How to be a Good Conversationalist

The result of poor upbringing. He will grow up to be a pig.

The result of poor upbringing. He will grow up to be a pig.

Apart from the need to learn to be more courteous drivers, Singaporeans ought to work harder on improving their social skills too. Since when is “Hey, you’ve lost weight!” or “Hey, you’ve gained weight!” (often accompanied by a poke in the tummy) an acceptable form of greeting?

I went to conversational hell recently. Not once but twice.

A few weeks ago I renewed acquaintance with an old friend and over breakfast we caught up, or rather, she interrogated me, but not without a poke to the stomach first – my very own stomach – accompanied by the sharp observation and comment “Hey, you’ve lost weight!” This was exclaimed rather loudly and every customer in the chichi cafe could hear her.

(Later, while thinking about this, I asked myself, maybe I should have reciprocated by squeezing both her boobs and commenting “Hey, your breasts have grown bigger!”? Give the bitch a bit of her own medicine!)

Anyway, back to my tale of woe. My friend has never been known to be a great conversationalist, despite the fact that she has held several regional positions in the past and is supposed to be a well-exposed and therefore well-behaved international jet-setter, (one would assume), but either my patience has really run out these days (as you know, I don’t suffer fools gladly) or she has become a worse conversationalist than I’ve known her to be.

No, she wasn’t giving me the third degree; her intentions weren’t bad, she just wanted to find out how I’ve been since the last time we met, which was several years ago, but this was how the conversation went:

She: So, how’s everything? What have you been up to?

Me: Things are good; I’m kinda semi-retired, doing some board-level consulting work, and enjoying being a grandpa to two lovely grandkids.

She: Oh, your daughter got married, didn’t she? I think I’ve read her blog and tweets before, so, it is her huh? Refresh my memory, will you, when did she get married? Who did she marry? Why did she marry him? Did your wife approve? Did your daughter had other boyfriends before meeting this guy? How did they compare with this guy? What’s he doing for a living? What’s the age difference between your son-in-law and your daughter? How does he address you? Does he buy stuff for you and your wife during festive occasions? What did he buy? Anything expensive? You mean he has never given you abalones when – according to social media – he and your daughter are always dining out at some real fancy restaurants and stay at some real expensive digs for staycations and vacations? How old are your grandkids? Boy or girl? Are they well-behaved? Do they like you? Do they like your wife? Are they easy to take care? What are their names? Why do they have names like that? Are they naughty? Are they fussy with food? Do they go to childcare? What do they say they want to be when they grow up? Is your daughter planning to have more kids? Does she and her husband practice birth-control? What method do they use? How many kids do they want to have eventually? Can they afford? What kind of house do they live in? What does his parents do? Are they wealthy? Their family owns hotels? Do they fly first class or do they fly cattle class? If they live the way they do why can’t they afford first class? Or maybe they give away all their first class tickets to you and your wife? What? They’ve never paid for your vacations? You serious?

And it went on like that for nearly three hours. Question after question after question and while I was in the process of answering, more questions were asked. Yup, while I was still in the middle of answering some of her earlier questions! It appeared that she wasn’t really interested in any of the answers, just interested in asking as many questions as she could spew out.

In the end I felt drained, exhausted, uncomfortable, frustrated and absolutely helluva miffed. I honestly wished I didn’t agree to meet her. I was so upset. (And I had to pay for our meal!) What’s worse – she said breakfasts at other places taste better. (I invite my friends only to the best restaurants yet I often suffer the misfortune of inviting people for meals only to have them say how other places’ food tastes better AFTER they’ve raved about the food I’ve treated them to. Are these people stupid? I’m not sure. Are they ungrateful and rude? That’s for sure. Case in point: after two rounds of beef noodles which he raved about, one dear muttonhead buddy of mine I invited then told me that he prefers pork rib soup – not only did he not compare apples with apples – hence my moniker for him – but he was plain ill-mannered and ungracious, or simply thick, someone who knows a little about everything but who over estimates his knowledge base and his brain’s limited ability to process data.)

I know everyone says to be a good conversationalist, one technique is to get the other person to talk about himself, but in this case, no open questions were asked; instead it was a rapid-fire machine gun or Guantanamo Bay-style interrogation, leaving me feeling violated – I felt I was being put under a spotlight needlessly. I suspect ISD interrogations aren’t that tough compared to my friend’s way of questioning me.

If you think that was bad, just the other day I happened to spend 12 hours with an idiot and it too left me feeling tired and spent at the end of the day.

