The first time I realised I wasn’t as charming as I had previously thought was when I was in Rio, hanging out with a man called Paulo.
Paulo was 50, and he ran the BJJ academy I was staying at – he didn’t practise himself – and he reminded me of my grandad a bit, and he was the most charming man in the world. On the day he met me at the airport, he screeched into a petrol station and honked at the attendants and nearly ran one of them over, and then by the time he left, they were all be laughing and waving at him like they were sending an old friend off on a round the world trip. My Portuguese wasn’t up to much at the time, so I don’t know what he was saying, but it worked. And he would do this with everyone – friends, relatives, people in surf shops, the men who sell fresh coconuts out of little huts on the beach – he could make anybody laugh, and get things cheap, and get things done.
Anyway: one fine day, we were on our way to see the big Jesus, slightly lost, trying to read a map and there was a police car in front of us. There was also a barricade, and a load of young chaps wandering around in what might have been gang colours. Inevitably, the police car pulled up, flashed its lights, and all the men in it – in plain clothes – leapt out, waving guns. One of them – who looked a bit schoolteachery – has a machine gun. And instead of doing what I´d have done on my own – squealing and hiding under the seats – Paulo pulled up next to him and asks for directions. And unbelievably, the guy lowered his gun, smiled and stopped for a quick chat. Then, after one of the other police shouted something, he remembered what he was actually supposed to be doing and went to help his mates, who were rounding up the young gangsters. Amazing.
The internet is undoubtedly a fine thing, but here’s one was it has definitely made your life worse: you almost never have to talk to anyone you don’t want to any more.
In the era that might as well be christened Before Internet, your friends were basically whoever worked with you, or lived on your street. Now, although you probably know most of the people in your office, chances are you have no idea who your neighbours are. You don’t have to talk to cashiers or shop assistants or travel agents or bus drivers, since everything’s completely automated. You can happily get through a day only talking to your own friends, who you’ve pre-selected because they share your sense of humour and political opinions.
Doing that would be terrible. Not only is talking to people fun, it’s also fundamental to having a decent quality of life. Talking to people will help you make new friends, learn new skills, get favours done, get things fixed, get better treatment in shops and bars, learn about the world. It’s one of the most fundamental skills you can develop. Talking to people is often quite literally better than paying them when it comes to getting them to do things. Even if/when the world goes full-bore Day Of The Dead, being able to talk the gunstore owner into sharing his jerky with you is going to be more important than all that parkour you’ve been doing. Learning to talk to people is one of the never-discussed reasons why it’s a good idea to go to school, and yet hardly anyone deliberately tries to make themselves better at it.
I’m not amazing at talking to people, but I’m pretty solid. I decided to get better in my 20s, and I’m better than I was. There are lots of good resources out there for learning to do it: I recommend Dale Carnegie’s How To Make Friends And Influence People, which is deservedly popular, much less unpleasantly creepy than it sounds and actually more like a primer on why being a decent human being is a good idea. But really, there’s no substitute for actually doing it. You can practise on charity muggers – they’re desperate to talk to you. Or you can challenge yourself in everyday situations – I used to know a chap who regularly tried to make people who got into a lift with him laugh, and he only worked on the third floor. But you have to actually do it. You can work your way up to armed policemen, but you have to start somewhere.
HOMEWORK: This week, start a conversation with three people you wouldn’t normally talk to: someone in your office, someone at the gym, the person who gets you coffee – whoever. If you can make them laugh or otherwise brighten up their day, great – but just saying something non-necessary (including comments about the weather) and getting a response (anything that’s an actual word) counts. This might be easy, or it might be hard – either way, get it done. More next week.