Over the past few years I’ve pondered my communication technique. My style. It seems dated, or maybe just a product of the wrong time. But it’s important to talk, to engage with potentially like-minded people around who are looking for something else besides forced group-think unhappiness. They’re out there, and we need to find them.
So talking is important. And I’ve made it my priority over the past couple of years.
But my communication skills need work. And despite my best attempts, I can say the most ordinary things and get the longest stares. Either I’m not understood, or I’m misunderstood, or I’m instantly despised for something I didn’t quite deliver properly. It happens all the time. It might be my hearing, maybe it’s getting revenge from my headphone days. Perhaps I sound too weird when I speak because of my hearing. Not always, just sometimes. I don’t know. I should probably take a class in speaking, or speech writing, or something. But I know it wouldn’t help. They’d still gawk.
Maybe it’s my subject matter, or the delivery. After all, it’s all in the delivery. Right? In any case, I can only get better. And practice is essential.
For example, the other day I was driving around with a carpenter who didn’t mind brandishing his populist viewpoints to me, without even wondering what my views might be. Or if I disagreed. I enjoy working with carpenters, who are truly a unique breed. I’ve never met one that wasn’t living on the edge, literally. Either they just got out of jail, or are waiting for some kind of trial, or had their driving license suspended, or were recently stabbed by an adolescent step-son wielding a steak knife, or were robbed by an ex-girlfriend seeking revenge, or something catastrophic (yes, all true). It’s clearly an action-packed, exciting career choice for most. It’s always fun to make conversation with these guys, and now I take it to a different level when I can.
Anyway, we’re pulling into a parking lot to get some roofing material, and he shifts the conversation from evil Republicans who are too rich and only care about themselves to evil Republicans who steal his favorite parking place. Some other driver had the audacity to pull in front of him and grab the place he declared his own. Only a Republican would have done such a thing, he says. He never asked if I was a Republican. He just felt cheated, denied by the man. Right down to a parking space.
As we’re leaving I try to strike up a conversation, fully aware that it will probably backfire, or I’m thinking he’ll get pulled over for a parole violation before I can make my point. I don’t know this guy that well, but his working-class populism might be a possible opening for New Answers. I’ve been doing most of the listening, so I take a chance. Since he works in construction, I figure that’s a good subject to delve into. So I get into things like work competition, lack of jobs in our area, influx of foreign workers, and stagnant wages. Safe things, I’m thinking. Things that most people in my incredibly depressed part of the economy could understand.
And there it is, the stare.
He seems to get defensive, and says Mexican construction workers are the best thing to happen to America. I didn’t mention Mexico, but he thought it necessary. None of the other stuff I talked about got his attention. I’m starting to sink in the truck seat. Really? I say, pretending to be shock-informed and astonished to hear such a thing. Most people don’t want to do this type of work, hard work, so they’re necessary, he says. This is all from a white, southern carpenter.
I listen carefully, waiting for my opportunity. He stops to catch his breath, and I come back. I shift to the side and ask him how his welding certificate is coming along. Since he likes to talk about himself, he immediately loses the Mexican bit and says he’ll wrap up his studies next week. Great, I say. Certified. So don’t you feel you deserve some recognition? I ask. He’s confused. I tell him that he has a problem with Republicans because he sees them as exploitative, or something sinister. That’s my understanding anyway. So I ask the power question: If a business owner decides to hire a person who isn’t certified over you, are you OK with that?
He mutters that I have a point, and then changes the subject to something else. But I keep at it, carefully. I make the conversation about him. His life, his work. I talk about rules, about procedures that are in place to protect guys like him. But the very people he despises want to sometimes break the rules. And not to help him, because he doesn’t matter. He’s, well, expendable.
He isn’t staring anymore. He’s looking straight ahead while driving, pondering my questions. The technique I use is not to win an argument. It’s to make the other person know I take his livelihood into consideration, to see his side and share. He’s not the enemy. He’s a foot soldier who, despite some misplaced logic concerning Third World labor as a benefit, has a value system that can be tapped into. He doesn’t see the connection between his hatred of the ruling class and their own means of manipulation, which causes conflict for most of us. It’s my job to help him see the connection. Conversation. Style. Understanding.
