Saturday, September 8, 2007

Smallness of Talk

I've been lucky enough the last few years to have spent quite a bit of time traveling for business, within the US, in Asia, and in Europe. No matter the vast cultural chasms between these places though, I've noticed there's a sort of common rhythm to the business visit: Introductions are made and sympathy given for the frustrations of travel, Business Topics are discussed, and the day is closed with common goals, good intentions, and plans of action.

Then there's dinner.

Visiting US companies, I always find the dinner part pretty unpleasant. I spend much of the day dreading the evening when I'll have to pretend to understand football references and find gay jokes amusing, and know I'll generally come across as unsociable by trying to steer the conversation back to engineering where I feel less awkward. But as I started traveling overseas a lot, I noticed that I enjoyed dinner. Conversation, conducted in the simplified English spoken by basically everybody in the world anymore, was entertaining and engaging.

I began to realize that this had everything to do with the topics that we fell into discussing. When (at least) one side of a conversation is forced to use a second or third language (and the other side must throttle their pace and vocabulary to match), it's nearly impossible to talk about subtleties and nuance. No, the simplest topics are the big ones, the ones requiring the words everybody knows: love, life, belief, art, food. And this is reinforced by just not having much of the assumed commonality one has with one's own countrymen; they don't watch football in mainland China.


Recently I've been reading a bit about Versaille during the reign of the Sun King, the political island created by Louis to isolate and impoverish the nobles of France, and thus solidify his power over them. Life at Versaille was an endless dance of ceremony, intrigue, and parties, and the the Sun King set the tempo. Rapid shifts in extravagant fashions ensured that nobles spent all their money on frivolities, and the swirling succession of social events ensured that enemies were kept close, and infighting was maximized. It was a shared, contained, small little world made of nothing but subtlety and nuance, that left no time or resources to engage in substance, unless you were the Sun King.

Similarly, dinners between Americans (and I would assume other countrymen) seem to be dominated by the guy who has mastered the subtleties of the standard small talk between Americans. Once you're outside Versaille and talking to people of the world, conversation becomes more substantial and less dominated by anybody.

I suck at the dinners with Americans, but I had some of my deepest conversations with nearly complete strangers in Taiwan. I found that really odd at the time.