What do you consider a safe yet intriguing topic for conversation? Does such a thing still exist? We seem to be living in a world so fraught, so divided, so tense and so eager to engage in belligerence instead of banter that we have more or less forfeited our willingness to address with respect and civility those whose opinions oppose ours.
These days, discussing previously acceptable subjects such as the weather or health can lead to fistfights. A comment about the rain in Spain can turn into a fierce argument over the existence of climate change; an offhand remark about a child’s cold can lead to name-calling over the anti-vaccine movement.
This can lead to bad behavior. For example, have you ever worried so much about the person who might be seated next to you at a meal that you’ve sneaked into the dining room before anyone else, looked at the name cards and then changed them? No, of course not, and neither have I, not on a regular basis. But c’mon, haven’t you been tempted?
If you know that you’re going to spend three hours sitting next to a woman who holds views so conservative she makes Sarah Palin sound like Gloria Steinem, or a guy so evangelical about clean eating that he exists solely on air ferns, sticking with the assigned seating chart is a tough thing to swallow.
But because we need to exist in the world as social animals, what neutral conversational territories - if any - can we approach without trepidation?
I asked my friends about their go-to topics and I was warned more often than I was reassured. My lovely niece Anne Barreca, director of the Battery Park City Library in New York City, said that discussing her job is off-limits because “Public librarianship is not a neutral career in terms of our stance on inclusiveness and diversity.” Who knew?
This explains why most people insisted we talk about five things and five things only: children, grandchildren, pets, sports and gardening.
It turns out that I’m in trouble. Although I have stepchildren, I’ve never given birth. For some folks, that knocks me out in the first round. There are no grandchildren. I like my cats but I’m not terribly interested in yours, and cats are the only pets I like. I’d have a better chance at winning “Jeopardy!” if the category were particle physics rather than sports because I believe particle physics matter. Gardening? I don’t even go out outside. My husband keeps making the deck larger so that I’ll venture farther out into the yard.
How about discussing “Star Wars?” Doesn’t everybody like “Star Wars?” Isn’t that safe? Apparently not. My friend Tim Ruggieri declared the new film to be intensely political, with the “Empire run by British aristocrats who are happy to blow up a city to make a point.” Never mind.
Here’s how I like to encourage genuine conversation without risking what my friend Ed Culver calls “weaponized glances” from others: Ask people about their worst times. I’m not kidding. Ask the people sitting next to you about the worst grade they ever got, the worst meal they ever cooked, the worst outfit they ever wore, the worst song they ever loved. Most of the stories will end up being funny (although there’s always a risk that someone was taken hostage while listening to a bad song and cooking a bad meal).
Our worst moments often transform themselves into our best stories because we shape them and re-create them as we form the incident into a narrative. Comics know that time plus pain equals humor and that we can redeem even awful moments from the past by translating them into a shared experience. Remember, much depends on being generous enough to others to keep our stories light.
Or ask someone how she learned to ride a bike, cook an egg, tie her shoelaces, memorize her first line from a school play. You’ll learn something significant about a life.
This season is supposed to focus on redemption, and redemption is not just about getting your money back by returning a gift. Real gifts can’t be returned, anyway. Real gifts are singular and arrive precisely when you need them.
Great moments of conversation can be those gifts.
Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut and the author of “If You Lean In, Will Men Just Look Down Your Blouse?” and eight other books. She can be reached at www.ginabarreca.com