When you don’t leave your house for days on end, it can be challenging to be a dazzling conversationalist when friends and family call. Anytime someone asks me what’s new lately, my mind goes blank. Looking around for inspiration, I usually mumble something about the weather. There’s also a lot of heavy sighing on my end, which isn’t particularly entertaining for the other person.
It’s hard to strike an equilibrium in conversation if you’re feeling overwhelmed, unhappy and drained. “Some may be struggling to have positive conversations because the world is dark,” said Alison Wood Brooks, an associate professor of business administration at Harvard Business School. “Others are struggling with conversational fatigue as they manage crowded households. Still others wish they could have more conversations as they combat profound loneliness.”
Even though there’s plenty we can’t control right now, there are things we can control when it comes to the conversations we’re having. We can pick what things we read and listen to so we have fodder to comment on. We also control the attention we bring to the conversation. We can listen deeply and ask follow-up questions.
We can also choose who we communicate with.
“Try to choose to talk to the people that bring you joy,” Dr. Brooks said. “Think about how you feel during and after your conversations.” If someone consistently drags you down, “you may be better off interacting with others for now.”
Finally, we are in charge of our attitude about this situation, too. We can crack jokes and be silly. Research suggests that humor is an excellent coping mechanism that helps distract — and heal — from negative news. So, Dr. Brooks said, try to make people laugh. And don’t forget to laugh at yourself! “Even if you must discuss serious topics, the whole interaction isn’t required to be serious, dreadful or dark,” she said. “You’re allowed to cry and smile at the same time.”
With these basic principles in mind, here’s how to keep conversations interesting when life is feeling drab:
Do a little homework. In Dr. Brooks’s research, she found that jotting down one to three topic ideas before the conversation starts lowers anxiety during the conversation and increases the enjoyment of the interaction. “Even just thinking about one or two ideas in the 20 seconds before a conversation seems to help,” she said.
Start the conversation off on the right foot. When people ask Debra Fine, author of “The Fine Art of Small Talk,” how she’s holding up, she responds with something lighthearted but real: “I haven’t reinvented myself yet!” Or, “I have one more episode of Ozark to watch. I can’t wait.”
“This gives others a factoid or topic to keep the conversation going,” she said.
Ms. Fine also starts conversations by saying things like:
- How are you entertaining yourself?
- What is your favorite quarantine outfit?
- Tell me about your best meal so far.
Avoid one-upping each other. Yes, things are hard for both of you, and it might feel like you’re sympathizing — I hear you! Life is hard for me, too! — but it makes the other person feel dismissed. So, don’t do this:
First friend: “Ugh, I’ve been in Zoom meetings all day. I am completely drained.”
Second friend: “You think that’s bad? At the end of my work day, I need to entertain and feed two teenagers.”
First friend: “I am feeling claustrophobic now that parks and trails have been closed.”
Second friend: “Try living in a one-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn.”
Instead, Ms. Fine said, we should listen and offer empathetic responses. Say things like, “That does sound draining,” “I feel for you” and, “What’s worked for you when managing stress like this?”
Ask about the day-to-day business. Sherry Turkle likes it when people ask her what she’s been up to, as she is engaged in interesting work at the moment. The M.I.T. professor and author of “Reclaiming Conversation: The Power of Talk in a Digital Age” wants to talk about everything she’s been doing to adjust in this new normal. “Similarly,” she said, “my quarantine-mates are doing the most fascinating work in business, finance, strategy and thinking about the future of human resources, hiring and marketing.” With them, she says, getting into the nitty-gritty of their lives is the best talk. It’s “endlessly interesting.”
It’s also important to be sensitive to those who have been furloughed or are out of work for the foreseeable future. If your friend seems open to talking about what the world may look like once restrictions are lifted, follow their lead. “Together you may actually have interesting ideas about how their skills will fit,” Professor Turkle said. Make sure the person who is out of work feels supported, whether they want to address their work concerns at this time or not.
Keep the conversation balanced. There has to be give and take. Avoid constantly bringing the focus back to yourself, a habit many people may not even realize they have. This tendency annoys conversation partners, who then “leave the conversation feeling tired and like you weren’t interested in them,” Dr. Brooks said.
Find a way to make unexciting things exciting. Marvel at the absurdity you’re finding in everyday life. R. Eric Thomas, a senior editor of Elle.com and author of “Here For It: Or How to Save Your Soul In America,” loves hearing about the most mundane trivia when he connects with his people. “You would be surprised how interested I am in hearing about what my friends are putting on their toast in quarantine,” he said. “Tell me more about your life and less about the uncertainty of the future.”
Talk about what you’re reading, watching and making. Mr. Thomas has had success getting people gabbing by commenting on pop culture: books, television shows and movies, and music. People also love lingering on nostalgia. He recommends asking friends:
- Who is your favorite Disney princess?
- What is the first film you remember seeing in a theater?
- What TV show episodes do you always rewatch?
- What music never fails to get you in a good mood?
“We are surrounded by a world of mood-lighteners, and sometimes it’s a welcome respite to revisit them,” he said.
You can also share your silliest pet stories, too. Has your dog been barking up a storm while you’re on conference calls? Is your cat chewing on your prized stash of toilet paper? Talk about it!
Be honest. If you’re feeling like you’re not in a place to hold a conversation, you can let the other person know. Sometimes, Mr. Thomas said, it’s OK to just be present and not engage. Or, it’s OK to say, “I’m having a hard time finding positivity right now.”
“In fact,” he said, “it may free others up to be honest about the ways that they feel, too.”