What you can learn about the art of spontaneous conversation from 'Mortal City' and its creatorBy Benjamin KormanOct 13, 2017 12:44 PM
When was the last time you had a truly great conversation? One that opens your eyes to worlds and perspectives you didn't know existed, with stories that inspire, amaze, and maybe even shock you? Journalist and creator of the new Audible Original series, Mortal City, Kathleen Horan meets people like these every day, and if you ask her she'd tell you that you can do the same. You just need to know where to look - and what to say.
As a reporter for WNYC, a public radio station based in New York City, Horan has built a career out of her ability to engage with strangers. But she takes it a step further than that in Mortal City changed -- a sort of "pre-obituary" for peoplewhose lives would otherwise be summed up with a line or two of ink. At first blush, using mortality as a conversation-starter may seem awkward, but instead, it's uplifting. "It feels really good to tell a stranger what you want to be remembered for." Horan says. "What's the stuff that makes you - you?'"
Each episode of Mortal City tells the story of a different mortal that Kathleen encountered by chance. There's Frankie Cocktail, the legendary drag performer who inspired a famous mixed drink. Commander Rocky, a volunteer ambulance corps organizer (and reformed pimp) who "started hip-hop." Mona, whose living is to help people as they rummage through their pasts. In episode 8, Horan meets SoHo restauranteur Serge, who divulges the details of his, let's say... impressive promiscuity. Jared from episode 6, who runs a DNA testing service out of his van and has story upon story of the lives he's changed-changed -- and the marriages he's ended -- with the results he's given his clients. And, of course, from Episode 5's Zoe, a writer and former sex worker, she uncovers the details of a "massage therapist's" (wink) studied, clinical approach to sex.
Here are some of Horan's tips for going out into the world and talking to absolutely anyone -- and, don't worry, they don't involve the subject of death:
Don't be afraid of strangers. It's counter to one of the first lessons we learned, but for Horan, it was inevitable. "I always felt curious about the forbidden thing of talking to strangers," Horan said. "It really stirred my imagination to people watch, and to reduce myself enough so that I could eavesdrop and listen in on other people's existences." Getting familiar with strangers is the easiest way to broaden your horizons - and it's faster and cheaper than traveling the world.
Seize every opportunity to connect. The best way to get people talking is to do it when they least expect it. Otherwise "lost time" spent in places like public transportation is an opportunity for conversational discovery. "You're neither here nor there," Horan says, "It creates this sense of being in between places that produces this feeling of possibility." Don't believe it? Horan has had many memorable experiences on the subway: consoling teary-eyed passengers, holding hands with someone she just met, impromptu 4 a.m. dance parties. "There are all these different strata of people stuck underground in one big pot," she says, something she likens to being stuck in line at the post office. "You have to face off and witness each other."
Investigate the unusual. Ever walk around your neighborhood or town and notice something that was kind of "off"? An oddly decorated home, an out-of-place street sign, or something downright creepy? Sometimes the key to talking about "anything" is finding the right "anybody," and Horan has learned those sore thumbs usually come with a killer backstory. "I was walking past a street in my neighborhood and someone had made a stuffed animal garden. All these crazy stuffed animals in trees, in the tomato plants, and even crucified on the fence posts. Like, who is the joker or magician creating this blooming pet cemetery surrounded by serious brownstone owners?" So, she decided to investigate. "He was this old Brooklyn guy who'd been there for 42 years. He told me the story of the pet cemetery and stories about old Brooklyn. We ended up getting on the subject of [the death of] his sister," Horan says. "There was never any small talk." Which brings us to her next big tip:
Don't bother with small talk. What's the biggest obstacle between you and a life-changing conversation? Asking people if they've "got a minute." From clipboard-wielding urban fundraisers to door-to-door pitchmen, a throat-clearing opening can be a huge blocker to a real conversation. It's excellent advice Horan gleaned from her approach to solicitors, believe it or not. "You always have to throw yourself into their path," she said. "And before they realize it, they're having an exchange with you." If you start your conversation in the middle, then you'll get more out of the limited time you already have. Can it be awkward? Yes. But a great conversation can easily overshadow the awkwardness.
Keep an eye open for strangers. Seek out the places that everybody visits. Investigate the unusual. Cut the small talk. Strike up a conversation. The world is full of an infinite number of stories, as Kathleen Horan and Mortal City do a great job of illustrating. And if you open your ears to them, you, too, might be introduced to someone you can't believe exists.