Conversations. They are a global, universal phenomenon. People have them all the time, in all places, on all sorts of topics, and I shamefacedly admit to being a keen eavesdropper. Not on private conversations, mind you. Just the public kind, like on a bus, waiting in line for a cashier, sitting in the park – any open, public place where I can’t help but hear what people are saying and talking about. People are interesting and you can learn a lot from listening.
Of course, there are times when I’d rather not hear or listen, but I can’t help it. For example, when people are having loud conversations on cell phones on the bus. Sometimes it’s downright embarrassing. On one occasion I tapped a lady on the shoulder and offered some heartfelt advice concerning the very intimate problem she was discussing rather publicly on her phone. When she looked aghast at my interference, I apologized and told her I thought it was a public issue since she was discussing it so openly. (It was definitely chutzpadik on my part, but there are limits to everyone’s tolerance!)
Some conversations are thoughtful and serious, but many others focus on utterly insignificant issues laced with lots of gossipy information.
“Did you hear what he said about her mother?”
“Such nerve!… She left me standing there for forty-five minutes and then told me I’d have to come back tomorrow!”
“So they’re drowning in money. That means they can do whatever they want? She saw my dress, fell in love with it and then went out and bought the same one!”
“The doctor said all her symptoms are psychosomatic, but we all knew she was a little quirky, didn’t we?”
“If my boss did that to me, I’d quit!” Etc. etc. You get the idea.
I have a physicist friend (very intellectual fellow) who says there are only two types of conversations. They are either about People or about Ideas. The ones about people are usually inane and probably assur; the ones on ideas have a chance of being worthwhile.
Personally, I have found that most conversations fall into three categories. They are either about You, Them, or, mostly, Me. The latter is what I call Ego conversations.
Ego conversations are in a special category of their own – laden with emotion, self righteousness and the need for approval. The Ego speaks expecting to be recognized, respected and validated. Otherwise, the conversation turns sour.
Some conversations are just plain silly. They are so mindless they make me yawn or tune out. I like to know where there’s a sale as much as the next person, but there’s just so long you can discuss a 20% discount versus a 25% sale. Unless you’re spending really large amounts of money, it’s pretty insignificant. I have an otherwise very smart friend who used to drive across the city to buy four cans of tuna on sale, thereby saving a dollar or two – never mind the gas and the time it took. She was so proud of her thriftiness that she made sure to notify and enlighten all her friends. There must be something better you can do with your time rather than wasting it to save two dollars (minus gas). Just buy what you want or need at the most convenient shop and get it over with. And if you must economize, why the need to share it so widely and make it a topic of conversation?
As I was reflecting on these weighty matters, I tried to think of what I talk about with my own friends. And we do talk. We meet, have lunch, and get down to the business of socializing. This includes passing on helpful information, offering assistance, empathizing when necessary, sharing divrei Torah, and discussing the state of the world. Politics are a favorite. “Politic” comes from the Greek word “polis,” which means “people,” although we try hard not to discuss people – just politics! Each of us has her own wise, worthwhile suggestions on how to fix the world, reorganize the government, solve the security situation and, in general, cure the world’s ills and improve the State of Life. A pity that no one is listening to our conversations!
Another of our favorite topics is our descendants. Not so much our children as our grandchildren, who seem to inhabit a different planet. At our grandmotherly stage of life, we have much to say on this subject but we rarely say it in a family setting. Those who, in our opinion, could best use our sage advice rarely listen, so we might as well save our breaths. But when we (the grandmothers, not the kids!) come together, all bets are off. The comments, jokes, and laughter fly freely. This is actually first-rate therapy, guaranteed to leave us in a happy, up-beat state of mind. Come to think of it, it may be somewhat similar to all those “Me-You-Them” conversations I hear in the bus, except that our observations and heart-to-heart talks are laced with love, humor and concern, rather than ego or cynicism. We try hard to build, not to destroy.
There is no doubt that our conversations are limited – or, I should say, well- circumscribed and constrained – by religious restrictions. We never indulge in blatant gossip and rarely need to be reminded that perhaps we should change the subject. We are very aware of what should not be discussed and sensitive to how any subject should be approached. That doesn’t mean we always pass muster, but we try hard to stay on the right side of the Divine Road.
There are, of course, those tzaddikim who rarely utter an unnecessary word let alone a questionable one, but since women were given nine measures of speech (out of the available 10), we feel a need to utilize our God-given gifts and fulfill the Divine Will by using our speech beneficially. Words can be harmful, but they can also be a positive balm for wounded souls – whether our own or others’.
So allow me one last word. Do be careful what you say on your cellphone when riding on the bus. You never know who is listening to your conversation. It probably won’t be me, but there’s Someone Else Who is always on your line. Cheers!