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Arts & Culture Seen Thought Leader

How to talk when we don’t know how to talk

By Susan Booth, Jennings Hertz Artistic Director for the Alliance Theatre
As I suspect many of you were, I was raised with sharp dictates of what constituted polite conversation.  Whether due to faulty memory or puritanical parenting, I largely only remember the thou shalt nots.  No religion.  No politics.  No oversharing of personal information.  (That last one was my downfall.  Still is.)

Credit: Peter Steiner of The New Yorker

Here’s the funny thing.  We live now in an era of constant conversation, instantaneous communication and ubiquitous commentary on just about everything.  And yet, amid all that talking, we’ve actually added to the list of what NOT to talk about.  It makes sense, if you think about it – that exponentially greater noise is largely happening on anonymous platforms.  (My favorite New Yorker cartoon is the one of a Labrador at a keyboard, saying “On the internet, no one knows you’re a dog.”)  Simply – the more we say and hear when we’re not making eye contact, the greater the list of things we choose not to say when confronted with real live humans.  Religion and politics, sure. Mom’s dictums still hold.  But added to the current list of verboten-for-social-conversation are topics like race.  Gender identity.  Sexual preference.  Class mobility and inequities in wealth distribution.  Intellectual capacity of elected leaders.
Oh no she didn’t.
Oh yes she did.
These are the things we chew on in our own heads and hearts.  These are the things we anonymously hashtag and hear.  But without the real time responsibility of seeing how our words land or showing how we feel about what was spouted, we are not connected conversationalists, but rather parallel occupants of our particular echo chambers.  Nothing new is built between us – no alchemy is possible – and the notion of changing one’s mind grows ever more distant.  A twee notion from the long ago past.
What to do?
Triangulate.  Identify a shared experience you could have with other live human beings where there’s a neutral third party – a neutral third narrative other than your own or that of the neighbor/colleague/random stranger wearing a lapel pin that just profiled her as the all feared other.  Sit in real time witness to that third party story and then talk about that.  It’s not you.  It’s not them.  It’s the story.  And if the story’s a good one, the act of responding to it will unpack your beliefs, your isms, your questions, and let you bring them into a conversation in a safe way.  In a safe space.  And like any good exercising of an underused muscle, it’ll feel weird at first, but it’ll end up feeling great.  It’ll end up feeling so very human.
Sound complicated?  Sounds like one of those retreats you don’t have time to go to?  Sound like a resource you’ve no idea how to find?  
Google “Atlanta Theatre.”  There’s a bunch of them.  Probably one right in your zip code.
Couldn’t hurt.

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