We’ve all been there. The incident could have been in the hall between classes or at one of those mythical cocktail parties I’m never invited to. This could even happen over dinner with friends. This menace is the Conversation Killer. Once uttered, the conversation skids to a halt and your companions may glance at their bare wrists and proclaim they really must be going. Dear readers, I am here to save you from such a fate. It is only through knowledge that we can avoid killing conversations.
(Note that these apply primarily to conversations with strangers or acquaintances. Presumably your friends are used to your conversational tic of bringing up recent bowel movements or typography and are able to look past this and appreciate your many wonderful qualities.)
Top 10 Conversation Killers.
10. The Overshare.
Simple enough. No one really wants to know about your GI troubles or that weird rash on your back. Similarly, you’ll make people uncomfortable if you try to delve into your deep-rooted phobias over the salsa bowl. And there is no one in the world, other than your doctor or sexual partner, who should be told about any sort of discharge.
9. The Pony Remark.
This is a reference to that great episode of Seinfeld where Jerry, at a dinner party with his elderly relatives, said, “I hate anyone who ever had a pony when they were growing up.” Lo and behold, his Aunt Manya had a pony when she was a girl in Poland and had to leave it behind to emigrate to America. She takes offense to this offhand remark from Jerry and subsequently dies. What’s so terrifying about the Pony Remark is that you never know when it could happen: “I hate a Capella,” “I was the head of my a Capella group in college. It was my most meaningful experience.” The impulse is to immediately recant, “Well, I’m sure your a Capella group was fine.” Which makes you seem insincere and might land you in a deeper hole, especially if you continue to say, “At least you weren’t in Marching Band,” to lighten the tension. They inevitably were.
The fear of being confronted by a member of the group you are disparaging is enough to stop anyone from making any strongly worded pronouncements ever again. Luckily, this is one that you can brush off your shoulder. Everyone makes stupid comments. Just apologize and move on.
8. “I’ve gained five pounds/I’m so fat.”
The only response to this one is “You look great!” Because you probably do. We are so hypercritical of our own appearance that we often forget our peers are similarly preoccupied with that weird white hair growing on their chin. Often it comes across as fishing for compliments (even if you aren’t), which is really frustrating.
7. Any conspiracy theory.
This includes, but is not limited to: the CIA planned 9/11, the CIA killed JFK/MLK/RFK/Abe Lincoln (really, anything with the CIA), Henry Kissinger is really the Antichrist, Bill Clinton ordered the murder of three Arkansas teens, Hillary Clinton is a feminazi robot who personally murdered Vince Foster, Freemasons doing whatever it is Freemasons do, or anything that starts with, “Well, Glenn Beck said.” There are message boards for those sorts of things.
6. “You had to be there.”
I guess I did. But you are still going to try to explain why this inside joke is so damn funny. I won’t get it. Inside jokes are great for those on the inside, and uncomfortable for those on the outside. Save the jokes about the wacky camp counselor until you’re with your camp friends.
5. “Rape culture,” “Male Privledge,” “Social Construct.”
Ok. I’m guilty of this one. I often find myself embarking on a feminist rant about reproductive rights or Roman Polanski, and am able to see the interest fading from my companion’s eyes. There is a time and a place for intellectual discussions of social constructions of race and gender, and a date is not one of them (I discovered that one the wrong way). Save these topics for appropriate forums, like the workplace or Thanksgiving dinner.
4. “Oh, I hooked up with him/her/them once.”
You meet someone at a party and realize you have a mutual friend. “Oh! You know Friend McMutual?” “Yeah, we used to bone.” This is a subcatagory of the Overshare. No one really wants to know about who you’ve hooked up with unless it’s over absurdly pink drinks. The only thing I can imagine to say in response to this, other than the polite “Oh,” is the snarky, “How were they?” Which is a conversation killer in its own right.
3. “I had the craziest dream last night”
The thing is, this is a totally natural impulse. Dreams are really weird. This one time, I had a dream that I was trying to convince Tina Fey and Kate Middleton to be my best friends and also write a book about ferrets… Are you bored yet? There’s a certain universality to the weirdness of dreams. Because everyone thinks their dreams are weird and crazy, no one is interested in hearing about your absurd dream.
2. “You look just like someone I know.”
What can someone say in response to that? “Well, surprise! I am your sister’s freshman roommate! You figured it out!”
There was a time when this was a slightly funny thing to say. It was just self-aware enough that it could break a moment of tension or reopen lapsed conversation. Now it’s just pathetic. In fact, it’s often rude. Once, I was leaving a class with a friend of mine and one of his roommates. I made an off-hand reference to needing to go to the pharmacy to pick up a medication before the weekend. The roommate sang, “Awk-Ward.” Listen, douchecanoe, I’m not embarrassed about the fact that I sometimes need to fill a prescription. My friend isn’t uncomfortable with the idea that sometimes people take medications. Maybe you don’t believe in modern medicine, or maybe you assumed it was a “girly” medication. But it’s not awkward, and you are the reason why the conversation ended.
Anyway, I can’t think of any context in which saying “awkward” doesn’t automatically make everyone feel like it’s 2006. It makes people feel uncomfortable and makes the sayer look like an ass. After all, as the Facebook group says, “It wasn’t awkward until you said “˜awkward.’”
Ultimately, these rules aren’t the be all and end all of conversational etiquette. You may find yourself in a situation where a Pony Remark is moved past with a laugh or where people are genuinely interested in that new mole. But, I find that it is best to think of conversations as a permutating tree with an ever-changing number of branches. With a mention of the burger places in New York, the number of branches increases, as there are now more directions in which the conversation can go. But bring up that trippy dream you half remember from last week, and the number of conversational permutations drops instantly. An ideal conversation never runs out of branches but ends when either party excuses themselves to the restroom or the snack table. What makes the Conversation Killer so insidious is that it can derail a perfectly pleasant conversation in one phrase and lop off all branches in one.
Honestly, it might just be easier to stick to the weather.