thoughts disappear into the glowing phone in your hand? In What to Talk About (Chronicle Books), journalist Chris Colin and comedy writer Rob Baedeker tackle the lost art of conversation. Part instruction manual, part commentary on our chat-challenged culture, their book is meant to serve as a gentle on-ramp to making connections—a conversation starter, so to speak, says Colin, who took some time to, well, talk to us.

What’s so great about conversation?

It’s an opportunity! It only happens once. Going to a party, going on a date, sitting next to someone on an airplane. Given how open-ended conversation is, like life, you want to be bold in your talking. It’s better to risk saying something a little strange than to always have the same conversation you always do. Even getting someone’s name wrong gives you something to talk about.

Why do we need a book called What to Talk About?

We did it for all of us who panic in the dairy aisle when we run into a neighbor with whom we need to make small talk. But we also did it to encourage deeper conversation. We all feel technology affecting our brains—we found through our research that it’s generally distracting but also affecting conversation in specific ways. All the interstices of life are jammed with getting information instead of thought. If you’re not having new thoughts periodically, you’re just going to be rehearsing the same old routines you always have when you talk to someone.

Tell us about your conversation interventions.

If you put on a lab coat and carry a clipboard, you can walk into any situation and talk to anyone. We started going into bars in expert mode: “Thank you so much for inviting us here. We’re glad to help. How is your conversation going so far? How could it be improved? What were you hoping for?” It’s not hard to get people to talk about talking. Conversation is arguably one of your most important skills. It gets you love. It gets you a job. It gets you friends. And yet we’re all just sort of groping around.

What if you hate small talk?

There’s nothing wrong with small talk if you use it wisely. First of all, everyone’s terrified. We’re afraid of looking dumb. One technique that helps is: Admit how little you know about the world: “What the hell is thunder, anyway? Can you explain it?” Questions like that can be disarming, and that’s a prerequisite for having a really good conversation.

What about my partner of 15 years? We have the same conversation every day.

Push yourselves out of your comfort zone: The next time you’re at dinner, instead of talking about your kid’s teacher, try staring at each other for 15 seconds without saying anything or smiling. It’s destabilizing. We don’t do it very often. And then it’s just weird. But weird is good. It’s material for a future conversation.

What should be my one takeaway from this conversation we’re having right now?

All you need is the pretense of a reason to start a conversation. Life is short. Which is why you should be bold in your conversation.

How do I end this conversation?

“It was so nice talking to you.”

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