What makes for good conversation?

Several years ago, my significant other and I went on a guided tour in Peru. Eight of us (three “sets” of people, including children) moved together with our guide and driver for four days, sharing van rides, meals, and sightseeing as a group. We chatted and swapped stories, but, organically, none of us asked each other what anyone did for a living. We didn’t get into politics, religion, or anything else potentially polarizing, either. We had a great time experiencing a different culture together and each went back to our respective lives after the trip. Later, my significant other and I were commenting to each other on how refreshing that was.

Not that the typical “where are you from”-“what do you do” exchange doesn’t have its place in the ritual dance of getting to know another person, but at least for me, it’s not the most enjoyable. It feels like the cost of entry to the part where we can start asking more interesting questions. Another layer is that if the answer to any of the supposedly “simple” questions is actually complicated, it becomes an investment of mental and emotional energy into the interaction, which to me feels worthwhile only if future interaction is likely. Conversely, I have no use for a collection of facts about a person I probably won’t meet again; I’m more curious about their personality and find it more pleasant to bond—however temporarily—over a shared like or dislike. (Or to dissect why one’s like is the other’s dislike, and vice versa.)

From The Dictionary of Obscure Sorrows by John Koenig:


n. frustration with how long it takes to get to know someone—spending the first few weeks chatting in their psychological entryway, with each subsequent conversation like entering a different anteroom, each a little closer to the center of the house—wishing instead that you could start there and work your way out, exchanging your deepest secrets first, before easing into casualness, until you’ve built up enough mystery over the years to ask them where they’re from, and what they do for a living.

Today I went to get a gel pedicure in anticipation of sandal weather. While waiting my turn (does anyone not have to wait despite arriving punctually for an appointment?), I looked around and noticed a young woman who was getting a manicure. Unusually for me, I felt a sort of affinity to her, like looking in a very aspirational mirror. I tried not to stare.

More waiting. It turned out the technician who would work on my pedicure was the one working on her manicure, and she was brought over to sit in the chair next to me for her pedicure. I stole another glance in the aspirational mirror, this time in profile. My technician was about to start on my toenails and I prepared to immerse myself in my phone for the next half hour.

To my surprise, my neighbor started talking to me. “Are you getting a pedicure for a special occasion?” I wasn’t, but she was, for a friend’s wedding—and from there we had a nice conversation: not too intrusive and not too mundane, a careful balance between asking and telling. It was quickly established that I live nearby and she was visiting from another state.

Somehow I managed to start talking about perfume, and she said she didn’t wear perfume much, but Michelle Pfeiffer had her own line of scents and had started the brand because she wanted perfumes for which she knew all the ingredients. My neighbor had bought a discovery kit and liked all the scents.

Hearing about a celebrity wanting to know “all” the ingredients in a perfume made me ask if they were all natural. She said they were, and they were meant to be OK to wear over your lymph nodes. Of all the fears about perfume, I had never heard of it being absorbed through the skin of the neck into the lymph. Of course, I started evangelizing about how natural materials are chemicals too, and that essential oils are more likely to cause allergic reactions than synthetic aromachemicals, and that perfumes are highly regulated because no brand wants their customers to get a rash. (See, I’ve been a good student!) I said it casually, though, and stopped after making the key points—I promise I’m not a perfume bore!

She seemed to think that made sense, and then we talked about other things. Her pedicure was finished before mine and she was moved again to do something else with her manicure, so we parted ways without exchanging names.

An ephemeral connection, like the sillage of a perfume.

(Having looked it up, the brand is Henry Rose, and they seem to be making great strides in ingredient transparency. Many, if not most, of their ingredients are categorized as the “safe synthetic” type on the website. If only I’d known…)

What makes a good conversation for you?

10 thoughts on “What makes for good conversation?

  1. What a thought provoking subject, brilliantly well written!
    I wonder if your pedi friend felt that you were an aspirational model too?
    Yes the question “What do you do?” Can be a killer in a social situation. Especially when the answer is “I work in forensic psychiatry” the next question is “What’s that?” Then the conversation stopper answer “I work with the criminally insane”. You’ve never seen strangers at a party move so fast unless they’re a ghoul!
    My poor DH, so sociable, friendly & people loving. He stopped telling people in the end.
    Do you think those “What do you do?” and “Where do you live?” questions are a means for some people to check if the people they are meeting are worth cultivating? A shortcut to finding out how much others earn or what class they are? A bit like Melania husband shopping?


    1. Thank you! I appreciate the stories in your comments as well.
      No idea what her impression was of me, but we did share a similarity in our appearance, so that may have opened the door to conversation.
      I’m surprised that people would disappear like ghouls when they heard your DH worked in forensic psychiatry! Especially when true crime shows are so irresistible and popular. I would have stayed and probably presented the opposite woe by asking too many follow-up questions!
      I had a British acquaintance who lived in a pretty well-off area of Massachusetts, USA, and he complained that the people he met in the area were always asking him and his wife what they did for a living and “sizing them up.” So far, I don’t automatically think people are sizing me up, but I get that impression sometimes when I walk into an art gallery–type business just to look and the owner starts asking 20 questions.
      Had to LOL at that last part of your comment!!!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Your stories make me smile: you have a great storytelling talent!

    I like talking to people. I can have a good conversation about anything – as long as people do not constantly interrupt each other. I suffer even when I’m not the one who was interrupted: it feels like the right order is bring broken, and it bothers me.

    I would be curious to try some of those perfumes at a store, but I’m not curious enough to buy samples.


    1. Thank you! It’s easier with the written than the spoken word for me.
      It seems hard not to have interruptions in a group setting. Perhaps we should adopt the Native American tradition of using a “talking stick,” such that only the person holding the stick at any given time can talk.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Great question! One might even say a good conversation starter! For me, a good conversation is one where I can learn something new or perhaps an interesting fact about someone for example. Something that I come away from the interaction feeling positive. As far as topics go (other than perfume), I like hearing people’s stories about weird places they’ve travelled, music likes/dislikes, sports, movies, great places to eat. And, the most important part might not be the talking, but the listening.


    1. Great comment! 🙂 I like those elements of a conversation as well. Agree about the listening, and it seems harder these days when the instinct is to think of a reply while they’re still talking, for fear of an awkward silence in between. Some cultures are more accustomed to pausing before replying than others.

      Liked by 1 person

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