I learned most of what I know about conversation from my second father. He never met a person he couldn’t learn something from.
He owned a convention services business. As a kid I would often go with him to work with my brother. He would give us odd jobs to do, like sweeping the dock, stuffing envelopes, or folding drape.
Along the way we would inevitably run into someone, like a guard, an exhibiter, or a convention manager. He would talk with them all with the same respect and interest. And it seemed to me he would invariably learn something interesting from all of them.
I can remember riding in a cab with him one day; I want to say in New York, but I can’t think why we might have been there. But it was a long ride, and in the course of time it took us to get where we were going, he had coaxed that cabby’s entire life history from him. And I remember it fascinating me completely, both how interesting this cabby’s life was, and how effortlessly my father was able to draw it out of him.
My friends loved to talk with him; they would feign otherwise, and talk about playing twenty questions with George. But to this day they never fail to mention those conversations whenever his name comes up.
His questions come from a genuine interest in people, and he is able to ask them in such a way that they don’t feel probing or intrusive. He makes the person he’s talking to feel like she is utterly fascinating to him, and they seem to trust him completely.
I’ve tried to emulate him, but it’s not as easy as it looks. There’s a subtle difference between a question that makes a person feel interesting, and one that makes a person feel threatened. He listens. He’s interested. He’s observant. I can remember him more than once describing roadside scenes that utterly escaped my notice. Somehow he makes his conversations go where most others can’t.