On talking to elders

Start a conversation with the elderly

Shoba Narayan shares her conversation strategy with the elderly


Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

Every elder has something worth sharing. Photo: iStockphoto

What is your strategy when you meet elders; those uncles you encounter at weddings? You sit with them, chat desultorily about their prostate, how hot Mumbai has become, and maybe reminisce about the ancestral home or village. The conversation ends abruptly after 5 minutes; and then both parties, with relief, turn to their devices.

I am taking a different approach, perhaps because I am surrounded by octogenarians. I find that every elder has a secret switch; something that they love; something that is worth sharing; that I will enjoy learning. The trick is to find out what—and quickly. It could be particle physics or pranic healing; poetry or the parachute regiment. How to draw them out, if only to make the conversation interesting?

Their career is a good starting point. Questions in this area can be broken down four ways.

Comparison: “Uncle, how is the Indian Army different today from when you were commanding it?”

Prescription: “Auntie, if you could influence today’s attitude towards weavers and textiles, what would you do?”

Takeaways: “Uncle, what was your biggest takeaway from your career with RAW (Research and Analysis Wing, India’s primary foreign intelligence agency)?”

Rewriting history: “If you could do something different, what would it be?”

Such questions are uncomfortable to ask, and even more uncomfortable for them to confront. These are modest folks. They are not forthcoming and dislike talking about themselves. Often, you meet them in social settings—at parties or weddings—where pleasantries, even if boring, are the norm. They are not used to laser-like questions. As Roger Angell says in his essay, “This Old Man”, in The New Yorker, “…we elders have learned a thing or two, including invisibility.” Elders are used to being ignored; talked over. They expect politeness; genuine interest is new for them. In these circumstances, how do you cut to the chase?

It helps if you warm up to the topic. Start by saying that you have been reading about foreign intelligence, textiles, architecture, the behaviour of wasps, or whatever it is that uncle or auntie is an expert at. You have to give them four sentences at least as preamble before springing the question. You have to be prepared for uncomfortable laughter and non-answers. “Actually, there was no one takeaway as you call it. We were so busy filling the need of the hour that…well….” The voice trails away.

Women of that generation are trickier, particularly if they have been homemakers. They may ramble, go around in circles. They haven’t been exposed to management-speak and bullet points. Their wisdom is homespun; passed along through long anecdotes. They take time to get to the nub of things. You have to slow down and listen.

The question for many is, “Why bother?” Why bother hanging around old people? Sometimes, like when your parents live with you, near you, or come to visit, it isn’t a choice. They are around and you have to talk about something. Sometimes, it is a way of engaging with your relatives or friends’ parents. I could tell you that elders give you perspective, but that takes time. So really, it boils down to not getting bored; to figure out a way to engage your mind by engaging theirs.

Some months ago, at a memorial service for Anne Warrior, the educator who co-founded the Mallya Aditi School in Bengaluru, several people, including her grandson, spoke about Warrior’s love of poetry. My grandmother could make anyone love poetry, said her grandson, and I quote from memory. I used to meet her about once a month when both of us were members of The Bangalore Black Tie. We chit-chatted. Not once did we speak about poetry. Indeed, I didn’t know about her interest in this topic till her memorial service.

How do you pass along a passion? Often, it is simply through presence, conversation, and the passing remark. If some subject can give you pleasure in your 80s, would you study it—even if it is “useless” like classical music, dance or poetry? Is something worth learning, not for an immediate goal but for a gradual moulding of the mind?

Poetry is one of the last bastions of the cultured mind. Schoolchildren memorize poems, and then drop it once they hit college. I haven’t read poetry for decades. I didn’t know how to until very recently, when I experienced it through the eyes of Warrior and my father. He has unintentionally unpackaged this world in a way that I can access it. When I tell him about a forthcoming trip to Varanasi, he says Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote a poem titled Brahma. So I read it. This then is how seepage happens—ideas and thoughts that migrate from one mind to another.

So the next time you meet an elder, ask them a question or two. You might be surprised at their opinions; you will be enriched by their knowledge. You will be in their shoes one day.

Shoba Narayan has been freaking out elders with her questions for some months now. She tweets at @ShobaNarayan and posts on Instagram as shobanarayan.

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7 thoughts on “On talking to elders

  1. Love your insight.
    Hello Shobha ji, I’m part of a Global Youth run organisation named AIESEC and we’re having a YouthSpeak Forum in Bangalore for all the youngsters in the city on the 29th of November. It is being piloted by the United Nations. We would love for you to cover the event on your blog and help us gain more outreach in the city.

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  2. Very sensitive article.
    There is a saying in Hindi that hair does not turn grey-white by standing out in the sun thereby giving credence to age and experience.
    When we were growing up there was no ageism as is seen now in Bharat.
    In fact we were encouraged to sit with elders and talk to them and there was a lot we learnt from them.
    After marriage,moving to a new city there were elderly neighbours who became mothers to me.Many of those lovely people have left this world but are still alive in my memory for the sage advice they gave me- simple tips on child-rearing,deep profound truths of our Dharma or clever tips on cooking -even keeping vegetables fresh.
    As Shoba writes -each one has a secret switch……….that needs to be energized …….to rekindle the sparkle of their dimming eyes for sooner or later we all shall go the same way!

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  3. Elders are a repository of knowledge, wisdom through experience and are always a guiding light for the younger generations. The scenarios which you have so aptly captured form one form of knowledge transfer. The other and more interesting part is the knowledge transfer of the secret recipes of Oorgas (pickles), Puliyogre mixes, the papadams and appalams, the vathal and the works. The measures of hand and ability to judge the quality of a dish through smell is something that can’t be captured by words.
    You have so rightly mentioned that one day all of us would be in that age. Well, what we miss to see is that they have reached that age through some good exercise, diet control and a very simple and contended life.. Much different from the stressful, gadget filled lives we lead.. Alas.. if we only we followed their lifestyle, we dont require science and medicine to keep us alive 🙂

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  4. Very nice write up and quite relevant too! The point you have mentioned about evoking someone’s interest is quite general in nature and works with almost everyone! Keep writing.

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