Saturday, January 18, 2014

Let's Talk

Last week I was at Costco with my mom when we ran into one of her old friends. After chatting for a while, he turned to me and asked, "Hi! How old are you?"
Not how are you. How old.
I asked him, "Why is that your first question? How old are you?"
"Forty nine yesterday."
"In that case, I'm seventeen."
He said it good naturedly but didn't bother talking to me after that. During the ride home, my mom asked why I'd been "snippy" and "easily offended." I don't think I was snippy. But I was certainly offended.
Trust me, I had plenty of snippy answers lined up. "I'm seventeen and female and white and I live above the poverty line. And I thought the census wasn't supposed to come around for a few more years." "I'm seventeen years old, five foot one, a hundred and twelve pounds, and I have brown hair.  "I prefer not to answer that." "541,209,600 seconds as of this morning." "Younger than you and that's all you care about."
Abilene and Mae Mobley from The Help
Two years ago I read The Help by Kathryn Stockett. There's a scene where Abilene, Mae Mobley's nanny, teaches her to say "Mae Mobley three" instead of "Mae Mobley two." When you're little, she says, all anybody asks if how old you are and what your name is, so it's important to get it right.
As I read it I realized, guiltily, that I do this too. Three year olds don't have advanced linguistic skills. They're shy around strangers. They'll hold up three fingers to answer your question before ducking behind their mom's legs. And if they do want a conversation, what do you talk about? You don't go to school or work together. You don't like the same books and movies. Aside from being human beings on the same planet you have nothing else in common.
But people don't just do this with toddlers. I've caught myself asking eleven year olds this question. And adults use it as an ice breaker question only to abandon the conversation once they get an answer.
A few days ago I went to a party. The hostess's younger sister ran around and struck up conversations with the guests. One of them couldn't think of anything to say to her beyond, "How old are you, Naomi?" When she gave her answer, seven, the conversation dried up in a few seconds. It wasn't a good icebreaker question. It didn't teach her anything interesting about Naomi. It didn't open up a conversation. They had nothing else to say to each other.
I realized I could do better than that. I asked her what her favorite color was (blue) and her favorite movie (Frozen). She didn't mind answering my questions either-seven year olds don't find that sort of thing odd. Here I am having a decent conversation about Frozen's plot with a girl less than half my age.
You can have plenty of conversations with younger people if you make an effort. You can ask what school they go to, what they do for fun, if they've seen the latest big movie. When you actually care, you can always find something to talk about.

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