I recently attended a delightful brunch as a follow-up to an annual national club’s 4 – 7 day convention (this being my 18th year of attending, and now as a member who is also able to stay for both sessions, all seven days – yea!). The brunch location at the fellow’s home is tasteful and interesting (he’s a college professor) and has a kitchen that most TV cooking shows would be envious of (and he uses it, too – very well indeed!). It was a treat to be invited, again, as well as an appreciative opportunity to socialize ‘after the fact’ of having spent either 4 or 7 days enjoying the conventions many activities combined with fine 24/7 socializing. Some of the best individuals in the world attend (500+ this year from seven countries). And, they have workshops, to teach and mentor each other, too.

As I’m seeing, and hearing increasingly from my counseling clients and workshop attendants, the guests of this brunch of around two dozen fell into two distinct categories – younger and older. Informally both categories readily volunteered and then agreed that most of the current ‘leadership’ in our social communities isn’t working very well (with ‘splinterings’ of groups still continuing to crop up as ‘drama’ motivates individuals to go off and create their own ‘new’ groups… ‘dysfunctional family dynamics’, as I’ve observed and written about during my four decades of involvement?!?).

I met two new people and we began a casual conversation. It quickly changed into the one giving me ALL the details of his 22 year struggle with his prostrate (including other organs involved and several significant surgeries). I was impressed that this man could comfortably discuss what is usually a ‘forbidden topic’ (recalling not too many years ago when they had TV shows about men saying they’d rather die that even have a simple prostrate exam!). Fortunately, he is now doing quite well. As he was finishing up, the delicious brunch was served and the conversation was briefly interrupted. Upon sitting down his partner began talking about being in emergency medicine, and the management issues he finds himself currently embroiled in (again, in great detail, including statistical data to illustrate how difficult, yet common his situation is, and how often he was ‘right’). Both tried, at various points, to shift the conversation back to the recent convention and the focus of the brunch (without much success on either’s part – humor). While they did not know my profession was counseling, they both clearly had a need to detail their histories, and I decided to politely listen… a ‘bus man’s holiday’ – humor. The people I mentioned were clearly not doing it out of a sense of drama, but it was a one-sided monologue to an audience of one – me.

I see MANY people ‘in need’ of talking about their personal stress and crisis in their lives these days, both past and present. It is important these individuals have the opportunities they need, and be supported as they seek out either resolution (best case) or at least support and validation they are not alone in their struggles. This is where a sense of ‘community’ or ‘family of choice’ can indeed help a great deal! Families, in find, are all too often not that supportive, and get-togethers end up being ‘cocktail conversations’ at best – humor. I recommend people seek out personal sharing events, support groups, and use them often (IF they exist and can be found in a nearby location, as they are tragically still too often hard to find). I had this exact discussion following a video taping, over the weekend, participating as a ‘professional’ in a panel discussion on mental health.

HOWEVER, I would suggest people would do well to remind themselves of the anticipated intent of an event, and whether such ‘personal revelations’ are what the other participants are expecting and will probably enjoy. As I’ve previously written, drama (of all varieties seeking attention) are still very engaging, possibly entertaining, and can feel even ‘addictive’. This is about sharing ideas and/or information, versus competing to ‘win’ the conversation (‘drama addiction’), or trying to out-do the other person (‘I can top that…’). I propose these individuals have missed the point of pleasant conversation. The idea is to find ‘connections’ rather than having an ulterior motive – hopefully. Again, is this the intent of the activities the host and guests had in mind? ‘Successful’ brunch, probably yes, but how satisfying as well as possibly memorable??? This is, perhaps, why I stopped enjoying cocktail parties and nights out at the bars some years ago. I now try to find an individual or two I can have engaging conversations with (often to the point others later comment they didn’t know I was even at an event, they assuming I’m ‘hiding out’ in a kitchen or quiet corner or hallway). I’ve learned how to attempt to put life on my terms, including how I spend MY ‘free time’, being ‘present’ and ‘in the moment’. There is no ‘judgement’ of others and their needs or wants intended…

I have discovered ‘GOOD CONVERSATION’ is an art, and it can get better with some slightly skilled practice. It doesn’t have to be like I remember reading about in the ’70’s where people were instructed to subscribe to a good weekly news magazine in order to have a ‘valid viewpoint’. Today, with our instant media, we can all be informed on at least a few areas that could make for good conversation ‘exchanges’. Groups, such as Toast Masters or a Dale Carnegie program can help (the former being a ‘generic’ and not costly form of the Carnegie programs).

