Talk That Talk: Memorable Conversations I’ve Had with Perfect Strangers
“Don’t Bore Us — Get to the Chorus!”
That was the name of a Roxette greatest hits compilation from 1995. In addition to being one of the best albums titles ever, it pretty much sums up my social attitude. My friend Mara and I once had a groan-fest about first-date interviews, or what we called the getting-to-know-someone phase of relationships. If only we could hand over our resumes beforehand to save ourselves the trouble of going through the motions every time. In love and songs, the chorus can’t come quickly enough!
In regular conversation, too. I love it when people get right to the chorus, cutting out all of the small talk leading up to it. One of the more interesting conversations I’ve had with someone I’d never met and probably would never meet again was a heated argument at a Christmas party in 1997. I can’t recall where the guy was from, what he did for a living, his name (neither of which I probably ever asked), or how we’d immediately landed on the subject of Mariah Carey. She’d recently released “Butterfly,” which, in my opinion, was her best album to date, and I didn’t have a problem saying so.
“Are you kidding?” He couldn’t believe his ears. “Mariah Carey is terrible.”
“Sometimes, yes, but she really has improved with her latest album. It’s much less adult contemporary and more R&B/hip hop. It’s unexpectedly quite good.” I listed the best songs — “The Roof” and “Breakdown,” for starters — hoping to make my point.
“Oh my God!” he said, making a face. “It’s awful. It’s the same thing she’s always done.”
“Really? You think so. Have you listened to it?”
“Not the whole thing. I could never listen to an entire Mariah Carey album. But I hate the single, so I’d probably hate the album, too.”
I pointed out that dismissing an album as being terrible if you haven’t even bothered to listen to it is like writing a film review based on the trailer. We spent a half hour immersed in debate, until my friend Rick walked up.
“What’s going on here?”
“We’re discussing Mariah Carey’s new album. I love it, and he hates it, though he hasn’t actually heard it.”
Rick agreed with me, but he thought this was neither the time nor the place. Kiss and make up, and talk about simple things, he suggested. Busted by the conversation police! I told Rick that it wasn’t like anyone was even paying attention to us. He was free to go elsewhere to be entertained, which he did.
Later on, after the guy and I shook hands and agreed to disagree, I overheard Rick talking to someone. “So what do you do?”
“‘What do you do?’ That’s your idea of appropriate party banter,” I asked him on the way out.
“You can tell a lot about a person based on what they do for a living.”
“Oh, really? Despite the fact that most people work at jobs they hate, jobs that have very little to with who they are?” I was certain that I’d learned more about that guy based on his critique of a Mariah Carey album he hadn’t even heard than I would have from any job description.
Days later, I recounted the story to my friend Dave, who was on Team Jeremy. “If you’re really so interested in getting to know someone, why not cut out all of the BS questions and ask, ‘What are you all about?’”
That’s exactly what Kevin did the second time we saw each other, in 2004. We’d met the previous Friday night after being introduced by my friend Jose. On Saturday night, when he had me to himself, he put his arm around me and asked, “So what’s your story?”
I had no idea where to start, and I’m pretty sure I didn’t. It wasn’t the best question ever, but it was different. He was interested in getting to know me better, and that’s what he did over the next few months. He eventually learned my story, which he could have found out that second night by insisting that I answer his question, but it was revealed organically, over the course of conversations we had about movies we went to see together, like “Garden State” and “I Heart Huckabees.”
Maybe my distaste for the laundry-list-of-predictable-questions way of getting to know me comes from my journalism career, during which I’ve always been the one doing the asking. The Q&A-as-conversation format feels too much like work, and I’m the one doing the heavy lifting. There’s got to be a more interesting way to get to know me, one with less verse and more chorus.
Of course, not all ice-breaking questions are created equally. Some actually make me want to keep the conversation going, like “Where did you put all of that food?”, which a woman in London once asked after seeing me devour a huge three-course meal. Another woman I met at the Peel on my very first night out in Melbourne back in 2010 led with “Why are all gay guys so good-looking?” I didn’t agree, but I welcomed the change of conversational pace.
Of all the people I’ve met since I first arrived in Bangkok last year, one of my favorites is a guy who refused to tell me where he is from, or ask where I’m from because he didn’t want our impressions of each other to be tainted by cultural stereotypes. After months of not knowing, I found out by accident the other night that he is French. I wonder how I’d feel about him now had I known that all along. I think one of the reasons I’m so wary of “Where are you from?” is because I don’t want people making immediate stereotypical assumptions about who I am based on how I answer, which is why I understand why someone from Paris might want to keep it hush-hush.
Like people from all countries, I’m guilty of falling back on mundane questions from time to time, but I try to be creative. Recently, I asked a guy if he was aware that he and his boyfriend look like brothers, which to me was far more pressing than finding out where he was from (Paris, by the way, and yes, he was aware). I stopped short of wondering out loud if dating someone who looks exactly like you is the ultimate form of narcissism.
I’m not sure when the Q&A became the preferred method of getting to know me. Perhaps it was like this all along, only the Q’s changed. Most conversations back home began with “What do you do?”, which is the American version of “Where are you from?”, the Bangkok ice-breaker that I hear at least a dozen times daily. Oh, to be asked, “What are five movies/albums that changed your life?”, just to pick up the pace and get to the chorus. My response would not only tell you a lot more about me than where I call home, or what I do, but it would probably include that information, too.
Sometimes when I meet new people, I immediately say, “Hi, I’m Jeremy, a journalist from New York City, and I’m living here because I like it here” to save them the trouble and to get to the chorus, which rarely ever comes because I’ve interrupted their recycled melody. I’ve stolen all of their material, and they’ve got nothing left to sing.
As much as I gripe about it, I do understand why someone would see me, a black man living in countries where there are few black people, and want to know where I’m from, though I can live without the ones who burst into song — “Start spreading the news…” — when I answer New York City. My brother Alexi says I can’t expect every conversation to be as interesting as tossing bon mots back and forth with Oscar Wilde, which actually sounds like it would be kind of tedious. I know that he’s right, but it doesn’t stop me from wanting to get to the chorus right away.
“Where are you from?” is the sort of question that’s more tolerable as the bridge, when it’s part of a longer composition by someone who actually seems interested in making it a memorable duet, and not just used as an interlude, a small-talk device, intended to break the silence between me and the cab driver, me and the massage therapist, or me and the woman selling me a mobile phone on the fourth floor of MBK shopping mall in Bangkok. I answer as best as I can, then I pray for the rest of the business transaction to be conducted in silence.
Not that all business transactions need be done in silence. On my flight from Melbourne to Bangkok last month, I had a conversation with one of the flight attendants, who noticed my “Mr. Perfect” t-shirt, as I was heading to the toilet.
“Did you buy that t-shirt yourself, or did someone give it to you as a gift?”
I didn’t know where she was going with this, but I was dying to know. “I bought it for myself.” I had a feeling that was the wrong answer, and I was right.
“Oh, no! You must never say that. When someone asks, you must always say that you got it as a gift. You don’t want anyone to think that you think you’re ‘Mr. Perfect.’”
Though I’d just returned from the bathroom, I almost peed myself. If only wearing my “Mr. Perfect” t-shirt always elicited such interesting questions! As ice breakers go, it doesn’t get much better than that, and she never asked where I am from, what I do for a living, or why I was going to Bangkok.
Now that’s one hell of an instant chorus!
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