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Has quarantine stolen your ability to make conversation?
Stephanie Hayes | Finding advice in the self-help section.
The nonfiction section of the Dunedin Public Library on Sept. 10.
The nonfiction section of the Dunedin Public Library on Sept. 10. [ STEPHANIE HAYES | Tampa Bay Times ]
Published Sep. 11, 2020
Updated Sep. 11, 2020

It has recently come to management’s attention that as a species, we have forgotten how to socialize. This is because we have been in our homes for half the year, having meaningful conversations with the following: children; house plants; whole grain cereals.

Now that people may be (slowly, carefully, mask-edly) reintegrating into life, what is there to talk about? We have become sedentary lumps with few interests outside Selling Sunset on Netflix. Here’s a sample conversation:

“How’s it going?”

“Oh, you know. Happy to have my health!”

“What have you been up to?”

pregnant pause

“The grocery guy brought two-percent instead of skim. You know, it’s just, when am I going to catch a break?”

One option is to discuss the political, socioeconomic and public health state of the world. But with friends, one does not want to feel as if one is standing in a tire fire.

To get our dazzling personalities back, we must start at the foundation of all human interaction: self-help books. I ventured into the Dunedin Public Library. Choices, choices. Finding Your Way in a New World. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. My Dad and Me by Larry King.

Tempting, but there’s no time for Larry King! I settled on How to Make People Like You in 90 Seconds or Less by Nicholas Boothman. The tagline: Learn to read body language, synchronize behavior and make warm, meaningful connections. For all occasions, business, social and personal.

Someone started playing a soccer match loudly on his laptop. I remembered that being in public can be annoying, humans are rude, and maybe home is not so bad. Rather than face the problem head on, I inserted earbuds, glowered and appeared less likable than ever.

Back to the book. The greeting is important, he writes. Open your attitude and body language. Be the first one to make eye contact. Perfect, since eyes are all we have left.

Be first to smile. Well, that’s out. Say hello and attach your name to it. Got it. Extend your hand to… no. Do a subtle forward tilt… are we 6 feet apart? Then a whole passage on handshakes. To be fair, this book was printed in 2000, when everything felt possible.

The Spotify station drowning out the soccer match played Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 in C Minor, which any proper Celine Dion fan knows is the basis for All By Myself. It was a sign.

I switched to the miniature edition of How to Win Friends and Influence People by Dale Carnegie, published in 1936. Much more relevant.

“If you want to know how to make people shun you and laugh at you behind your back and even despise you, here is the recipe: Never listen to anyone for long. Talk incessantly about yourself.”

Related: Read more columns from Stephanie Hayes

Now we were onto something. The key to being likable is to talk less about yourself. Give full attention to your friend’s boring grocery stories, not your own.

The soccer guy left, so to celebrate, I thumbed through What My Cat Has Taught Me About Life by Niki Anderson. Some food was smudged inside the book, a faint reminder of our shared human experience.

In one story, a cat named Maggie was having her semiannual molt. Poor Mags! Ah, but wait. Shedding is normal and makes way for new hair.

Maybe this forced isolation has a positive side. Maybe we should study how we relate to one another — good, bad or library soccer match — before jumping back in to yammering about our latest drama.

“Think positively about change,” the cat book said. “Regard it instead as an EXchange — the surrender of one thing to gain another.” It ended with a quote by Thoreau:

“Things do not change, we do.”

Dang. If the cats knew all this...

I eyed the Larry King book.

Related: Have you recently microwaved a library book? Please read on.