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Around The Valley

Battling the Conversation Quagmire--What to Say? And How?

August 25, 1994|TRACEY KAPLAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

My date with Jack the actor still makes me shudder. Jack cut a sharp figure--sexy yet mature--in the tweed three-piece suit and horned-rim glasses he was wearing when we met at one of those Co-Dependents Anonymous meetings. But he was so sullen the night we went out that he must have gotten the 12-step instructions confused; he released his inner teen-ager, not his inner child.

Now, I'm not blaming myself (guess that co-dependent stuff actually worked) but I was probably falling back on the habits of any reporter faced with an uncooperative subject.

Problem was, it was a date, not an interview.

"Jack, where are you from?" I asked. "How many brothers and sisters do you have? When did you move to L.A.? What kind of acting do you want to do?"

"What the hell is this," the viper sneered, rearing back to strike, "20 questions?"

Boy, did he hit a nerve. But rude as Jack was, I'll be eternally grateful to him for reminding me what a lousy conversationalist I am. (Thanks, Jack dear--and what a shame we see so little of you on TV or in the movies these days.)

It took me four long years to do something about my unsocial tendency to interrogate people, but I finally signed up recently for a class called "How to Talk to Practically Anybody," offered by Glendale Community College.

Turns out reporters are not the only ones who need to brush up on the art of conversation. There was Paul, a high school student, who took the lead with this scintillating gambit: "Wassup?"

"Nothin'," I grunted, falling into teen-age dialect.

Then there was Gerry, a legal secretary "over 50" who introduced herself with this sure-fire conversation starter: "I find most people boring."

Silence seemed the safest response.

Instructor Sherrie Railsback appeared equally undynamic at first. The handouts she distributed cautioned against starting conversations on a negative note, because complaining and griping "don't usually produce new friends."

Good point. But Railsback must not have read her own tip sheet, because after arriving half an hour late, she droned on and on about the failure of the school's administrators to give her proper directions to the classroom, etc., while the class of three men and 11 women shriveled in our seats.

Railsback finally assumed the equally grating but more useful tone of schmoozer-cum-karma master, exhorting us to divulge our deepest fears about talking to people, then release them as she guided us in meditations designed to unlock our vast conversational potential.

A poll of the class produced enough inhibitions to keep an analyst busy until the sun goes cold: fear of rejection, of not being good enough, of being boring or too aggressive, of failure and even of success.

How about if it's all of those fears, asked Mark, 34, a sandy-haired construction worker who recently broke up with his girlfriend and took the class to meet women. Then it's low self-esteem, Railsback diagnosed, leaving Mark with a bigger problem than trying to master a few good pick-up lines.

She brushed off the fears of Nellie, an immigrant from the Philippines, who said in broken English that she feared her grammar "no make sense." Practice makes perfect, Railsback said, trotting out an American homily for Nellie's edification.

Railsback also had an answer for Kate, a young art gallery owner who said she is at a loss in conversations with customers because, well, to tell the truth, she doesn't know much about art. All Kate needs to do is pick up a few art quarterlies, Time magazine and that indispensable fount of wisdom--People magazine. After all, Railsback gushed in a prelude of things to come, we do live near Hollywood where "it's all happening."

Then she had us imagine during a guided meditation that our fears had taken the form of a gigantic boulder obstructing our path. With eyes closed, we were to visualize that we had somehow found a way over the obstacle.

Mark, like a typical construction worker, attacked the problem head-on: he mentally rode a mountain bike over his troublesome new boulder of low self-esteem. One woman, figuring that anyone who can imagine a rock can imagine big muscles too, simply nudged it aside.

But try as I might, I just couldn't surmount my fear of not being good enough. I tried melting it with a blowtorch, scrambling over it and finding another route. No stranger to self-help classes, I even put my arms around it and tried to love it to death.

OK, so the class didn't transform me into an elegant but sophisticated raconteur with a tinkling laugh that turns men to jelly.

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