One of the many effective ways to fall into the generation gap and break my ankle is to mention to my mother that I’m going to hang with friends. It makes her turn all gimlet-eyed and say things like, ‘Again?’ or ‘You people have a lot of time on your hands’ or, frequently, ‘But what do you talk about?’. What she means, according to the large freezing speech bubble that helpfully erupts from her scalp at these times, is: ‘The offspring I fully intended to have would have been busy raising their own children, or holding down a real job, or reading to the blind.’ (And also, ‘Are you going dressed like that?’—that one is permanently installed over her head.)
My parents got married shortly after they learned to tie their shoelaces, so while they love their friends dearly, their primary idea of a support system is family, both nuclear and extended. Friends are people whom my mother visits once in a while for dinner parties, which are carefully planned at least a few days in advance and for which she dresses very nicely, in saris and jewellery. Everyone chats a lot and has fun but, except in rare cases, there’s a slight formality to the relationship.
On my side of the generation gap, friends are the people you relax with. I’m not talking about the dozens of people on Facebook with whom one has never exchanged, and will never exchange a word. I’m talking about people in the real world with whom I have dinner on the spur of the moment, decide to go out or stay in or both, come however we’re dressed, crash at each other’s houses for the night—sometimes in the same bed, chaste as puppies—stay up as long as we want to, and see each other eighteen times a week or once every two months as the case may be, without worrying about whether it’s too much or too little.
My mother can’t understand how we can talk to each other the way we do, swearing like sailors and discussing things she would consider too intimate for anyone but a spouse. (This is of course a matter of temperament; many people in my generation remain fairly guarded even with their closest friends.) She thinks we must surely run out of things to say. In fact she makes spending time with people sound so difficult that I decided to google ‘how to have a conversation’. It turns out that people need more basic help with this than you’d think. Here’s a distillation of the things I learned.
Decide that life is interesting. It’s the only way you’ll want to talk to anyone.
Listen to the other person. By letting them talk about themselves the whole time, you can fool them into thinking you’re one of those rare people who don’t talk about themselves the whole time.
Compliment people, it’s an ice-breaker (but you aren’t supposed to say ‘You have nice boobs’ even if you mean it).
Ask them questions, but space them out so you that don’t sound as if you’re interrogating them.
Forget yourself—if you’re busy worrying about how you look and sound, you won’t listen. But make sure you smile, nod and say ‘I see’ periodically to let the other person know you haven’t fallen asleep.
And finally, some practical tips verbatim from a website called ‘Instructibles’: “Start by saying ‘Hey’ or a similar greeting… If your conversation ends because both of you had said what you could, tell a joke! ‘I wish my grass was Emo, so it would cut itself’. You can use this one, or get another one from the web.”