It drove me nuts at times. I’ve come to the conclusion that it was a tragic day for all mankind the day he slithered out of the abortion bucket.

First, I had to put up with his eating habits. I myself try my utmost to stick to socially-accepted conventions of good etiquette; I try to do what is correct and avoid bizarre manners that will attract undue attention and criticism or condemnation but my friend plays by different rules obviously. He enjoys coconut water and would insists on digging out the flesh of the coconut and eating it with wasabi and soy sauce. He says people in Guam eats it that way because the coconut flesh with wasabi tastes like salmon sashimi. Whatever! I know when in Rome, do as the Romans, but this is not Guam and salmon sashimi isn’t so expensive here that one must eat coconut flesh and imagine that it’s salmon sashimi that one is eating. Long story short, I managed to stop him from doing that the other day and avoided the stares that such behavior always tended to attract whenever he did that. But when he transferred a bowl of rice into a tiny saucer, poured chili sauce all over it, then proceeded to eat the rice with a spoon because he said he doesn’t know how to eat rice from bowls using chopsticks, there wasn’t anything I could do. Hello, doesn’t know how to use chopsticks to eat his rice? We’re talking about a man of Chinese descent in his 60’s. He then scooped an entire plate of chopped garlic into his soup. After the meal, our table looked like the aftermath of a tsunami, with spilled soup and sauces, and bones that he has spat all over the table. No wonder each time I ate with him, I would lose my appetite mid-way.

Apart from having to put up with his table manners, (notice, out of respect for him, I’ve chosen not to put an adjective in front of “table manners”) I honestly thought that this person, who claimed to have dined with kings and prime ministers and also used to hold regional jobs that brought him all over the world, should have gotten himself a job today with the CIA as an interrogator; if so he would have no need to use using Enhanced Interrogation Techniques (another word for “torture”) as any prisoner would break under him and confess to anything just to get him to stop asking questions and annoying them to death.

This guy was really way too personal in the manner he relentlessly probed into my affairs; the many questions asked that day – well, I’ve thrown in some he used to ask before – included:

“Are you no longer interested in sex since you seem to disapprove of people in our group boasting about their sexual exploits?” (Doesn’t he know that some conversational topics are simply off limits and considered taboo in public?)

“What’s wrong with married men having some fun, some of my ex-bosses I interacted with, even the Germans, when it comes to women and concubines, they really let their hair down. In the end, all men are the same, aren’t they?” (Is it customary for Germans to keep concubines? Well, I suppose one learns something new everyday.)

“Why do you eat so little? For someone your size, you sure don’t eat much.” (And I thought I’ve lost weight!)

“Alan told me you told him that I’m the biggest Ah Beng around, right?” (So, Alan has a big mouth and cannot be trusted with secrets? Oh dear! What shattering news! Actually, what else is new?)

“Do you have swollen legs?” (I replied that I don’t have swollen legs and asked why he thought I would have swollen legs and he replied “water retention; my sister suffers from that.”)

“Do you have diabetes? You have marks on your legs.” (So he’s been admiring my legs? And diabetics are supposed to have ugly legs?)

“Do you feel hungry all the time?” (He says he is hungry all the time because he is diabetic. Ah, no wonder the interest in diabetes.)

“Do you need to go to the toilet? My daughter needs to go X number of times a day.” (Now, why would a man share his daughter’s toilet habits with other people? Why, God, why? Again, aren’t there conversational subjects that are still taboo? Some things I really don’t want to know.)

“Why is it you have not much hair on your legs?” (There he goes again.)

“Does your wife like to read? What does she read?” (This question came out of the blue and was completely un-related to whatever was being discussed at that point in time.)

“Has your son any girlfriend? Surely he must have. He’s the havoc type right? He plays the drums, typical bandboy right?” (All drummers are “havoc”?)

Then the conversation took a sudden turn, this time, questions were about my dad:

“So your dad is in his 80’s and very healthy? He lives alone? Well, this type ah, sooner or later…You know my friend’s father lived by himself and he died alone? He was found dead in the toilet. Let’s hope when the time comes for your father, he will die an easy death.”

What the fuck?!

That last bit about my dad really infuriated me  – this is the auspicious Chinese new year period and I am admittedly very pantang about such things.

I was stuck with this moron for 12 hours recently.

All this time I felt I was the subject of an intense personal scrutiny.

You can imagine, what a great time I must be having that day, squirming.

It must have been one of the longest days of my life.

Truth be told, I puked buckets of blood.

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