As a client pointed out to their spouse just the other day, people hear each other talking but are the listening to what the other person is saying? Do we understand what the speaker means and is it relevant to the conversation we want? Casual, or deep, conversations are exactly that – ‘conversing’. Exchanging words for each other’s interest, support or betterment, hopefully. Otherwise, perhaps, we are simply looking for an audience to affirm our inner thoughts? Some call this ‘venting’. That can be valid, too, IF both agree (but how often is the other party given this proposal and opportunity to agree???). Men are infamous at ‘tuning out’ their spouses – humor.

I prefer the upfront approach of asking a person if a topic is of interest to them, then proceed for a short while. I’ll then ask if they understand my point, does it make sense and is it helpful, and what do they think of it. This not only gives me feedback as to their being ‘willing, able AND WANTING’ to engage further, or whether I’m not in sync with what they expected or had hoped for. AND, it gives them the opportunity to take a turn at ‘discussing’ the topic, or not. Taking short periodic turns is very important!

I find it certainly acceptable for a person to decline and either offer a new topic, or politely move on (without having to find an all too often excuse to leave… for example ‘needing to refresh a drink’ or use the restroom). This doesn’t give the other person any cues/clue as to why they are not engaging people and even possibly why they are not having better success at making friends. Again, they may have an entertaining style, but is it lasting and building towards something beyond ‘casual cocktail conversation’. I recall being in a new bar, and after listening to someone talk ‘at me’ for quite a while, appreciated what they shared, excused myself to ‘visit some friends’ and promptly walked towards a mirrored wall… the bar didn’t extend that way, and I had to awkwardly walk back by the people I had just walked away from. Sometimes the world, and ‘life’, can indeed be a small place (and we need effective coping skills – humor). We can all learn from our experiences, and it does get easier with practice, practice, and more practice!

I’d also suggest resources like the monthly magazine, “Town & Country” and its regular column, “Manners & Misdemeanors”. While written for the the very wealthy (who have both town and country homes), this century old magazine’s column is upbeat and offers humorous ways of presenting the need for reinventing ‘civility’ in America (no matter our level of economics – again, humor).

As I mentioned, the brunch was a mixed crowd of younger and older individuals. It was interesting to see how little time it took for the individuals to divide themselves by appearance of age and assumed areas of mutual interest (including the styles of clothes worn).

I would suggest both ‘age groups’ would do better if they asked themselves about the first impressions they give. I’ve actually heard younger individuals state they can’t stand their own age group due to their ‘flighty’ or ‘flaky’ behaviors and attitudes. I’ve also heard younger people talk about older men all being ‘dirty old men’ who are always hitting on the youth (especially women, and especially as the media is full of the exploits, old and current, of men who have sexually abused and assaulted women). When I first began socializing in places such as bars, ‘older men’ were defined as anyone in the mid-30‘s and beyond. Now, as the Baby Boomer generation ages, we fortunately are not accepting this ‘age of invisibility’ in our now ‘prime years’, but it often is still present to painful degrees. Perhaps, with some understanding and clarification of what we want to appreciate about another individual (not a stereotypical ‘standard’ of expectation – are they ‘hot’ or ‘cool’), we could all learn to get along and maybe even appreciate our ‘diversity’!?! We have much more in common than our perceived differences! I’ve heard these discussions come to this same conclusion for decades, yet we still resort/cling to our ‘social standards’ promoted by Madison Avenue consumerism (and increasingly from our current government’s ‘fear tactics’ of divide and conquer).

