The secrets of talking

I fancy myself a good conversationalist. I can hold my own in most social settings and I occasionally offer gems of conversant wisdom that surprise even me.

As older adults, we stay healthier if we have a strong array of social connections. These connections are made through conversation. Talking paves the way for improved relationships — and can be a platform for healthy aging. So, let’s talk about talking.

I have a few ideas. They are taken from several recent one-on-one conversations and an online blog titled “Smarter Living.” Did you know there are “three tiers of conversations?” Tier 1 is the “safe” tier (the weather, celebrities and recent shared experiences). At this time of year, it could sound something like, “Did you see that fourth-quarter touchdown yesterday? That fella was smokin.”

If the player doing the smokin’ played for the other team, you might choose to talk about something else. But sports is always a good topic. Movies too. Lately, I’ve been talking a lot about the new Bradley Cooper/Lady Gaga movie. It’s not out yet, but the YouTube trailer is riveting. The weather, especially rainfall (too much or not enough) is the safest topic to raise.

“Potentially controversial” conversation (Tier 2) include subjects such as politics, religion and your love life. All three are a bit risky in these uncertain times. I would stay away from politics entirely unless you’re completely consumed by an elected leader’s recent rant. If you mention the person by name and see any eye rolling, be careful. Eye rolling can pave the way to things you definitely do not want to talk about. If that starts to happen, switch the conversation to your love life. Do not offer a lot of detail.

Tier 3 includes a few closer-to-the-heart topics. Things such as your family dynamics and personal health. A lot of older adults welcome these discussions if they are done well. And they can be incredibly informative — even educational. A good way to start is to say, “Catch me up on your life.”

In a recent conversation that began that way, I walked away with ideas about how to address my daughter’s immune system challenges and a recipe for turmeric-infused quiche.

And that leads me to the next important consideration. “Be more interested than interesting.”

I know, it sounds a little off the mark, because I’m talking about talking. But I’m coming to believe the key to connecting socially as older adults, and benefiting measurably from those connections, is to ask good questions, draw out people and listen to what they say. Really listen. Be attentive and remember the power of eye contact. Try periodically to reflect what you hear and then keep listening. If you’re thinking about what you plan to say next rather than what you’re hearing at that moment, good connections are less likely.

I welcome the phrase, “What do you think?” I enjoy being asked that — and I like to ask it of others. Maybe “what” and “how” questions are the best way to make good social connections. What do you think?

Sharon Johnson is an associate professor emeritus, Oregon State University, and the author of “How Gray is My Valley: Enlightened Observations About Being Old.” Reach her at

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