Sometime last year, when my friend Sage was looking morose, I asked him what was troubling him, and he responded with a question: “Do you ever worry that you only get into the same conversations with people because you only have one way of speaking with them?” He felt that he had been approaching people with the same attitude and having the same conversations no matter what person he encountered.
This idea of the idiosyncratic yet habitual way we introduce ourselves didn’t resurface until a friend, whom I call “Rat King,” joined me at a psychedelic party that I hosted the other night. Rat King has a very audacious way of annihilating small talk with the people she meets. She forgoes classic introductory questions such as “What’s your major?” or “What are you doing this summer?” or “What year are you?” and instead prefers to challenge her conversation opponent to a Small Mouth Contest — a game she invented in which each contestant shrinks their lips until no orifice remains.
Everything she says is an unexpected mashup between the intelligent and the ridiculous, yet she owns her cataclysmic words with a confidence that renders the other participant of the conversation stunned and unresponsive. She makes her own rules and engineers her own microclimate of insanity.
At my party the other night, Rat King became the focal point of the event, despite not knowing any of the people at the house. One person who found her particularly intriguing was one of my older housemates, Jebediah, who behaves more like a calm, retired co-op resident than like the crazed hippies who we call housemates. He is always in a good mood, but typically, the furthest extent of his socializing is walking into the living room during a party in his nightgown and declining drink offers, saying he’s already brushed his teeth.
This standoffish demeanor changed when Rat King came over the other night. Not only did Jebediah take off his nightgown to come party with us, but we all spent an hour convincing a very German man that his name is Tron, wrestled in the middle of the entranceway (becoming an obstruction to all entering guests) and played in an imaginary cycling class in the dish room. Rat King brought out a new youth to this old co-op resident that I had not seen before.
The next night, Rat King and I decided to go to the kava bar on University Avenue. Walking at 10 p.m., the dim street lighting and littered joint butts were no comforting adornments to the street by any means. After peeking into many dusty windows to see if we had found the right place, we finally stumbled upon the kava bar. As a flavor, kava is fairly muddy; however, its effects are alluring — its mouth-numbing and body-loosening quality creates a similar experience to being drunk. It seemed that the product was quite successful, because even our waiter was quite loopy.
He would laugh hysterically at something we said and then ask, “Was that a joke?” His timing was completely awry, and his desire to match our wit was overt. Despite his intoxication, it became clear that he had not had customers quite like us because he did not know how to take care of us — sometimes, it even seemed that he would avoid our calls because he was too nervous.
Having Rat King accompany me in my interactions that weekend had made me realize what roles I most often assume in conversation; usually, it’s either the bouncy goofball or the loving sage. In such a condensed period of binge-hanging out with the same person, I had begun to notice how Rat King, who had become my conversational confidant, would interact differently with people that we encountered along our travels in the city. It made me realize that I had routinized my style of speaking, but by the time the weekend had ended, Rat King had reignited the spirit in me to say what I really want to say.
As I have grown and changed alongside the people entering and exiting my life, I have begun to ask myself those same questions that troubled my friend Sage a year ago. Sure, my conversations change from person to person, but how much of my personality is brought along with them? Up until this point, I found myself stuck in a rut because I always had the same unsatisfying conversations and was not truly expressing my authentic emotions. If there is anything that Rat King has reminded me, it is that there is nothing to fear in conversation. The most liberating thing is to be a fool and to own your idiosyncrasies. To embrace the humanness in our conversations and bring out the people that we are.
Layla Chamberlin writes the Friday column on how routines create character and delineate personal politics.