‘Well, how are you?’ When an unoriginal conversation does just fine
Most everyday exchanges are simply about recognising the other person’s existence
It’s reassuring to have someone talk to you without saying a single thing you haven’t said a hundred times before
A woman remarked at an event recently that her husband had nothing to say to her, but that his perspective was quite different to hers on the matter.
“If I have nothing original to say I won’t say anything,” he declared whenever she complained. “The problem is,” she said, “he never has anything original to say, so he never says anything at all”.
I suspect there’s a lot more talking going on in the marriage than she let on, especially since she didn’t seem unduly upset by the situation.
At the same time, though, it struck me that her husband has never learned the value of what, in Transactional Analysis, are called “strokes”.
Transactional Analysis is about what goes on between people and that includes what are sometimes called “units of recognition” or strokes. Think of stroking a cat or patting a dog. The animal isn’t looking for you to do something startlingly original, but it loves getting the attention.
A human stroke is a “hello” or a wave or even a nod. It’s an acknowledgment that you exist and that you are worth recognising.
That’s why it’s reassuring to have someone talk to you without saying a single thing you and everyone else haven’t said a hundred times before.
Not a bad day.
They say it’ll be like this for the week.
Nice to see a bit more daylight in the evenings.
That was a tight game at the weekend.
Sorry for your troubles.
If there’s anything I can do . . .
None of this is particularly meant to mean anything or to lead anywhere. If you ask me how I am today, you would be taken aback if I was to list my ailments, my financial worries, my relationship difficulties and the items on the news that have put me into a bad mood.
You would be wary of asking me again. All you wanted was to give me a little nod of recognition, a stroke, and my job was to give you one back. “Grand, not a bother on me. And yourself?” is the sort of thing that is required even if my world is falling apart.
Not only do you not want a list of my complaints, you’re not really looking for brilliant wit either. Brilliant remarks are fine on telly or the stage but they can be tedious in real life.
This is something shy people often fail to recognise – they think people are waiting for them to be brilliant and entertaining and because they can’t think of anything in that category they say nothing. Conversation would become so much easier for them if they realised that an exchange of totally unoriginal remarks would do just fine. That’s because most everyday conversations are not about being entertaining but about recognising the other person’s existence.
You’ll notice the same on the radio. In most round-table radio conversations people exchange the same opinions everyone else has been exchanging for the past several weeks. You could actually sit down and script out the whole thing in advance without difficulty. (Of course, I exclude from this judgement The Irish Times’ stable of brilliantly original radio raconteurs).
So it’s okay to be unoriginal. In fact it’s almost preferred. The same applies to conversations in long-term relationships. Many of these conversations are the same conversations that the two people have had hundreds of times over the years and that they will have hundreds of more times.
When the conversations are emotionally abusive they’re toxic but most of us aren’t having conversations like that. We are having conversations in which each person is acknowledging the existence of the other by making a series of simple remarks with unimportant content – strokes, in terms of Transational Analysis.
When people have a row and go into silence they are withdrawing that recognition from each other and I think that is why these silences wear people down.
And that’s why it’s such a relief when hostilities end and they can go back to talking about nothing at all.
Padraig O’Morain (email@example.com) is accredited by the Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy. His latest book is Mindfulness for Worriers. His daily mindfulness reminder is free by email. @PadraigOMorain