Conversations With Strangers

Conversations With Strangers

I pulled up in front of the West Loop wine bar and waited. After a few minutes, an attractive blonde woman came rushing out. She hopped in my backseat and immediately apologized for making me wait. I told her I didn’t mind because it was a slow night. We pulled away and she seemed nice and friendly, and outside of holding your vomit down, that’s all I really require from a person I’m driving around.

I asked her about her night and we made small talk as we drove north on Lake Shore Drive. Eventually she touched on the troubles she was having with her boyfriend. I always tread lightly when people open up and expose their soft underbelly. I understand the vulnerable position they are putting themselves in and I try to respect that by not crossing any lines. I just let her vent because I could tell that’s all she really needed. She told me about how her boyfriend did like doing nice things for her but they were all the wrong things, and rarely the right ones. She told me how he bought her jewelry, then she showed me the Tiffany’s bracelet her got her that weekend and how she hated jewelry. She said that she had told him multiple times but he got it for her anyway and now she felt guilty that she had to wear it in order to not make him feel bad. She said he didn’t handle criticism well. That he internalized everything and would almost punish himself when he did something that didn’t meet her approval. She expressed how frustrating it was for her but that she still loved him and went on to tell me how good of a guy he truly was. That it wasn’t so much that he did things “wrong”, but that he just didn’t do things “right”.

I listened and nodded along and asked her to clarify some of his behaviors and she finally came to the end of her rant when we turned off Lake Shore. I asked her if she was happy and she said, “Well, yeah… I guess so.”

It was a familiar tone I have heard throughout the years when I have asked about a person’s happiness within a relationship. It is the slight inflections and variations of enthusiasm that are dead giveaways. When you are IN love and talking about the person that reflects your future, you can’t wait to talk about them. You almost gush to the point where you have to hold back. You just want the world to know how genuinely happy you are because it’s such a rarity in this world. But the two most telling aspects are – the amount of hesitation between asking and you responding, and does your voice rise or fall in your response. It is an old trick public speaking trick I learned along the way. When your voice rises, it gives the listener a subconscious feeling of which can be interpreted as enthusiasm, urgency, or passion. And if your voice falls, it give the impression of apologetic, empathetic, or a lack of passion. And depending upon the question, it can give people away immediately.

A friend of mine was getting married and I was a groomsman. We were all putting on our tuxes and chatting about how crazy it was that our friend, a notable bachelor, was about to get married, when I caught the groom and said, “Damn, it’s crazy that you’re actually getting married. Good for you.” And he responded with a nervous smile and laugh and said, “Well, if not her, then who else?”
It wasn’t a joke. It was said with full nervous conviction. As if to say, “I mean, this one is good enough, right?”

I distinctly recall how he paused and how his voice fell when he said that phrase. He was one of the first of our little crew to get married and I could hear that something wasn’t right. I knew it then and there. And I was right. They got divorced only a few years later. Since then, literally thousands of people have come to me asking for insight – which is why I started my podcast and this website. But those few little “tells” are usually how I gauge the future of a relationship and I have never been wrong.

I didn’t tell her that I knew her relationship wouldn’t last. I told her that she needed to attempt to communicate her needs and desires a little more clearly and understand that no one is perfect and that compromise is the key to making a relationship fair and reasonable. That there are plenty of worse things than a Tiffany’s bracelet but that wasn’t the point. The point was, she wasn’t happy because the bracelet was just a reminder of the lack of communication. Because we all like to think that everyone is capable of effective communication within the relationship dynamic but the truth is, each one of us has a certain style made up of deal-breakers and desires. And the only way we can truly make a relationship work is to attempt to decode their language and attempt to speak it. Most of the time we can’t. And that is why most relationships fail. Because we either don’t bother taking the time to understand, or we get frustrated that we are speaking two different languages.

I dropped her off at her condo and she shook my hand and said, “Thank you for listening. Someone should pay you for this.” I laughed and said, “You have a good night.” And I waited for her to get into her place safely then I drove away and headed back home. The streets were quiet and the streetlights flickered across my windshield and all I could think was, how many women said those words about me. I wondered how many women I had dated asked total strangers for advice on how to save our failing relationship. I wondered if they spoke with a pause. I wondered if their voice rose or sank. And I wondered if our dating adventures were really just lessons on how to understand our own language. Or more importantly, how to teach it to others.

About author

Christopher Gutierrez

Christopher Gutierrez is the author of several books on love, sex, and relationships. He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Deep End, in addition to running Deadxstop Publishing. Since 2006, he has given hundreds of speakings at colleges, coffee houses and universities all over the world.

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