The whole and its parts

The whole & its parts

Opening conversations

When people have not seen one another for a long while they might experience the first conversation as awkward.

Without being much aware of it, conversations always follow a pattern. Most notably, the beginning is structured to allow a somewhat archaic pattern of assessing one another to unfold.

Eric Berne described the basic pattern as one of structuring time. When people meet, they start by saying hello or something similar. It is a ritual allowing both to acknowledge their similarity and belonging. Where I live, this ritual always needs some adjustment. Belgians and French have the habit of greeting with one to three kisses and the Luxembourgish join in. However, as a vast mix of nationalities is present in the country, the number of kisses has to be determined by one another’s body language. It’s when differences appear.

Once the ritual is settled, the next part of that choreography is one of pass-time. People ask one another how they are, they talk about the weather and little details they want to bring to the conversation to establish the atmosphere. This can be short or long, depending on the sense of proximity and openness people develop in these moments. Something that will also happen in these moments is that people can define expectations for the rest of the conversation. These expectations are independent of whatever people want to get out of the conversation, they are there to give a status indication.

In golf, for example, such a conversation would happen at the first tee. There people will have a short conversation on how well they feel, things that happened that might cause their game to be better or worse, or how the weather will impact the game.

Sometimes conversations never go beyond that intensity, it remains somewhat easygoing but very much on the surface. In other cases, the conversation will gain in depth and people will, for example, start to talk about the task they have come together for. But that will only happen if people have become somewhat comfortable with one another.

When people meet regularly, they are accustomed to their exchanges, and they have a lot of details they can use to talk about together. However, when they have not seen one another for a while, much of this is missing. And, on an archaic level, they are not sure enough about each other’s status. It is a determinant of their shared sense of hierarchy. In ancient times, it was helpful to know who the stronger one is. Today, there will be many more variants of how status is measured, a recent promotion, a loss of job, a change in marital status, having bought a car or a house, etc. At the same time, none of those involved will appear to have lost status since the last time they met. So it easily becomes a subtle competition.

One that leads to a sense of awkwardness in such conversations.





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