Being Relevant

Jeff Andresen Website Pic (Staff)

I have been thinking lately about the importance of being “relevant.” I am sure there are a number of applications for the word “relevant,” but I tend to think of it as being the opposite of “random.”

There is a reason I think of relevancy this way. It is probably due to the very minute possibility that someone with whom you are having a really deep, meaningful conversation will stop mid-sentence, extend their finger skyward and say with sincerity, “I am really enjoying our conversation, and I deeply appreciate how it has flowed since it began…thank you for being relevant.” No, that is not likely to happen. However, that same person would not hesitate to label your behavior as “random” if somewhere along the line you decide to interject a secondary conversation with them without communicating your intent, especially if the ancillary topic had little or nothing to do with the original subject.

“Staying on topic” is a behavioral expectation of successful two way communication. People looking for a conversation want responses that relate to the matter at hand they wish to discuss. Relevance ensures that a conversation will actually happen. Without relevance, you really don’t have a conversation. At best, you have an initial comment about the weather followed by some random thought like, “Licorice should be one of the four major food groups.” When random thoughts replace relevant thoughts, an awkward moment of silence typically follows where the individual who initiated the conversation looks like they just discovered that the metal disk in their backyard isn’t a historical marker after all, but merely the lid to the septic system.

I struggle with relevancy. As a result, I think people struggle with me. It’s not that I don’t possess the ability to be relevant; it’s that I don’t always choose to exercise my ability to be relevant. Unfortunately, if a conversation is not interesting or perhaps not as “pressing” as the topic I would prefer to discuss, I just change the topic. This transition can often be abrupt, and as a result, my side of the conversation appears to be random.

I have attempted to soften moments like this by announcing that “I want to change the direction of our discussion due to a lack of interest.” Unfortunately, this approach – while meant to be polite – does not always achieve the intended effect. Instead, it typically accelerates the awkward moment of silence and subsequent “septic lid discovery” look.

For years I shouldered all of the blame for my lack of conversational relevancy. I chalked it up to innate selfish tendencies and struggled under the weight of the guilt spawned by this deficiency. But, recently I discovered a fair way to shirk some of this blame. Take for instance what happened the other day at the grocery store:

I was calmly waiting for the clerk to complete my purchase when she interrupted my thoughts with a seemingly harmless question: “Will there be anything else?” The typical shopper might weigh that question carefully and then consider the need for stamps or perhaps a bag of frozen water cubes for the outrageous price of $2.87. Regrettably, I am not the typical shopper. In my ongoing battle with conversational relevance, “Will there be anything else?” feels like an open invitation to run off and join the “Random Comments Rodeo.”

In a world colored with “random relevance”, open invitations are the result of a perceived lack of clarity regarding the intent of a question. I deem a lack of clarity as a shortcoming, and this is the basis for my “blame-sharing” rationale.

While I appreciated the clerk’s gesture to make sure I left the store without forgetting an overpriced bag of frozen water cubes, I was conflicted by the opportunity to insert a random thought that her lack of clarity suddenly granted. So the rodeo chute opened, and with a quick glance at her name tag, I responded with contrived gravity, “Well, Pam…I suspect if global warming keeps up at the current pace, there will be an unprecedented demand on Bermuda shorts.” Pam immediately activated her flashing counter beacon and started carefully examining the floor for a septic system leak.

I went for years fighting the good fight against conversational relevance. Back in the day, I went to the mat again and again against “the man” who placed so much value on the need to maintain order in the everyday conversation. While I never really knew who “the man” was, I envisioned him being an over-arching force that caused people to talk about bad hips, covered dish recipes and relatives – not that those topics don’t have a place in the hierarchy of today’s conversation arena – they just don’t have a place that interests me, so I tend to digress.

During this period of angst, I saw myself as a leader of an underground rebel movement committed to acts of random conversation. I started a website, invented a secret handshake and had my mother – who is really quite a fine seamstress – make me an arm patch.

I would seek out people at the mall who looked like they wanted to talk to someone, and I would pounce. Usually the unsuspecting candidates were born during the depression era and could often be found under an umbrella eating an oversized cinnamon roll.

I would initiate conversations and then purposely “go random” – without so much as a head tick, verbal stutter or odd nasal noise. As soon as I introduced the random thought, I studiously looked for any sign of annoyance or bewilderment. Depending upon their age or the amount of cinnamon roll that had been consumed, I gave the “subject” plus or minus 15 seconds to react to my misbehavior.

Fully committed to the legacy of this innovative research, I categorized the responses of my mall subjects using the Dewey Decimal system, which I learned as an elementary school library aide.

The research findings showed that the older the individual exposed to the random thought, the more likely the communication would continue despite the injection of a random thought. I also documented a correlation between age and the likelihood that the septic system look materialized.

Ultimately, my hypothesis suggests that age brings with it a certain degree of tolerance for foolish behavior. Of course, this is not always the case. There is always the occasional outlier, and in those cases, things tend to get messy.

Like so many things in life, I eventually conformed. My arm patch is now resting quietly in the closet next to my bell bottom jeans and cut-off Bob Marley t-shirt. I have finally come to grips with the fact that the random comment rodeo circuit is for younger men, and perhaps I really wasn’t that good at rodeo anyway.

For me, relevancy is now a choice. I am no longer tormented by urges to share random thoughts with strangers about my grandmother’s dentures. I am content with the comforts of conversations that stay on topic and happy that my chat-mates’ expressions rarely appear to resemble anything to do with sewage treatment.