The 5 Killers of Conversation

As our cyber world expands, we’re becoming more and more impatient, self-centric, and concise in the way that we communicate. This blog post alone is evidence. I’m not speaking face to face with any of you. And chances are, since you already know the title of the post, you’ll just jump to the big bold numbers 1-5.

With our communication skills on the decline, conversation killing is at an all-time high. Below are listed 5 of the most notorious criminals in the world of dialogue.


The 5 Killers of Conversation:


1. The One-Upper

We’ve all seen it. We’ve all been a part of it. We hear something, it triggers a somewhat-related memory– a somewhat better related memory, and off we go to one-up, often jumping in before the previous speaker is even finished.

And thus begins an escalating madness of tangential conversation that would make a calculus teacher blush.

Brian Regan sums it up perfectly with his “I walked on the moon” bit, and makes a great point. Once the one-up can’t be topped, the conversation is over, leaving a heaving group of “well, that’s nothing, guess what happened to me?” people in its wake.


2. The Gooder

“How are you?”

“Good! You?”


….and, it’s over. You have killed the conversation.

Without fail, responding to “how are you?” with an adjective that actually describes how you’re feeling throws people off completely. “Happy” is a good go-to that I like to use, since that’s generally how I’m feeling. “Hungry”, “a little nonchalant,” “anxiously excited,” “livid,” or even “I’m not really sure” will immediately spark up a conversation. Wouldn’t you ask a follow-up question after your brain got shocked from not hearing the 4-letter G word? And as my wife always points out, “Good” isn’t even grammatically correct.

Plus, if you really are just feeling “good” (although I’m still not sure what “good” actually means or feels like), there’s still another 50 words to use instead.


3. The Narcissist

You like yourself, you like hearing your own voice, and you especially like hearing your own voice talking about yourself. Everyone does.

But here’s the catch. Nobody likes listening to you audibly liking yourself.

What incentive do I have to talk to Joe if all Joe is going to tell me is how he won the science fair in 7th grade, how his favorite food came to be pizza, or how he got a B on his physics test. There is zero value being added to the conversation. No common ground, no purpose, no building.

Maybe it’s an American thing? Straight from wikipedia, “the social support system in America is relatively weak, and this leads people to compete mightily for attention. In social situations, they tend to steer the conversation away from others and toward themselves.”

On the flip side, however, getting other people to talk about themselves (which is incredibly easy), will make them like you more, and will ironically make them feel like you are a great conversationalist. Just ask Dale.


4. The Storyteller

A collective sigh can be felt throughout the group. The potential for a great conversation was in your grasp, when all of a sudden someone says, “Oooo I’ve got a story about that.”

A story. Or as most definitions of story begin with: “An account…”

There is no more sure way to commandeer and kill a conversation than by launching into a 5-minute account. When the stories begin, the conversation ends and Aesop’s fables around the campfire begins.

Stories are great. They’re perhaps the greatest gifts that have been passed down to us from the humans that came before us. But, by definition, they don’t belong in conversations, since a story can be told by only one person. A quality conversation is dynamic and requires multiple mouths to contribute and intertwine.


5. The Small-Talker

I literally, in the correct use of the word literally, shudder when I am drawn into or overhear blatant small talk. I shudder.

It is better to not speak than to launch into painfully obvious filler text just to avoid an awkward moment in the elevator. And I truly believe that that is what small talk is used for – to ease our absolute dread of silence.

Embrace the silence. I find that I have more respect for and more comfort with people who I can sit in silence with. It feels very genuine. And if someone, such as a cashier at the grocery store, attempts to engage you in small talk, there are plenty of ways around it. When they ask how you are, give a sincere answer (see Killer #2). I will often try to ask them questions that I truly want the answer to, such as “what’s it like working as a cashier?”, or “who is the most interesting person you met today, and what made them stand out?” Pretty soon all of your wasted small-talk time can become an ethnographic report about the human race.

Not to break rule number 3, but I credit the avoidance of small-talk with the winning over of my wife. When we first met at a party, rather than asking “where you from? what’s your major? what’s your favorite color?” I jumped right to the good stuff. I pried into her relationship status, asked her what really drives her to do the things she does, brought up the Color Code personality test, etc.. The depth of it aggravated her at first…but then she married me…


As Saint Augustine once said, “love the sinner, hate the sin.”

Lead by example, and one by one we can right the wrongs committed by the conversation-killers that live all around us. Especially the ones that keep staring at us in the mirror.


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6 Responses

  1. Anonymous
    | Reply

    I disagree with number 4. I enjoy listening to the stories and experiences of others. I think it’s a great way to get to know them and see how they reacted in certain situations. Perhaps the ‘conversation’ or ‘dialogue’ stops for time, as the person relates their story. But I think a story can often lead to other discussion points and questions about the experience. I think the rest are valid, although I often do all of them. Sometimes I like small talk, but only if it breaks the ice and then allows for real conversation. I think if you’re ever going to really talk to people you probably have to start with small talk to make them feel comfortable. I see the obvious exception here would be my sister…but we all know she crazy!

    • Anonymous
      | Reply

      I forgot to leave my name 🙂 So I guess you’ll have to guess which sister this is!

    • Travis Hancock
      | Reply

      I guess Heather? But I could totally see it being Caitlin too. That’s a toughy! But yeah, great points. I think as long as the stories are really relevant to the conversation and are concise, given the format, then they are the lesser of the evils 🙂 Thanks for reading!!

  2. erblemoof
    | Reply

    I’ve been complaining about “one-upping” for years. To see it listed as #1 on some random website? I feel so validated.

  3. […] to your social interactions, to your web presence, to your homework, to the way you respond to “how are you”, and to the decisions you make about your career and the way that you choose to market […]

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