My last blog was on learning how to become a great conversationalist through careful observation and listening, and asking targeted questions. As mentioned, when you do this, you can create a bond with the other person, and through such bonding, many wonderful things may happen. (https://eloquentenglishsite.wordpress.com/2017/06/07/i-know-the-difference-between-open-ended-and-close-ended-questions-and-i-still-cant-talk-to-strangers-whats-going-on/).
I just finished a book by Michael Faber* called Under the Skin. What a strange book: part science fiction, part horror, part black comedy. After reading it, I realized that it perfectly illustrates how to use open-ended questions to create an empathic bond with others — but in this case, the reason for developing this empathy is so, so wrong.
Potential Spoiler Alert
The main character’s name is Isserley, and when you meet her, she is driving around Scotland, trying to pick up men: she only wants well-muscled, fit specimens. As you continue to read, you realise that there is something not quite right about her: her appearance, the way she talks . . . and that she happily anaesthetises each man after she’s chatted with him. Eventually you realise that she is taking them to her company’s headquarters so her colleagues can kill them for meat. Isserley and her co-workers come from another planet, and they do not recognise us Earthlings as being truly human; they do love munching on our tender flesh, however.
Isserley understands that she must select people who do not have family or friends in the area, because their absence would be immediately noted; hence, she drives extremely carefully to avoid police detection and asks all her potential victims targeted, open-ended questions to get them to open up to her so she can ascertain whether they can safely disappear. Forever. Bums, drunkards, students, professionals; she knows how to chat them all up.
Below are two examples of her conversations with potential victims. I have sometimes changed the words to standard English versus the thick Scottish dialect Faber has his characters speak. (I stands for Isserley and V for Victim.)
I: “So what brings you out on the road today?”
V: “Staying at home was driving me crazy.”
I: “In between jobs, then?”
V: “Jobs don’t exist up here. No such fuckin’ thing.”
I: “The government still expects you to look for them though, doesn’t it?”
Go, Isserley. She infers that the guy is out of work because he is staying at home all day. Aha! If this guy isn’t working, maybe he doesn’t have a lot of contacts, so he could be a possible specimen.
I: “What is there for you in Thurso?
V: “I don’t know. Perhaps nothing.”
I: “And if there is nothing?”
V: “I’m going there because I have never been there.”
I: “You’re travelling through the entire country?”
I: “Travelling alone?”
I: “For the first time?”
V: “When I was young I have travelled a lot in Europe with my parents.”
OK, she does ask close-ended questions as well, but Isserley is weaving a web of questions around her victims, just as a spider does to a fly. Very soon, these men find themselves giving away far too much information under her seemingly harmless queries.
Hopefully, you do not want to create empathy for destructive purposes! I hope it can be argued that one can learn from terrible people (or aliens) as well as from wonderful ones . . . and fiction, in the hands of a skilful writer, can illuminate communication better than almost anything.
Next time you pick up a book, start noticing the type conversations the characters have with each other. Doubtless you can learn tons from your own books, as well. Feel free to email me with interesting titles!
*Under the Skin by Michael Faber. New York: Harcourt, 2000.
(In 2014, this book was the inspiration for a film of the same name, starring Scarlett Johansson.)