A few years ago, a pair of Harvard psychologists conducted a study about human emotion and found that people are happiest when engaged in one of three activities. The first, sex, is obvious. The second, exercise, is less so but not entirely surprising.
The third, though, will make you think.
The third — not the second, and certainly not the first — is the reason about 30 people show up at the Joslyn Castle on a cold, rainy evening in late April.
The third is the reason they mingle around a large dining room table, pouring drinks, nibbling on finger foods and making idle chitchat before being summoned to the mansion's grand, wood-lined Music Room.
A 44-year-old Englishman named Stuart Chittenden stands at the front of the room and introduces the evening's topic with a historical slide show that draws a line from the time of Socrates to the French salons and English coffeehouses of the Enlightenment Era to the Harlem Renaissance of the early 20th century, eventually arriving right here in midtown Omaha at this posh Victorian landmark.
Chittenden's delivery is so charming and entertaining that his audience could listen to him for the entire night, but he's clear that this will not be the case.
“For the majority of the evening, you all are going to be doing the work,” he says, but first he shares the results of that Harvard study on happiness, the one that found people were happiest making love, exercising or ...
“Engaging in conversation,” Chittenden says.
Then he takes out a clown horn and honks it.
* * *
Over the past four years, Chittenden has turned conversation into a calling. He is a natural conversationalist, meaning he listens as well as he speaks, with an air of genuine curiosity about him.
When he moved to Omaha, his wife Amy's hometown, in 2004, Chittenden encountered the newcomer's dilemma: He needed to meet new people. But despite an easygoing manner and inquisitive spirit, he wasn't much interested in the act of networking.
“I'm not a connections person as much as I want to make friends,” he says.
He soon found that he was having two types of talks: space-filling conversations full of tropes neither party really cared about exploring, and meaningful, engaging conversations that left him thinking. It wasn't that there was anything patently wrong with someone asking Amy where she'd gone to high school in Omaha, or inquiring if the Chittendens planned to have children, or wondering “what do you do” for a job, but it rarely led to any real connection.
Stuart wanted to create something to advocate for good conversation. When he struggled to figure out the shape and form of such a thing, Amy suggested that they start in their home. So in 2009, the couple began inviting friends and acquaintances for informal yet purposeful gatherings, bringing together people of various ages and backgrounds (though all still within a degree of two of the same social network). Because these nights started as a dozen people squished around a table, they called the events Squish. They imposed a single overarching rule — only one conversation at a time; no side chatting — but otherwise guided the conversations with unspoken principles. For example, no artificial icebreakers.
“Sometimes I'm asked: 'Should we go around the table and introduce ourselves?'” Stuart says. “And I say, 'No. We won't do that.'”
The Chittendens would toss out a general prompt — something like “lions and tigers and bears, oh my” — just to get a conversation going, then they let the talks fly on their own. And fly they did.
They held events on five consecutive Tuesdays, and then went on vacation, talking about the events much of the time.
“If we could have kept going and going and going, people would have kept coming and coming and coming,” Amy says.
In 2010, they hosted another round of Squish events at their home, and a year later added an offshoot called Arthaus, where a creative guest would be responsible for initiating a conversation on a topic of his choosing.
All the while, Stuart surveyed participants. For every 10 people questioned, nine rated their experiences highly. Granted, it was a self-selecting group, but the responses were illuminating. People didn't just enjoy the evenings, they often left feeling changed in some way.
“I found there is a genuine yearning in a lot of people to manifest more meaningful connections using a tool as simple as conversation,” Stuart says.
He began reading books about the role of conversation throughout history (Amy counts eight on his nightstand as of now) and blogging about essays and news articles that demonstrated why, as he puts it, “conversation matters.”
“It isn't about teaching people techniques of how to have a conversation but — it kind of sounds remedial — how to enjoy conversations,” Amy says. “I think Stuart wants to show people that conversation is a way to come away changed or invigorated or enthused or thinking in a new way.”
In 2011, he started to take Squish out of his home and expanding its reach, beginning with events in collaboration with the Omaha Creative Institute and (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest. Earlier this year, he conducted three breakout sessions during the Young Professionals Summit at the CenturyLink Center. He's led an ongoing conversation series with students in the Kent Bellows Studio residency program and even started to facilitate corporate team-building sessions. All of this continues to happen on the side, and in his spare time, though in the spirit of Squish principles it would be more accurate to use another word: It's become his passion.
This is one of the take-aways from the Joslyn Castle event, where Chittenden presents a program he's crafted called “Improving your Art of Conversation.” At the door he charges $10 per person, mostly to cover the costs of hosting. Early in the evening, he is quick to point out this is not about looking people in the eye and shaking hands with a firm grip and creating a mind-mapping system to remember names. It is not a 21st century version of “How to Win Friends & Influence People,” Dale Carnegie's Machiavellian best-seller that instructs on how to “win” people to your way of thinking.
