This isn’t really about food. It’s about conversation. I will want to use the balanced food diet as a metaphor to help me explore the balanced conversational diet.
Here is the protein bistro box, which is my normal Starbucks breakfast. It’s 380 calories, 170, from fat, and with 13 grams of protein. And of course, there are salads of various kinds and sandwiches. And there is also junk food. The notion of “balanced diet” is meant to suggest many kinds of good food and, for emotional reasons, every now and then some bad food.
The original idea was that there is a certain kind of conversation—metaphorically, a certain kind of food—that I really like and that I would choose every time. That is not the way to choose a good diet. The easy way out of this dilemma is for me to simply refuse to always choose the food I like best; sometimes I would choose other kinds of food and together, those choices work out to a balanced diet.
That’s pretty straightforward if we are thinking about food, but conversation is a joint enterprise. What if the other people at the table don’t like the same kind of conversation I like. What if they don’t like conversation at all? I could stop by the table and see if the makings of “my kind of conversation” are there. If it looks like the chances are good, I put my coffee down and buy my protein bistro box; if not, I get my coffee to go and head home. Alternatively, I could try to formulate “the kind of conversation I like” as the work of the group while I am there and try to get everyone to buy in.
I don’t really like either of those.
Yet another alternative is for me to practice liking the kinds of conversations that take place at the table. One of the guys, let’s say, wants to talk about air pollution; one wants to talk about corporate capitalism; one wants to talk about home repairs; one wants to talk about some religion or other; one wants to talk about the subordinate state of women in the U. S. and what should be done about it. If I liked several of those topics, I could just enjoy each one in some way—some as entrees, some as appetizers, some as desserts—and call it good. I think that’s a pretty good strategy, but things aren’t always that easy.
I skated by just what a “conversation” is. To be a conversation, as I am using the term, it has to be about something. All the examples in the previous paragraph are or could be “about something,” even home repairs. But every one of them could also be the occasion for the promiscuous trading of stories. Here’s how that goes.
Speaker 1. The way we treat women in this country is just shameful.
Speaker 2. That’s true. At the hardware store the other day, the clerk was lecturing a woman about electrical adapters as if the didn’t know anything. Here’s the electrical adapter problem as it is normally seen…
Speaker 3. I can see why the incident with the adapter interested you, but you’d have to admit that the quality of the air is a good deal more important. I was lobbying a legislator just yesterday…
Speaker 4. Most of the people I see lobbying these days seem to have a religious cause in mind and I wish they would just leave the public sector alone.
That collection of four statements is not a conversation. It is not about anything. To say what a conversation is…well, it’s hard. It’s a way of talking together, not some topic in particular. For our purposes, I will call it a conversation if it is about one thing and if the participants act as colleagues in developing the topic.
Take the scattershot sequence I indentified as “not a conversation.” Numbers 1, 3, and 4 could easily be “a topic.” If we chose number one, and sometimes we have, we would have to take some time developing what we mean by “we” (in “we treat women”) and whether “this country” is the best scale for the discussion and just what the standards are by which “shameful” could be established. And there might just be someone in the group who wondered whether “shameful” was the most useful attribution to make; the most likely to lead to clarity, to action, etc.
If that were the conversation, it would be just the kind of conversation I like best. And that brings me to the other questions I wanted to ask. Is it really a balanced diet? No it isn’t, and changing from that topic to 3 or 4 would not make it a different “kind” of conversation. The balanced diet idea would require that I invest myself, sometimes, in the personal stories that are being told (Speaker 2, above); sometimes in personal issues (my wife nags me every time I go home). Of course, dealing with the issue of the nagging wife or the issue of why some people just need nagging could substitute for the stories, but that wouldn’t help balance the diet.
The idea here is that I need to learn to appreciate all kinds of conversation—even one story after another if they are related—and not insist on the kind I like best. This is a standard related to my own durability and wholeness. There is also the question, however, of what kind of conversational diversity it would take to keep the group together. At my Starbucks, we don’t have a deep bench; we have to play the players who show up. If one is a story person—you’ll never guess what happened to my kids on Hawaii—we will have to be a rewarding audience for those stories. The same goes for stories about gifted grandchildren, neurotic pets, and unattractive nursing homes.
And then, after the stories, maybe a conversation. What if, for instance, the members who tell the stories are asking, “Are you really interested in me as a person?” and mean by that “Are you willing to listen receptively to the stories I tell?” This person thinks of “who I am” in terms of the stories” and of “colleagues” or maybe even “friends” as “people who will listen to my stories.” And what if, after his stories had been listened to—some not for the first time—he said, “OK, now let’s have a conversation about something.”
Would that work? Is the price too high for that particular show? Will people make excuses and leave? OK, I need to go think. Maybe a quiet room would help me.
 I am thinking of the Northwest Corner Caucus, which meets at the Multnomah Village Starbucks in Portland, Oregon. The same people are not there every day, but the pool of people who show up at that table at that time of the morning is not a large pool. So when I think about “a balanced conversational diet,” I know who I am talking about.
 I talking this post over with the Northwest Corner Caucus, I stumbled on a view I had never heard before. “What about the relationships?” asked one of the members. “What about them?” I said, having no idea where this was going. The point was that the conversation was just a gimmick to enable relationships to form and grow. You need “conversation” in the group the way you need mayo in potato salad—just enough to keep it together. The conversation was just a means to the relationships; not a desiratum itself.
 We could say, broadly, that it is a “conversation” if people sit around talking about something. I would like to slice it finer than that.
 It is harder to talk as colleagues, of course, about some topics.