Not long ago, I was browsing books when I came across a box with this question: “You are in an unfortunate situation in which you are forced to consider cannibalism in order to stay alive. Would you rather eat babies or elderly people?”
Emily Post, in her original guide to etiquette published in 1922, devotes an entire chapter to conversation.
“Ideal conversation should be a matter of equal give and take,” she says. Every now and then, you’ll meet someone who can carry an entire conversation on the strength of his wit and charm, Post says. But that’s rare.
“As a rule, the man who has been led to believe that he is a brilliant and interesting talker has been led to make himself a rapacious pest,” she says. “No conversation is possible between others whose ears are within reach of his ponderous voice; anecdotes, long-winded stories, dramatic and pathetic, stock his repertoire; but worst of all are his humorous yarns, [at] which he laughs uproariously, though every one else grows solemn and more solemn.”
If you find that you’re the most fascinating person in every conversation — that your listeners offer neither interjection nor interruption — you may be a rapacious bore. But Post has a suggestion: stop and think.
Enter writer Chuck Klosterman, the author of “Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs: A Low Culture Manifesto” and “Killing Yourself to Live.”
Not long ago, I was browsing the cultural studies section of a mega-bookseller when I came across a box with Klosterman’s name above the title “Hypertheticals: 50 Questions for Insane Conversation.”
I picked it up and flipped it over: “You are in an unfortunate situation in which you are forced to consider cannibalism in order to stay alive. Would you rather eat babies or elderly people?”
What the funky kind of question is that?
Pose it to your friends. I’ve found the initial response is for people to think of it as an ethical dilemma. Do you sacrifice people at the end of a long life? Those who have yet to live? Individuals who would be unaware of their fate?
But every now and then someone will launch into a discussion on the relative nutritional value of young flesh versus old and the question of yield and ... why are you looking at me that way, dude?
I wanted more.
“You are offered a ‘brain pill’ that will make you 10 percent more intelligent, but you will seem 20 percent less intelligent to everyone else. Do you take this pill?”
Trying to answer that question here will make me seem 20 percent less smart, so I’m going to let that one hang.
I’ve long been a fan of Klosterman’s writing (“Sex, Drugs, and Cocoa Puffs” was mind-altering), so I bought the box filled with these questions. Reading the first card inside the box, I knew I’d found a good buy: “Some people are extremely good at making small talk. These people are better known as idiots.”
The card reads on: “These are the kind of humans who can talk to a stranger for 40 minutes without learning anything essential about who that stranger is — they talk about the weather and about other people, and they mention what kind of car they drive and how old their children are.”
I can get behind that. I’ve never been to a cocktail party without a gut-wrenching sense of apprehension. Small talk? I’d rather be a practice patient at a remedial dental college.
The questions inside the box are more substantial than those on the package. There are longer setups and even weirder scenarios. At a dinner party a few weeks ago, it took us 30 minutes to get through just three cards.
We learned some interesting things about each other, things unlikely to come up in any other context. I could go on and on telling you what everyone said, but I think Ms. Post would disapprove: “The faults of commission are far more serious than those of omission; regrets are seldom for what you left unsaid.”
Brian Mackey can be reached at 747-9587 or email@example.com.