11/14/11

The Tao of Mingling*

It sounds like a simple thing, something we all should know: When you go to a cocktail party, it’s best to leave whatever social “goals” and expectations you may have at the door along with your coat and hat.

The best conversations are spontaneous ones. And while folks who live in parts of the country where the pace is nice and slow may not have to remind themselves to simply shoot the breeze or chew the fat, we do here. (In fact, here we are more likely try to burn off the fat.) The Big Apple is such a who-do-you-know, where-are-you-headed and how-fast-can-you-get-there kind of town that it makes us less able to let go and just be in the moment. (What—me, stop and smell the roses? Okay, but while I’m doing that, I’d better go ahead and buy a couple dozen, so I’ll have them ready for next weekend.)

When your average New Yorker sets out to mingle at a party with strangers, there are usually thoughts in the back of his mind like, “Who are the most important or most interesting guests here?” “Can this person further my career or my project in some way?” or “How can I find out what this person’s marital status is?” Others have a different sort of mental agenda, one that is more or less information-seeking. These are the multi-taskers hoping to make the party “worth it” who are constantly thinking things like, “Maybe there is someone here I can talk to about which schools would be good for my kids,” “I wonder if this person knows where to shop for a new bed” or “Ah…he’s at Chase; might he tell me what stocks to dump?”

And of course, often the party-goer’s mind isn’t even at the party. She may be smiling on the outside, but inside be wondering who is texting her (she can feel her phone vibrating) and whether it would be rude to excuse herself from the current conversation to check, or thinking about what she is going to have for dinner or whether she and her husband are going to continue the fight they were having before they got to the party once they get home.

Not too long ago, I went to a book launch downtown. The main reason I went, besides being interested in the author (which I was) and besides the fact that I never turn down any invitation if I can help it, was that the hostess had promised she would introduce me to a man who was, by all accounts, the perfect dealer for an antique desk I was hoping to sell.

After a semi-productive conversation with the dealer about the desk and after having the author sign a copy of his book for me, I found myself feeling aimless—in a good way. Aimless, in this situation, is actually what we aim for. I wandered for a few minutes before encountering a tall, tweedy couple (a middle-aged man and woman, obviously together). They were looking out the window at a building across the street. “It looks like a beached whale wearing mirrored sunglasses,” the man said. The three of us laughed. It actually did kind of look like a whale from that angle. The conversation took off from there.

I talked to that couple for a truly delightful 45 minutes. I still don’t know who they were or what, if anything, they do for a living. They didn’t ask me; I didn’t ask them. It was totally anonymous mingling (which, unlike anonymous sex, is completely risk-free.) It buoyed me, it rejuvenated me. I don’t even really remember what we talked about for all that time, except that it was fun and playful, creative and parenthetical. It was conversation for conversation’s sake. It was like a piece of verbal art we all wove together—effortless, improvisational and ultimately inspirational.

That night I remembered why I love talking to strangers. I had thought I was going to the party to meet an antique dealer, but it turned out it was to commune with the wonderful tweedy couple. I was in a good mood for hours afterward.

So at your next cocktail party, try conversing without any aspirations. Because, trust me, expecting no social reward is the key to the most rewarding kind of socializing there is.

*Originally published in the West Side Spirit, October 7, 2011

11/5/11

For Your Ears Only*

These days, there are a lot of people (and yes, I’m occasionally one of them) denouncing the omnipresence of cell phones. They point out that in the last 20 years, cell phones have gone from exotic rarities to bodily appendages we cannot live without; that people are increasingly unaware of what is going on around them, even while walking or driving, because they are glued to their phones; and that kids today rely on being able to look up everything they need to know on their smart phones and as a result are maybe not so smart. The biggest concern people seem to have is about how much our ever-expanding connectedness—via cell phone—to the vast universe of online social media is impinging on our privacy.

However, there is one function of cell phones that actually affords us more privacy, not less: voicemail.
This may seem like a minor aspect of modern communication technology. But just think back (if you are old enough) to what could, and often did, happen in the old days of home telephone answering machines: “Hello, Cheryl? Hey, it’s me. Are you there?…Cheryl?…Are you screening?…OK, well, call me back when you get home. You’re not going to believe what happened to me while I was on this date tonight. The guy actually unbuckled his belt right at the table in the restaurant, because he said he had eaten too much. I remember you told me sometimes Bobby used to do that with you, but…Oh…Uh…(embarrassed cough)…I…God. I totally forgot Bobby moved in with you. Sorry. Hi, Bobby—if you’re hearing this, which I hope you aren’t. (Deep breath) Not that there’s anything wrong with you hearing this, actually I thought the guy was cute, very down-to-earth. I really loved the whole belt thing…Um…Anyway, Cheryl, call me. It’s Sue.”

Before the days of cell phones, you never knew exactly who would hear your voice message—sometimes even while you were in the act of leaving it. People’s machines were often set with the volume turned up for screening purposes and so, for instance, your overly emotional message about being afflicted with perimenopausal insomnia might, unbeknownst to you, be overheard by your friend’s 10 dinner guests while they ate dessert.

Even now, when calling someone’s land line, we have to remember that someone else, such as the person’s spouse or child, might hear our voice message. It’s not always easy, in New York City, to keep track of who is in a particular household; you never know how many roommates or sleepover guests there could be. Even if the person you are calling has an off-site service (where he retrieves his messages from the phone company’s system) you still can’t be sure who might hear your message. It could be a shared service. And when calling the home of friends who are a couple, even though you may want to leave the message for only one of them, it can be considered rude to completely exclude the other person who lives there. All of these potential answering machine faux pas disappeared with the advent of cell phone voicemail.

Of course, the truth is that voicemail, even cell phone voicemail, is becoming extinct. All forms of communication technology are replaced by newer forms sooner or later. Voicemail is already considered by younger people to be as quaint and old-fashioned as white gloves at tea. Most people nowadays just text. But while texting is private too (assuming no one is looking over your shoulder), it does not have the emotional import of voicemail. This past summer during Hurricane Irene, I was stuck in Rehoboth Beach with my 85-year-old parents, who adamantly refused to evacuate, even though there was a mandatory evacuation order in effect. I thanked god for my cell phone. Not because I could use it to call for help or because I could check Facebook and Twitter for the minute-by-minute news, but because without my cell phone voicemail, my friends would not have been able to leave me completely private voice messages like, “Jeanne, just put your parents in the car, tell them you are going to go get ice cream and drive like hell outta there!”

And when my parents asked what phone messages I was getting, I just smiled and said, “Oh, nothing important…Hey, I don’t suppose you guys feel like getting ice cream?”

*Published in The West Side Spirit September 21, 2011