A few years ago I went through a phase of playing a game I called ‘Question Buckaroo’. I imagine you’ll be familiar with the Hasbro namesake – a game where you take turns loading up a spring loaded donkey, until it eventually bucks up its front legs, kicking off the accumulated items.
My version was played when you came across those people who fail to see the whole point of a conversation was to actually to take turns in speaking. In order to make these exchanges more pleasant, the moment I tweaked that I wasn’t going to be asked a question any time soon, I began seeing how many questions I could in fact ask in a row, how many I could stack on the proverbial back of the conversation before the donkey bucked.
There were some subtle rules I set myself that I felt kept the spirit of the game honest. I couldn’t override someone if they were about to ask me a question. I couldn’t pepper them with questions in short succession to rack up the numbers. And crucially, I had to give them the chance to ask me a question in return, so natural pauses were needed. The conversation had to feel somewhat natural.
And it was startling how seldom people ‘bucked’ on occasion. The record I held was at Glastonbury. Walking around a mile from one side of site to the other, I managed 31 questions before we ended our conversation going into a gig. I felt like a muddy, half-drunk Jeremy Paxman.
I have a friend who had a separate rule about conversations – he called it the ‘three question rule’. If having just met someone, my friend asked them three substantive, separate questions on different topics, and if he didn’t get one in reply, he would simply go quiet and let the silence, as well as the awkwardness, sit there. ‘If they’re not interested in me, then I’m not interested in them’ he would say. And there was something I admired in watching him refuse to engage in a conversation where there wasn’t ‘two tangoing’.
Now look, I’ve sympathy, and perhaps my former self was being ungenerous. Particularly as many of you may know or be unsurprised to learn: I can talk. I mean, I can really talk. If I’ve had a coffee and you’ve asked me something vaguely connected to that pet theory I have… Oh boy. You’re in for a diatribe. So you will be pleased to hear the game has long since been retired, at the very least to prevent my hypocrisy levels getting too high.
Of course, I am happy to admit there are naturally conversations where one person will talk more than the other, where one person will ask more questions. There will be any number of types of conversation, from the confessional and comforting, to the recounting and explaining, where there won’t be anywhere near an exact even split in talking time or questions.
And the point I want to make now is not about a boring conversation either. There are plenty of topics or people that you’re not going to be interested in, and that will bore you, whether the person is asking questions or not. I have absolutely no doubt I’ve bored my fair share of people. In fact, I’m currently banned from talking about Birmingham infrastructure and Greek mythology by my other half. And there’s legitimate topics where I find my bored mind wandering when friends and family raise them. But I do my best to be interested, listen, and not reach for my phone to scroll.
So the point I’d like to make is twofold. It’s about two groups of people. Firstly, it’s about some people who have a clear lack of interest in the other person in the conversation. And second, it’s about the clear lack of conversational skill some people have.
For those clearly not interested – they’re clearly somewhat vein, and have no genuine interest in others. If you find yourself in a conversation with these people, make it one of few conversations you have with that person. Be thankful – they’ve revealed themselves to you as self-interested at worst, ill-mannered at best. It’s probably best to steer clear of those people in life. And if you are wandering if you are one of those people, try to think if you’re being steered clear of.
For the second group – there’s hope for them yet. Conversations are a skill. In fact, I think of conversations as an high art form, and to me, there are few things that beat a fascinating conversation. Now some people are born great raconteurs, are naturally funny, or enthralling conversationalists. But it’s also a skill that can be learnt and practised.
So to prevent yourself coming across as the conversational narcissist, to avoid giving the impression to people you don’t care – ask a question once in a while. Show you care about the person. And remember: to be interesting, be interested. That way you’ll win Question Buckaroo too.