No matter how much you love to talk, conversation can be difficult, and every conversation, in person or online, has the potential to turn ugly or needlessly confrontational or boring or painful and so on. It’s for this reason that I keep handy a collection of conversational shortcuts, to help me know what to say when I don’t know what to say.
When someone expresses their loathing for something that I love: “Oh, well. More for me!” (Stephen Colbert on why he doesn’t proselytize: “Hey, more Jesus for me.”)
When someone criticizes me and telling them to go to hell isn’t prudent: “You may be right.” (This stolen from Jerry Saltz, who says, “It has a nice double edge that the person often never feels and that gives pleasure.”)
When someone gives me a compliment: “Thank you for saying that.” (If the compliment seems to be a bit much, and I’m feeling saintly, like George Saunders saintly, I might add his line, “I don’t know if that’s true, but I’m really going to try to make it true.”)
When I don’t know something: “I don’t know!”
When I am told of someone’s good fortune, which I may or may not be happy to hear: “Good for you” or “Good for them.”
I try never to ask what people do for a living in a conversation, but when I want to be polite after someone tells me what they do: “Wow. That sounds hard.” I stole that from Paul Ford, who explains how it works in “How To Be Polite”:
Because nearly everyone in the world believes their job to be difficult. I once went to a party and met a very beautiful woman whose job was to help celebrities wear Harry Winston jewelry. I could tell that she was disappointed to be introduced to this rumpled giant in an off-brand shirt, but when I told her that her job sounded difficult to me she brightened and spoke for 30 straight minutes about sapphires and Jessica Simpson. She kept touching me as she talked. I forgave her for that. I didn’t reveal a single detail about myself, including my name. Eventually someone pulled me back into the party. The celebrity jewelry coordinator smiled and grabbed my hand and said, “I like you!” She seemed so relieved to have unburdened herself. I counted it as a great accomplishment. Maybe a hundred times since I’ve said, “wow, that sounds hard” to a stranger, always to great effect. I stay home with my kids and have no life left to me, so take this party trick, my gift to you.
(I’m lying now: I’ve never actually tried that last one, but I really want to.)
Those are all the ones I can think of right now. Feel free to send me your own.
@austinkleon Another what to say when you don't know what to say: this one comes from my beloved thesis advisor. When someone tells you what's wrong with your work and how to fix it, the response is "Wow, I never thought of that." And then you never have to.
— Suzyn J. Gonzalez (@suzynjgonzalez) February 20, 2019