Am I a Poor Listener, or Should You Just Shut Up?: A Primer for Party Conversation

If you speak to me at any length, know that I am trying, off and on, to listen to what you are saying, but understand that trying does not always lead to succeeding. If when next we meet, I have forgotten your name, your face and any and all details of our last conversation, you should not take this personally. Rather, attempt to understand what might be going on with me as you are talking. What the hell is my problem? Well, it could be a number of things:  

1. I might be busy being thrilled with myself. I spend a great deal of time and energy being thrilled with myself. In fact, the amount of time I spend on self-congratulation is only matched by the amount of time I spend despising myself. It is difficult to focus when you are busy engaging in thunderous mental applause. If I am busy enjoying my own attributes, I will likely be blinking in and out of your conversation, but you should not be offended by this, because part of my self-enjoyment at that moment might have to do with you.

For example, I might be thinking: ‘Look at me engaging in witty, satisfying conversation with this fascinating and attractive person! I have certainly drawn the most interesting person at this party into a tete-a-tete and now he/she is entirely focused on communicating something to me! Well done, me! I think everyone else at the party is looking at the two of us now.’

2. I might be composing a hilarious adventure story based upon something you said a few minutes ago. There are certain key words that set off a ripple of creativity in me, and if you mention any of these in passing (sparrow, holiday, grassy, particularity, smoke signals, cynicism, Darrell Hannah, slushy, perestroika), I will be immediately transported to a place far, far away. You should not be offended by this, however, because I will be sure to share my flight of fancy with you as soon as you come to a stopping point.

3. There might be something wrong with your face. If you have strange hairs, or a mole, or a bit of food stuck somewhere, or a looming pimple, or one of your eyes is set lower than the other, or you bear a passing resemblance to someone I either knew or saw in a movie once but I can’t quite figure out who, then there is very little chance I am hearing anything you’re saying. But you shouldn’t be upset with me about this, because any listener would be similarly distracted, and you really should just focus on taking care of whatever it is that’s gone wrong with your face.

4. You might be a crashing bore. Most people are, so you are in good company. But don’t blame me.

5. I might be sleepy. Or hungry. Or holding an empty drink receptacle. Or pissed off about something that happened earlier. Or worried about something that’s about to happen in a few minutes. You are not the only person with stuff going on, you know.

6. You might be failing to mention me much, or failing to make me think that you are about to mention me. The best (and in fact only) way to keep my attention during a story is to make me think the story is about to be about me, even if it’s not.

For example, you might say: ‘Do I ever have a trade-last for you! (Insert your stupid, boring story here.) So, anyway, Anne said the other day that she thinks you seem like a nice person.’ I can guarantee you that if you have formatted your story in this way, I have listened with rapt attention to every word.

7. You might have pulled that trade-last trick with me once before. I am never fooled twice, so save it for something important.

8. There might be an attractive person standing behind you. If this is the case, I am striking poses instead of listening to you, but I cannot be blamed for this: at heart, we are really all just animals in the wild.

9. There might be a mirror behind you. In that case, I will not be offended if you ask me to switch places with you. It is, in fact, the only way to break the spell.

10. There might be a guy behind you that I went on a kind of pseudo date with once a long time ago, but then maybe it was just a friend thing, and I promised that I would call him, but I never did because I wasn’t really very interested, and then a few months after that, I ran into him randomly at a party, and he said that we should get together some time, so then I did call and then we sort of made tentative plans to go to a movie later, but I said something about bringing a friend along because she was in from out of town, and we left it pretty loose, and so then when it got to the day he was supposed to call and solidify the details, he didn’t call, which was fine, because by then I had rethought the whole thing anyway and decided that he was kind of a loser, and but then I wasn’t really sure if I should be offended that he didn’t call, or if it was okay because our plans weren’t that firm, and anyway maybe he took me mentioning my friend coming along as subtle rejection, and so far he has not made eye contact with me, and I don’t know if it’s because he just legitimately hasn’t seen me or if things are awkward between us now, which would be unfortunate, because he has lost some weight and cut his hair, too, I see, and then but maybe he’s with that girl, but maybe she’s just a friend, and I don’t know if I should say hi at this point, because it really kind of seems like he’s studiously avoiding eye contact, and anyway maybe he’s forgotten the whole thing, and anyway I’m not sure I really want to start something up with a guy who would wear jeans that tight, even if he does look pretty good in them. If this is the case, you should not be offended by my inattention, because I might very well ask you for your advice on all this, if you’ll ever just shut up about whatever nonsense you’re nattering on about.

If none of these ten reasons seem to apply, keep in mind that it is very difficult to listen to someone talk at the best of times. In today’s fast-paced, glimmering, spectacle-based social world, you can’t expect to just mildly burble along about whatever’s on your mind, and expect your conversational partner to listen. You have to really sell yourself. Make me see that, out of all of the utterances currently within earshot, yours is the one to focus up on! There are certain things that you can do to help your own cause, for example:

1. Scream key words. If there are essential nouns, verbs or adjectives, then verbally bold, italicize and underline them!

For example: ‘What about this weather lately? Awfully WARM for JANUARY!!!!!!!!!’

2. Help me out by mapping your story. I really only need to listen up at the topic sentences, climax, and the general resolution, so don’t be shy about announcing them.

For example:


-Body of your story: (You go on for awhile about your building, and how you knew she lived there, but you never really saw her, etc., and then one day you were doing laundry. I am not listening to any of this.)


-Come to a period: (You trail on for longer than necessary about how much you like Amy Sedaris, and how you hope to see her again in the building sometime, and she was really nice and normal, and did not appear to be high. I am not listening to any of this, either.)

-Bring me back again for the only thing about this story that could conceivably interest me: ‘YES! I DO think that if AMY SEDARIS were to meet YOU, she WOULD IMMEDIATELY REALIZE THAT YOU ARE AWESOME AND THE TWO OF YOU WOULD BE BEST FRIENDS FOREVER!!!!!!!!’

See how that works? I guarantee you that the next time we meet, I’ll remember that you told me a story about how much Amy Sedaris wants to meet me.

3. Write your comments down and publish them in any major periodical to which I subscribe. Really, this is probably the best way to get my attention.

If none of the above tactics work for you, perhaps you should reconsider saying anything to me at all. Rather, ask me to tell you about something. I can wax expansive on many fascinating topics; for example: my childhood, my political views, my travels in Southeast Asia, how my continuing unemployment illustrates what’s really wrong with America today, etc.

You’re welcome for the tips, and I look forward to chatting with you at social functions in future!


  1. Mary Jane says:

    Weird. All those years I thought we were giving each other trade-glass’s.


  2. Elizabeth says:

    I actually thought it was trade-lass’s until I googled it.


  3. jtyne says:

    Depressed over the general perestroika of the Soviet union that led indirectly to our own slushy economy, my brother-in-law took me on a birdwatching holiday. There, on a grassy knoll, we saw a particularly beautiful sparrow. We wanted to tell Darrell Hannah, but because of her cynicism for cell phones, we had to send her word via smoke signals.


  4. Sara B says:

    Amy Sedaris is my best friend and I ain’t fucken’ sharing her so FUCK OFF!


  5. pegridgway says:

    Actually found this intriguing tale while researching for my speech on Effective Listening at my Toastmasters club this week. Was pleasantly surprised to see how many of the Toastmasters effective listening tips are included in this story — and delighted that the author gave them her own truly personal twist and unique style. Refreshing and thoroughly enjoyable and will be easy to remember, to say the least.


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