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The art of conversation

Updated: Aug 29, 2023

When I was first in the Priory Hospital in 1992, a nurse told the small group of young males I was in, that her colleague could fascinate them, simply by telling a Monday morning story about for example, a purchase of knickers over the weekend. We were all troubled and anxious, because we had no conversation, or the ability to have one. How did she do this?

Many years later I realised two things: it’s not just what you say, but how you say it. In terms of psychology and/or psychiatry, that has two sides. Underwear stories can become interesting through an enthusiastic and expressive delivery. Whilst slow inexpressive monologues, about seemingly very little, can aid a diagnosis of severe depression.

The other thing is the content; because interesting stories are in fact everywhere, but people don’t look for them, or perhaps see them, understand them, or are receptive to them. That’s hardly surprising when someone is obsessing about themselves due to their severe mental illness. However, it’s at that other side of the hill they’re struggling to get over, and not so hard to navigate once they are there.

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This piece sprung from me leaving the house to buy milk, less than an hour ago. The story I told my wife when I returned, from just buying milk, stemmed from this -

There are three convenience stores, and two barbers within a two-minute walk of our house. By going to my chosen provisions store, I ignored one of the other ones. However, I’ve not been there for a month. Previously, a staff member wouldn’t accept my polymer five-pound note, because a thumb nail sized piece of it was missing from a corner. She handled the matter clumsily, so I took the tack that if some of my money is not accepted, all of it won’t be, and it’s a buyer’s market. I usually socially engage with shopkeepers, including her. I view my neighbourhood as a microcosm. When actually buying my four litres of milk, and a nutrition drink, the lady (I’ve known for a quarter of a century) said three pounds “something”. I said “what?”. She repeated it, but I still looked on, not drawing money out. Then she said five pounds “whatever it was”. Smiling, I said “how about that, a customer who doesn’t want to be undercharged.” She also smiled.

Leaving the shop to head home, I passed the Barbers next-door to where I’d just been. The barber had no clients and was sat talking on his phone, in the shopwindow. His lack of industry was no surprised to me. We caught each other’s eye, and he immediately broke the gaze. No doubt he remembered the following -

The previous and final time I was in there, some weeks ago, I asked him how much he’d want to clipper my hair and beard, bearing in mind they don’t put a price list on the wall. He said £20. I told him the other barbers-shop charge £16, and he can let me have the cut for that price, or I can walk out. He did it for £16. When I sat in his chair, I said “if you don’t publish your prices, it is reasonable for the customer to assume you might be making prices up as you go along. And if that’s assumed, it is also reasonable for the customer to negotiate.” The cut involved three minutes of skilled clipping. Nevertheless, afterwards, I made him agree he hadn’t remotely just done a £20 job (extrapolated to a hypothetical £400 per hour rate).

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It is surprising what is all around you. It’s about perspective and involvement. Life is under your nose. Choose it!

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