Updated: Nov 11, 2021
“How was your day?”
“No, I don’t know. You tell me...”
“Come on, there’s nothing to tell. I go to the office, it’s always the same.”
“So you could talk about that.”
“I live it. The last thing I want to do is talk about it... Look, what do you want to do about dinner?”
“I don’t know. What do you want to do about dinner?”
“What did we have last night?”
“Jeez, I don’t even remember...”
Hello marriage! But the thing is it’s NOT about marriage. It’s about conversation. You’re not gonna believe what I read this morning. It was research showing that around the world, across all cultures, even among people using sign language, when folks are conversing they take turns and each turn lasts for an average of 2 seconds, and the gap between each spurt of speech is on average 200 milliseconds (the time it takes runners to respond to a starting pistol). No wonder a long boring anecdote can feel like such a transgression.
The point is, when it comes to relationships, watch out! A relationship pretty much is a conversation. Sex can be great and it sure is important. But timewise? It’s just a sliver of the pie compared to the time a couple spends talking.
And the thing is: good sex plus bad talking is going to lead to bad sex in the end, because the connection will get loss. Talking IS the connection.
Let’s think about that research for a moment. It certainly sparked a lot of thoughts in me.
First of all, no wonder so many conversations feel like a scrimmage to me. I can never jump in within the 200 millisecond interval. Everything is so rushed! Who needs that!
Next, the Twitter-verse is nothing new. If people have been jabbering like this for thousands of years—and who’s to say they haven’t?—then Twitter is just enshrining the Short Attention Span Theater that conversation has always been.
Next, before you say, “Well, our conversation isn’t like that,” let me say, “Perhaps your conversation isn’t like that.” This research is looking at an average. So maybe you’re above average. Great. But the research is still valuable for pointing to risk factors: the ways our talking to each other can deteriorate.
Next, that 200 millisecond gap is the real beast. It means, as the researchers pointed out, that, in most conversation, while you’re talking I’m thinking about my response, so I can jump in in that 1/5 of a second that will gain me entry. No one is really thinking about what the other person is saying. A “conversation” is a group of people thinking about what they’re going to say. Where is the listening happening? Where are the opportunities for feeling heard? Because when they’re lost, we lose the point of the whole thing.
And no one is thinking about what they themselves are saying either. Given this desperate pace, we only have time to unload macros on one another, pre-formulated packages of pre-thought nuggets that seem to fit in, so we plug them in. But of course we have no time at all to be sure if they fit in at all.
So we end up saying things we haven’t really thought about to people who aren’t really listening. That’s the default mode for so much of what passes for talking in today’s relationships.
And the end product is that even after many years together people feel lonely. They talk but they don’t connect. And you have to be careful with this. If you give couples exercises to help them connect, their first experience with this can often be how little they have in common besides the everyday stuff of their everyday lives.
So what can you do about this? A lot! As for what that is, tune in next time. Meanwhile, while you’re talking to your partner in the next few days, ask yourself, how much of it is you talking about what you really want to talk about, the way you want to talk about it?
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The cover picture is Quiringh van Brekelenkam’s Gallant Conversation, 1663.