How do you identify a conversation sustainer?
Conversation sustainers are the folks who remove the fuzzies from the sweaters of our nation's social interchanges, razoring off the unpleasant bumps and ridges. Or, if you prefer a tastier image, we're the types who verbally cover the awkward gaps in conversations with an innocuous yet pleasant coating, not unlike the candy shell of an M&M.
The conversation sustainer routinely smoothes out social interactions and fosters community. And that's just darn nice in an age in which many people can communicate only via e-mail, by text message or by flashing the international sign of friendship anonymously from a speeding vehicle.
It's actually quite difficult to pick out the skilled conversation sustainer, because he or she makes dialogue seem effortless. It's far easier to pick out the conversation suspender who halts all interchanges rapidly.
But one surefire way is this: The conversation sustainer, when engaged with a conversation suspender, will forcibly continue the exchange with audible "Hmmms" or "Ohhhs" followed with a short recap of his or her own previous statement. Let me provide an example from a recent, true-life interaction I experienced at the hand-washing station of my workplace bathroom.
Sustainer Janet: How was your weekend?
Suspender Nancy: Good.
Sustainer Janet: Sure was hot!
Suspender Nancy: (Silence)
Sustainer Janet: Hmmm, sure was hot! Have a great day, now.
The suspender, Nancy, does not have the slightest inkling of any awkwardness, because the sustainer, Janet, has provided her response for her. Both parties walked away feeling fabulous. Although, in part, that might have had as much to do with the relief factor inherent in using a restroom.
Of course, some disparage the conversation sustainer as merely promoting drivel, pap or fluff over substance. But recently, I used my conversation-sustainer skills to save someone's life! Possibly.
At my office, there is a lot of construction going on. There is scaffolding, cardboard taped to the floors and loitering workers with tool belts. Furniture is being moved up and down the elevators at an alarming rate. Sometimes, in a lame effort to protest their overuse, the elevators simply stop between floors. I'm not really unnerved by this, because — as you saw last week— I am getting accustomed to stifling hot enclosed spaces. But apparently my elevator mate was not. Not one bit.
We were on our way down when the elevator lurched to a halt.
"Oh, my God!" my elevator mate said. "I hate this. I mean it. I'm telling you, I'm going to have a panic attack!"
My emergency conversation-sustainer skills were immediately activated. I chose the topic of yoga breathing.
"Let's breathe together now," I instructed, gripping her arm authoritatively while continuing to fill the air with conversation-sustainer flair. "You're not going to have a panic attack," I asserted, although I really had no idea whether she would. "And this elevator has plenty of air, so let's just breathe together while I push this button to notify an attendant."
Many people wonder if there really is an attendant waiting when the call button is pushed, and I am here to say that there is indeed a wee elevator distress gnome behind that metal plate, who piped up, "Can I help you?"
Just then, the elevator shuddered and jerked into a descent again, reaching the ground floor safely. Of course, I continued my chat with the tiny troll of elevator tribulation, explaining what had happened long after my elevator mate had swiftly left the scene.
Because that's what we conversation sustainers do — we never leave you hanging.
To contact Janet Gilbert, go to http://www.janetgilbert.net.