When you make the conversation about someone else, without a message to destroy their point of view, they tend to listen more.
In another situation I’m at a conference. In my field of work, conferences crop up from time to time. We go. We sit. We pray for it all to end. We share bedrooms with other insecure humans. So I’m sitting alone down in the lobby of some standardized hotel in front of a TV when a colleague joins me. He’s a face from work. I know him, but I don’t really know him. He’s someone to say “hello” to on the way to the drink machine. The distance keepers protocol is generally sacred.
For some reason, perhaps sheer boredom, I take the remote and change the channel to FOX News. I don’t see the point of listening much to Republican cheerleaders, but it passes the time waiting for non-threatening small talk from a younger guy at work. A story comes up about Obama, and I’m already ready to leave when my TV couch friend makes the first move. I loathe Obama, he says. I immediately perk up, stunned by a revelation from someone who has barely uttered three sentences to me since last year. He begins his analysis of America’s problems, surprisingly refreshing from a co-worker I assumed was in the feel-good lib crowd. He tells me he doesn’t know much about politics, and isn’t really all that tuned-in. He asks if I’m a Democrat, and I politely respond no. He asks if I’m a Republican. Again I say no. As we watch Bill O’Reilly blab his neo-con talking points, my companion then asks me who the guy on TV is and what channel we are watching.
Now, when I have a moment to indulge in conservative media, which can often be informative and slightly entertaining, I usually drift away into an entirely different line of thought. I’m just not there. I’m thinking about secession, Gregory Hood’s last article, military leaders who might be on our side and stage a coup, Mitch McConnell’s gloating, preserving western civilization, demographic displacement, how a movie like A Day Without a White Guy might go over, a new Homeland, an edgy reality show for hipsters forced to live in Detroit for a week, the anti-EU European Right, and on and on and on. Stuff like that. Lots more stuff.
And my young, white, post-millennial interlocutor has no idea what FOX News represents.
There are certain things I just take for granted. Maybe it’s my private bubble, but knowing about neo-conservatives vs. the Democrat media complex is just something I believe most thinking people should be aware of. I feel like a college professor teaching a course in the mysteries of the universe with a student who has trouble with subtraction. Where do you start?
OK, OK. I’m wrong.
So I switch to my technique, and make the conversation about him. This isn’t a problem, as he has already made himself the subject of the talk. He tells me he hates his job, his boss, etc. I listen. He complains about the work, and how he is looking for something else. He even comments that being white puts him at a disadvantage. Coming from a young guy, this is profound. I’m overwhelmed by his candid outpouring. Remember, we haven’t really talked to each other at work. I ask if he’s considered relocating to the northwest, Idaho maybe. Whenever I have a conversation with a fairly young person, the northwest is a point I try to make. He says he doesn’t know much about the area.
Then I ask The Question: In fifty years, China will still be China, and Russia will most likely still be Russia. What about America? What will we look like? I ask. He’s a little taken aback, but then responds much the way we do — it’ll be a disaster. It already is, I’m thinking. The Next Question: Then why are we letting it happen?
Again I stick to safe subjects, at least I think they’re safe. Things like “America is too big,” A “breakup” might be a good idea. “Self-determination” isn’t about hate,” and more. He nods, probably lost that I linked his workplace discontent with nationalist politics. But what I do is link it to everything now.
So what’s the point of all this? As I stated, communication is obviously important. Engaging people can lead to big surprises.
I make it my routine to discuss things. To talk. I’m coming out of the closet. What I have noticed is that people can be open to new ways of thinking, actually. Make the conversation real, bring it down to a mutual understanding. It’s not about insincerity, or some kind of cover, but about transforming inner anxiety to a new power. A new consciousness.
Just talk. It’s natural. It’s good for you. And remember, it’s all in the delivery.