It is, in fact, something like the opposite of those things.
Clown horn in hand, Chittenden leads the group through a series of prompts. For each, everyone pairs up with someone else, talking for approximately seven minutes until the horn honks and signals them to take their seats.
The first prompt is simple enough: Chittenden asks everyone to find out something “unexpected” about their partner. Two women, both in their 30s, pair up and learn that each of them grew up the oldest of their brothers and sisters and that both of them met a sibling later in life.
Elsewhere in the room, a young man speaks with an older woman and soon realizes she once worked with his mother. They keep talking, and he learns that this woman once held a party at her house and invited some coworkers and that his mother had brought him along. He had been in this woman's home.
After seven minutes are up, Chittenden honks the horn, and soon it's on to the next prompt.
In one prompt, the pairs are asked to discuss what assumptions people make about them.
In another, they're asked to consider topics they find difficult to discuss or easy to avoid.
For a prompt called “Beyond the Job to Passion,” Chittenden strikes at a cornerstone of modern bad conversation: that so many begin with people asking another what they “do.”
“Straw poll,” he says. “How many of you identify yourself as your job title?”
Half a dozen hands go up. The majority of the room says no.
“I would say 90 percent of the population don't identify ourselves by our jobs,” he says.
Once again, he asks everyone to split into different pairs. This time, he says, find out what the person across from you is passionate about.
The room fills with chatter for several minutes, until the horn honks again and Chittenden moves on to the most difficult part of the night.
* * *
Chittenden has now presented the “Art of Conversation” workshop several times, and during each comes a moment when one particular prompt so agitates someone that he or she loses control somewhat.
The prompt starts with a warning.
“This is going to be completely artificial,” Chittenden says.
What he wants is for one person in each pair to share a story about a memorable conversation, and then for the pair to stand in silence for 20 seconds. Once that time is up, the other person shares a memorable conversation, followed by another 20 seconds of silence. It doesn't sound like much time, but those seconds, especially when strangers share them, can crawl.
As always, the response is polarizing.
One woman says her mind went blank during the silence.
Another says she loved her 20 seconds.
One guy makes fun of his partner for how uncomfortable the silence made her, explaining that she'd fidgeted at first and then started to dance in place to pass the time.
“I really thought it violated the spirit of the 20 seconds,” he says to laughs.
Then a man near the front of the room holds up his hand. He says he liked the silence. He liked knowing that after his partner spoke, he'd have time to think about what she'd said. He didn't need to worry about what he was going to say while she was talking. He could just listen.
It's such a simple observation about what conversations should be — as one person speaks, the other listens — that his need to recognize it calls attention to how rarely it actually happens.
“We fill emptiness,” Chittenden says. “And we often fill it because we're not comfortable. The problem with this is that conversation is tender and it needs nurturing, and we often don't give it room to breathe.”
At the end of the evening, Chittenden passes around blank postcards. He asks everyone to address the postcards to themselves and write a note, any note, that they would like to be reminded of at a later date. He'll gather the postcards and then, at some point in the future, drop them in the mail.
“It's kind of cheesy, but I like it,” he says.
He asks if there are any questions or comments, and someone wonders how he came up with this idea. He deflects back to the history of conversational life and reminds everyone he's more advocate than instructor.
“I'm not telling you what is great conversation,” he says. “But what I want you to do is begin the process to investigate this for yourselves.”
Someone else asks if he plans to psychoanalyze their postcards.
“Oh, yes,” he says, deadpan. “They go in your file.”
* * *
A couple days after the Joslyn Castle event, Chittenden meets with half a dozen student artists as part of his collaboration with the Kent Bellows Studio. It's a casual conversation, one of a series he's held with the high school students during their semester-long residency at the center, and there's an instant rapport. He starts by asking about their projects for an exhibition now showing at the studio. The teens talk about what they're doing, how they feel about their work, whether they're nervous about showing their art to the public, where they see their lives going from here.
Midway into the conversation, Chittenden, who by day is an executive for a local branding and marketing agency, reveals something about himself.
“I write poetry,” he says.
In fact, he's a published poet. But there's something he's shamed to admit: When he's ready to submit a poem for consideration, he doesn't just send his poem to a handful of journals. He sends to all of them. He does this for the numbers, because it improves his chances of acceptance. Because he's fearful of rejection and taking a hit to his ego.
“Here I am, 44, and trying to come to terms with my own vulnerability,” he says.
That word, vulnerability, hangs in the air for several seconds before one of the students, Madison Clark, a senior from Treynor, Iowa, grabs onto it.
“Being vulnerable here is easy,” she says of the arts center, and other students nod in agreement, and then the room falls quiet again with the silence of good conversation.
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