Learning to Talk

I've always been a man of many words — I just never liked to speak them

Photograph by © H. ARMSTRONG ROBERTS/ClassicS

I wasn’t a talker. My mother called me “the quiet baby.” My father referred to me as “Silent Sam” and “Sam the Clam.” Shy. Reticent. Laconic. These were words that followed me through my youth.

Birth order played a role in my silence. I was the youngest of six kids. Our house was chaos, the competition for attention fierce, fighting frequent. Self-expression was encouraged, as long as it was thoughtful and relevant. Small talk was frequently met with slap-downs like, “Do yourself a favor and shut up” or “How stupid can you be?”

So, by the time I could put together coherent ideas, I was very reluctant to share them. In fact, when I was very young, I watched Jimmy Cagney in “Each Dawn I Die” being dragged to solitary confinement, kicking and screaming. I remember thinking, “What’s he complaining about? He gets to be alone in a nice, quiet part of the prison.”

I also have a genetic predisposition to silence; there were other non-verbal people in my extended family. At my grandfather’s funeral, a “mourner” approached my father and said, “Sorry for your loss. He seemed like a nice guy, but I never knew what the hell he was thinking because he never said anything.” I had an uncle who sat like a stone at the dinner table, speaking only to request condiments. And I have an aunt who still barely speaks above a whisper. I guess it’s appropriate that her first job was with the Central Intelligence Agency.

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I also chose a profession suited to my antisocial inclinations. I became a writer. The math indicates that I was alone in a room for roughly 20 of my 32 years as a Los Angeles writer. That’s around 7,300 days in solitary. Most days I got up, exchanged pleasantries with my wife and kids, then drove to my basement office in Santa Monica, the Jimmy Cagney suite. Unless my agent called, or I was struck with the urge to reach out to one of my three male friends, that was pretty much all the talking I did until dinner.

We had a social life in L.A., but (shocker) I wasn’t exactly the life of the party. When we hosted, I dodged my guests by busying myself with tasks like stoking the fire or refreshing drinks. When I was the guest, I often stood alone with my glass of chardonnay, pretending to appreciate something in the room; I learned to pose in a way that made me appear thoughtful, though often I was just counting the minutes until we could leave.

I watched, awed, as my voluble peers tossed repartee back and forth across the dinner table. I tried to participate, but by the time I constructed something thoughtful and relevant to say, the conversation had moved on. Often, I excused myself from the table and went into the bathroom to kill time.

Our move from suburban Los Angeles to upstate New York seemed like it would be a seamless continuation of my life as a sub-verbal recluse. We rented a house in the middle of a field, across from a field and next to the forest, a full 15 minutes from a reasonable coffee shop. I looked forward to uninterrupted hours of heavenly silence.

But country solitude is not city solitude. In the city, life is everywhere, the noise of industry and activity all around. It’s company. When I looked out the window at the bustling world, I could believe that I was a part of it, then go on writing in my little room. In retrospect, I realize that my professional life in Los Angeles was a replication of my early life, when I isolated myself in a bedroom and scribbled with crayons or fussed with blocks. Back then, I had the pleasure of separating myself from my intrusive family, but the comfort of knowing their company was nearby.

In rural New York, no one is nearby. Out my window, I saw fields, a barn, a soaring hawk and maybe a pickup truck speeding by. At night, I heard only the wind and bugs. When I went for a drive, I often passed only one or two cars. In the country, I felt genuinely and deeply alone. And being that alone was disturbing.

Finally, I understood why Jimmy Cagney was kicking and screaming.

So, for the first time in my life, I stepped out of solitary and started talking. I connected with a friend on Facebook whom I hadn’t seen in 40 years. We had lunch and chatted about the trajectory of our lives. I organized dinner with a friend of a friend of a friend at a local restaurant. We now occasionally bike together. I even pressed my real estate agent for introductions to locals. She got us to a cocktail party and introduced me as “Sam Harris.”

Through the moistness of my social unease, I discovered (duh!) that small talk has value. Most people, especially country people, want a little human contact, a little warmth during the long winter, a little noise to fill the silence. And (duh!) small talk leads to thoughtful and relevant talk. My final “duh” moment was realizing that a few words about the weather, exchanged with a relative stranger, go a long way to create connection in the world. And connection is what we could all use a little more of these days.

Tags: memoirs