An old habit of a former boss when preparing for a meeting or a mixer was to do a background check on the “important” people expected to attend. Her background check was not so much about a thorough assessment of these people’s character, but it was an attempt to store up as much fodder for small talk. She loved to tell me about how Marcos would gather a team of researchers to find out about a dignitary’s personal interests. If this dignitary liked hunting, for example, the researchers would supply the late dictator with information about hunting seasons, methods and gear, and quiz him with hunting jargon until he sounded like a pro long engaged in the sport. In my former boss’s case, I was the researcher and assembler of her talking points. I also went through the daily drill of reading five newspapers a day – without leaving out a section, not even the obituary (especially not the obituary!). If she sent me on my own, she would always ask if I did my homework well enough to lubricate my conversations with these “important” people.
While we asked the dignitary or “important” person about how he usually spends his vacations, we cared largely about the impression we made on him. The kind of empathy we showed by having the same special interests as he does, and the rounds of wine that loosened our tongues so we’d speak his language, made us at par with them, familiar, and therefore, more credible. Truly, a self-serving exercise.
It was similar to how a college kid would carefully curate his favorite movies, music genres, and books, and practice his social speech in front of the mirror. This would come handy when he finds himself in a bar / cafe / book store next to a beautiful stranger. Picking out from his mental rolodex of special interests, he can lay down a piece of his awesomeness on the table, and he’d be watchful not to reveal that he secretly loves to sing “Mr. DJ” and “High School Life.” (I had the mental rolodex, but never the bar/cafe/bookstore-and-beautiful-stranger opportunity. If ever there was that opportunity, my “awesomeness” was probably the missing link.)
When I look back at that old self, I could say that was a shrewd tactic – both the college kid’s curated litany of interests, and the former boss’s projection of how much she knows, and how fast she can keep up. I remember how these canned fodder kept me on my toes for the latest trends, the talk of the town, the memes of the moment. There was an obsession on ensuring we weren’t too mainstream or too esoteric, an anxiety over forgetting or mixing up social cue cards – the sorbet is meant to cleanse the palate in between courses, the sherbet is a dessert. By all means, we had to skirt the massive idiotic regions of our brains, those nether parts that led me to ask an ambassador if he’s ever been to Europe – to salvage the faux pas, my former boss stepped in, and then privately lectured me on the perils of not doing my “script” and my “character work” – she herself was a wordsmith and actor. The idea then was for the conversations to seem mature, cinematic and worth transcribing for Woody Allen’s use, or at least for the cheap, easy glory of a facebook post.
I broke loose from that world after sometime, and I realize that my present self does not use that currency in my conversations anymore. I have not met any CEO or ambassador to woo in my new life, and I have been living under a rock inaccessible by the facebook newsfeed. If I assemble talking points now, I wouldn’t know what industry buzzwords to pepper these with other than “weh,” “eh di wow,” and “pag may time.” You see, my currency has devalued.
With this devaluation, I see myself coming to a conversation armed with nothing. When I ask questions, I ask out of the sheer truth that I do not know. I find myself oftentimes shushed both by brilliance and naïveté. Other people’s brilliance stupefies me, and my own naïveté makes me silently respond, “it’s valid, and it’s okay.” There is no paranoia that begs to be masked by the old life’s pompous, contrived wisdom. If before, the old currency requires a steady ping pong of ideas, the new currency gives more room for silence that is not as awkward. A smile is more than enough to fill in the gap. And more and more, I’m learning how to let go of a tendency to rabidly analyze something into shreds, because it’s more delightful and honest to ponder on it, repeat it to myself, as in a serenade, until Providence decides whether to reveal to me what it means, or to keep it locked in her bosom forever. Sounds like a PLW prayer method!
This new currency can work for me now. Devalued, silly, less ambitions, unprepared, but polite and patient. Ideally, its only intention is love, its fodder is joy and genuine concern for the other, and its fruit is peace. This may be the only currency that will have value in eternity.