Let’s have a real conversation.
Can we please skip the surface-level conversations? If you want to talk, let’s talk. Let’s get into it. Let’s be real.
What is a surface-level conversation?
It’s one in which nothing is learned or gained or exposed. You talk about things like the weather and what TV show you’re currently watching. You speak in general terms and usually say that everything in your life is, at the very least, “fine.” You don’t share anything personal and you don’t gain any insight into how the other person is actually feeling.
This isn’t just about passing your neighbor on the street and exchanging pleasantries. These surface-level conversations have crept into our real relationships with the people we love.
We don’t want to bother people with our problems, don’t want to be vulnerable and talk about our struggles, don’t want people to judge us. We want to present ourselves as put-together and sometimes we don’t feel safe exposing our true feelings.
But we’re missing out. Real conversations are exhilarating. They’re addictive. They’re stimulating. It’s time we embrace our authentic selves and be true to who we really are so that we can not only continually learn and grow as individuals, but also encourage reciprocity in others. Time is our greatest resource, so let’s skip the surface-level conversations and value each other’s openness.
The Twilight Zone
Be polite, act like a lady, don’t speak unless spoken to.
I learned early on that speaking my mind wasn’t always appropriate. But I couldn’t help it. I was outspoken. Mom always told me I was exactly like her - except that I said every thought that popped into my head.
Still, I felt like I was editing myself and keeping things inside and I didn’t really know why. My thoughts weren’t weird or crazy. They were normal thoughts. Why couldn’t I say them out loud?
As I got older, I started to feel like I was living in the Twilight Zone. I was normal and everyone around me was crazy for bottling up all of their thoughts and opinions and emotions.
One time I was “dating” this guy. Quotes because we only went out on one actual dinner-and-a-movie date. Mostly it was just both our groups of friends meeting up at the same bar and then me going back to his place to have sex.
I had a fun time with him, but the sex was bad. So I told him.
“I really like you.” He laughed at me. "I really like you, too."
“OK, so... I feel like,... the sex should be better, because I really like you! And I'm just wondering, are we really just like best friends or something? Because that's fine, too.”
Laughing through it all, he tried to cover my mouth with his hand to shut me up and said, "Just stop talking now." I said okay and that was the end of that.
When I retold this story, people could not believe I actually said it out loud. They were completely shocked.
I didn’t understand. It made perfect sense to me to tell him. If the sex was bad for me, it had to be bad for him. Sex is a two-way street, right? In hindsight, I realize that the sex could have been just fine for him. He ghosted me a couple weeks after that conversation.
I was pissed off and hurt for a while, but I never regretted telling him how I felt. I’m even more glad now I said what I said because our “relationship” wasn’t dragged out longer than it had to be.
I realized that the more honest and open I can be, the more I can cut through the bullshit.
I started to become addicted to my new openness. I liked shocking people because it not only stimulated a more interesting conversation, it got the other person to open up more about their own stuff.
Screenwriter Brian Koppelman recently said that his openness has to do with wanting to connect with people as deeply as he can:
“I would prefer that if someone knows me, they know who I really am. If I can grapple with my own insecurity or my own fear or my own anxiety or my own imposter complex publicly, it’s a service to other people.”
Not only is it a service to other people, it’s a service to yourself. We all have insecurities and demons and things we’re ashamed of. When we don’t talk about them, they grow and fester and become unbearable. As soon as we speak about them out loud to another person, they become manageable.
I’ve known my friend, Lonnie, since we were in the sixth grade. She feels comfortable enough to open up about her struggles but always needs to add a caveat. Here’s a typical phone call:
“The kids are driving me crazy and Tom gets home from work and hides in the garage to work on the car and my Dad won’t shut up. … But the kids are great, I love being with them all day, I prefer that Tom do his own thing, and my Dad is really great with the kids, so I can’t complain.”
Lonnie doesn’t need to follow up all of her gripes with how grateful she is, but she does. She doesn’t want to burden me with her problems, but we all have problems and that’s okay. We’re allowed to get angry and be pissed and complain sometimes. We’re human.
Not every setting is ripe for vulnerability. But embracing transparency does not mean you should unload your every thought and emotion onto your boss or co-worker. It’s more subtle than that: asking for what you really want or need, saying the thing to their face instead of behind their back, giving your actual opinion instead of the thing you think they want to hear.
You know in your core what it means to be real. For most of us, embracing transparency is facing a fear that we might not be liked or we might ruffle some feathers or we might look stupid.
But would you rather be liked for who you aren’t or disliked for who you truly are?
Our Authentic Selves
If the first way to get out of surface-level conversations is by embracing transparency, the second way is to recognize when another person makes us feel good or makes us feel drained.
Have you ever walked away from a conversation and felt completely exhausted? Maybe you were trying to be who you thought the other person wanted you to be. Maybe you were nervous and wanted them to like you.
American physician and author Dr. Vivek Murphy says that we often may not know when something is off in an interaction, but we know something’s off:
“The thing about having to live in a persona that’s not you, or try to strive to be somebody who’s not you, is it has a massive emotional tax and it drains us of our energy. And that means we have less to give to other people and it means that we don’t feel as good.”
Likewise, have you ever walked away from a conversation and felt full of energy? It’s equally important to notice these moments. Dr. Murphy challenges us to ask ourselves questions like:
“What was it about that conversation? Did I have a breakthrough moment where I let my guard down? Allowed myself to be vulnerable and was real with the other person? Or was it that they did that with me? And by being vulnerable they actually empowered me to be the same with them?”
Once you can be transparent and open, you can start to facilitate transparency in others and make them comfortable in the conversation.
Tyler Cowen talks about encouraging his podcast guests to be weird. He defines weird as what is truly normal:
“In a sense, you’re getting them out of the weird. The weird is the stage presence we put on and all the puffery and unwillingness to say what you really think. Stop seeing the weird as actually weird. This is natural, let’s just do it.”
We’re all weird so normal is weird. Cowen further explains that if you can be weird it relaxes the environment and makes it non-threatening:
“Just signal you’re not there to screw them over, that you wanna be there to be weird with them, and that you’re actually doing this because you enjoy it.”
Simply being authentic allows the people you interact with to be authentic.
Face Your Fear
Surface-level conversations can feel unavoidable. You might be stuck with a chatty co-worker, or awkwardly make eye contact with a stranger in an elevator, or you’re just not in the mood to engage in a real conversation with that particular person.
And that’s okay.
The point is not to eliminate surface-level conversations completely. We live in a culture that encourages shallow hellos and we’re taught to present ourselves as upstanding, put-together citizens.
The point is to start approaching conversations with an eagerness and willingness to say what you really think. Maybe it starts with your partner or your best friend. Maybe the next time you disagree with a person you decide to actually tell them. Maybe the next time you have a thought, you stop worrying that someone will judge you if you say the thing out loud. Face your fear and embrace transparency. See how good it feels to be your true, authentic self and you’ll end up becoming a magnetic force that attracts your tribe.
It starts with little things but the more you do it, the more it snowballs. Why? Because it feels so good to be real.