As I said, I’ve attended various workshop discussions on this topic and related aspects of discontent for decades, and both ‘sides’ (whatever the ‘new’ divisive issue) don’t seem to know what to do to ‘get along’. This, of course, has risen to become a HUGE American social issue and continues to rear its ugly head (again, most recently about sexual stalkers, predators, and especially sexual abusers). As tragic as this current sexually related topic is (actually it’s about ‘power and control’), and is decades old in public discourse, at least it is being talked about, again (and again and again…), until our society begins to take an effective stand on the many important aspects of this topic! The tragic statistics continue… and society continues to condone and enable such actions (even the current Secretary of Education just dismissed a long list of acts that had recently assisted those who’ve been abused, to supposedly prevent wrongful accusations, but more likely creating additional fears among the abused to stay quiet… it’s not safe to talk, again, being the implied message?!?).

Briefly, for your consideration, I would suggest this idea. Perhaps, in meeting someone, our ‘first impressions’ either attract or repel us (all or nothing thinking). IF we do not consider further ‘options’ for getting to know someone, we’ll leave feeling ‘safe’ from whatever concerns we might have had (or relief from our own performance anxieties), but we may also miss an opportunity for perhaps some meaningful conversation. By assuming a person is like someone from our past (or we have been warned about… for example, ‘dirty old men’) we then see them as this singular ‘trait’ and look no further. We then do not consider that a person’s ‘diversity’ of offerings, and may ‘discriminate’ in judging them uninteresting or not worthwhile or possibly dangerous??? We, of course, need to feel ‘safe’ and that is an imperative!!! And, society needs to publicly discuss what is ‘appropriate’ so we have civil ‘standards’ to compare/contrast with, as well as effective ‘coping mechanisms’! Do we need to do this in a social setting of ‘mixed company’, too? Is it always and only about safety??? Perhaps, with a little self-awareness, we can learn how not to act ‘too immature’ for the youthful or not be ‘a dirty old man on the prowl’, either. What IS socially responsible behavior?!?

I recall meeting someone some years ago in a local bar. Upon being introduced they rather bluntly exclaimed, “You can talk, too!?!” After a moment of uncertainty of what they might be talking about, I decided they were giving me the compliment of being considered one of those ‘all brawn and no brains’ individuals, which is generally considered ‘sexy’ – humor (after I let it sink in – beauty is in the eyes of the beholder, after all). I’ve also had people say they’ve been fearful of speaking to me for up to four years, due to my appearance (again, an ‘off-handed compliment’ during a casual introduction, which prevented some then delightful conversations from occurring for years).

I believe we could even be ‘so bold’ as to express our concern(s) upfront, if it helps us feel safer and perhaps more comfortable. Then, the ‘facts’ will either set the other potential conversationalist free, or hang them… our choice. I’ve met some amazing (and impressive) individuals as I’ve learned to overcome my own ‘shyness’ and assertively give the other person a chance… Many people are actually quite friendly when approached with a friendly “Hello!”.

Back to the problems of communication, to further complicate our declining levels, consider that as more people spend more and more time texting, tweeting and all the new forms of non-verbal communication that will come along, these are less time people are ‘practicing the fine art of communication’. I fear for the younger generation who’ve had computers and smart phones all their lives. Just as they are not taught ‘cursive writing’ any longer, I fear this will happen to increasing degrees for verbal communication, too. Perhaps, our experiences with unruly sales people (no matter how fancy a title they put on their name tags) are a foreboding of our future in general??? I find online ‘conversations’ frustrating since people have their own levels of response frequency, and it may be hours, days or even weeks between comments – humor!?! Also, I do not consider a teenager’s loud “WHAT!?!” to be ‘communicating’, but more likely the start of a dysfunctional family ‘power and control struggle’ – humor or warning??? As adults we could attempt to role model and set ‘standards’ or boundaries of what is ‘civil’ in our households, workplaces and even social events… Relaxing around friends doesn’t need to include rudeness or neglect, too – again, humor!

So, whether men or women, young or older, relatively ‘normal’ and healthy or ‘differently abled’, and from varied backgrounds and lifestyles, we have SO much more in common to share and enjoy IF we’ll only give one another a chance… Communicating is the key that can unlock that gate to let the visitors into our world, for at least a visit or two, and see where we’d like it to go.

Contributed by

Dale Ross

Therapist, Counselor and Educator
As a professional counselor/therapist, public speaker and writer on men’s issues since the early ’80’s, Dale has lived through many of the situations and issues with which …

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