There was once a bar that had a simple rule, something more important than, “No shirt, no shoes, no service.” More crucial than, “Tip your servers.” More sacred, even, than, “No repeat songs on the jukebox as you’re leaving.” The simple rule, emblazoned above the entrance and along the bar itself and on the matchbooks that were left over from before the smoking ban was implemented was this: “No work talk.” They were serious about it, too. Long ago the bar’s owner had hired a sorceress to craft an enchantment that would notify the bartender on duty if anyone broke the rule, and the bartender was under strict instructions to enforce compliance through any means – including, if necessary, the magic sword that hung under the bar.
What this meant, interestingly, was that very few coworkers came into the bar. For all the claims to the contrary, most after-work functions were really about work, and discussions almost always turned back that direction anyway. But while the happy hour crowd was a bit sparse, the bar more than made up for it by providing a spot for its patrons to practice having a conversation with one another. Like all of us, they had grown accustomed to conversational shortcuts, which are very useful things that allow people to fill the silence very pleasantly without learning much of anything about the others involved in the discussion. And of course, that old standby was perhaps the most-used of those shortcuts: “So, what do you do?”
Without this question to fall back on, early conversations at the bar was often a rather stilted thing. The question was so ingrained in the patrons, and silence felt safer than the potential for an encounter with the bartender’s sword if that old standby should slip out.
Eventually, one night came where the silence was a bit too strained, and one of the patrons turned to their neighbor and said, “So, what do you…er, care about?” The neighbor stopped for a moment and then realized that not only did they have an answer, but they were rather delighted to have been asked. The patron who had asked the question didn’t get another word in for a while, but that was all right.
It was slow going, at first, but soon others took up the challenge. They thought long and hard to come up with questions for one another that might lead to an interesting conversation. And most of the conversations were pretty interesting, because the patrons came to an unspoken agreement that they would only talk about things that felt important to them. So if someone asked a question, or brought up a topic, you knew that it wasn’t a trivial exercise. The bar removed one conversational shortcut, and the patrons decided to skip the others.
So the conversations were interesting, even if they sometimes lead to polite (and not so polite) disagreements. But even then, it’s helpful to learn something real about the people you share a drink or a meal with. You might meet a new friend or discover your sworn enemy. Either way, it’s information that you might find really handy to have in the future.
At the bar, then, alliances were forged, enmity was discovered, relationships developed with clarity and authenticity, and – above all – nobody ever queued up 10 repeats of Neil Diamond on their way out the door.