How to Ruin a Conversation (and My Day)

Or, Why I Hate the Pastry Man

Jun 25, 2017 · 4 min read

“The art of conversation,” wrote William Hazlitt, “is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”

The Pastry Man, it seems, has never heard of William Hazlitt.

Let me tell you his story.

Meet the Pastry Man

I am in Thailand, at my favorite coffee shop. A cool morning breeze tickles my hair. As, I page through the book I am reading (Seneca’s Letters, of course), I pause occasionally to listen to the the gentle hum of the espresso machine or inhale the aroma of roasted coffee beans. Still reading, I take a sip of my espresso. Excellent. The day could not be any better.

That is when the Pastry Man strikes.

“Hey,” says a voice behind me. I groan. It’s him. “I’m fine, just getting some reading done,” I start to say. But before I can open my mouth, I hear the voice again. “Good to hear it. Good.”

The Pastry Man is in next to me now, standing uncomfortably close. He reaches into the brown paper bag he is carrying and pulls out a chocolate pastry, carefully spilling crumbs onto my table, into my coffee (I am allergic), onto the pages of my book. Little bits of fat stain the pages. He chuckles. I mumble something about needing to “get some work done,” but the Pastry Man is already sitting down.

“Man these pastries are so nice. Flaky, buttery, crisp. A French guy makes them, you know. A real French guy. Do you know about him?”

I tell him that this is the third time that he has told me about the French man. He laughs, spraying more crumbs into my coffee. Now he is pulling out his iPad. I try to stand up. He presents me with a photo of his ex-girlfriend. I try to go to the bathroom. He shows me his niece.

By the time I find a convenient lull in the conversation to escape, the sun is high in the sky.

What’s Wrong With the Pastry Man?

I think we all know our own version of the Pastry Man. What is the problem here? Why are these conversations so suffocating?

One reason, I think, is that these people are blind to the feelings the others. There is no doubt in their mind that what is interesting to THEM must be interesting to everyone else.

The Pastry Man problem reminds me of a comical essay by Umberto Eco, from How to Travel with a Salmon & Other Essays, titled “How Not to Talk about Soccer.”

Here’s a small excerpt:

“I don’t like the soccer fan, because he has a strange defect: he cannot understand why you are not a fan yourself, and he insists on talking to you as if you were.”

“It isn’t that he doesn’t care a fig that I don’t care a fig. It’s that he can’t conceive that anyone could exist and not care a fig. He wouldn’t understand it even if I had three eyes and a pair of antennae emerging from the green scales of my nape. He has no notion of the diversity, the variety, the incomparability of the various possible worlds.”

That ignorance is bad enough already, but there’s another problem with soccer fans and pastry men. I think Emerson’s captures the problem quite well in his journals when he writes:

“Another vice of manners which I do not easily forgive is the dulness of purception which talks to every man alike. As soon as I perceive that my man does not know me, but is making his speech to the man that happens to be there, I wish to gag him.”

Imagine that, in the middle of our “conversation”, the Pastry Man fumbles his pastry. Crumbs fly through the air. As he bends over to save his breakfast, I make my escape. Vanishing in a puff of smoke, I leave behind a wooden log, pausing only to hang my glasses on one of its branches.

Surely, the Pastry Man would dust off his pastry (scattering more crumbs onto my book, no doubt), chuckle at the log, and continue showing it pictures he scanned from his high school yearbook.

Hours may pass before he notices I am gone.

The Pastry Man does not see me for who I am, does not care about my interests, experiences, opinions and fears. Replace me with another human — or even with a log — and he makes no change. In a world with seven billion people, he sees only himself.

I hate the Pastry Man, but there is something I must ask myself.

How often is the Pastry Man me?

The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand

Charles Chu

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The Polymath Project

Figuring out how to live in a world we don't understand