I was having a conversation the other day and realized that some of my friends and I have wildly different tendencies when it comes to having conversations. And it helped me see how differently people approach social interactions. So I’ve described three different levels that I think most people engage conversations at. I hope you can find yourself somewhere in here and if not, make a suggestion for any level you think should be included too.
Surfing is the ability to talk about anything, whether stupid or serious, with sophistication. These are people who can spend hours talking about everything and nothing and make it wildly entertaining. But it’s not the content that makes it surfing, but the way that the content is expressed. People who aren’t surfers will hear surfers talk and think they’re shallow, immature, or just plain stupid. But in reality, if you watch surfers closely, you’ll discover that they’re talking about legitimately deep things, just in shallow ways. They’re different from sea gulls—people who just talk about nonsense with no connection to life at all and are never at risk of talking about anything of remote depth. A surfer can talk about superheroes and use them to describe their life. Sea gulls will just talk about superheroes and nothing else.
An example of surfing would be the following exchange.
Guy #1: How are you and Serena? You like her?
Guy #2: I don’t know, man.
Guy #1: If a relationship is baking a cake, what are you guys?
Guy #2: I’m at the grocery store shopping for the ingredients.
Guy #1: So you wanna bake the cake?
Guy #2: Yes. But the thing is my kitchen is still dirty from the last cake that exploded in my oven. So I’m trying to take it slow and clean my pots and pans first.
What’s interesting about surfing is that occasionally, a wave will come along that will be too big to surf and will send everyone in the conversation—even people who weren’t surfing—crashing underwater. And for a second everyone is plunged deeper before finally coming back to the surface. This is that moment where a clever joke or witty analogy actually hits home. It’s when you’re laughing, but deep down you’re thinking, “Wow. That actually ministered to me.” Meanwhile, the surfers are chilling on their surfboards like, “Yeah? You liked that right?” We all need surfers because they remind us not to take life so seriously all the time.
Snorkeling is when people talk about things that are deeper than small talk, but not deep enough to be truly intimate. These include conversations about friends, family, career goals, cool ideas, politics and religion, etc. Some of these are pretty dolphins(friends, family, career) while some of them are sharks(politics and religion). But regardless, they’re much deeper than surfing on the surface and this is when real beauty or real danger can happen.
An example of snorkeling would be the following exchange:
Man: So what do you want to do with Biology?
Woman: I’m thinking of doing research to find cures to diseases.
Man: That’s cool. Why are you interested in that?
Woman: My mother was diagnosed with leukemia when I was little.
Man: Oh wow. Sorry to hear that.
Woman: Yeah. Now we’re getting deep. Let’s talk about something else.
Deep sea diving
Deep sea divers are people who spend their time talking about deep, soul-searching issues. You know you’re with a deep sea diver when you’re surfing through Pokémon one second and the next plunging into your father abandoning you when you were three. Deep sea divers thrive under the pressure of deeply intimate conversations. Nothing is awkward for them. They never feel uncomfortable with people’s mess and they enjoy digging deeper and deeper into an issue. There are some deep sea divers who aren’t even human divers and in reality are full-blown mermaids. These are people who can live in deep conversations indefinitely and never have to come up for air.
An example of deep sea diving would be the following exchange.
Woman #1: You scared me! I don’t like when people come up behind me.
Woman #2: Really? Why?
Woman #1: It makes me uncomfortable.
Woman #2: Let’s unpack that.
You’re probably wondering: which of these levels is the best?
All of them.
A healthy person is able to spend time in all of these different levels. None of the levels are better than the others—they’re just different. But when someone spends too much time in one without ever exploring the others, that’s when problems arise.
For example, real surfers can tell the difference between someone who loves surfing because it’s fun and someone who loves surfing because they’re running from something that bit them the last time they went deep. On the other hand, some mermaids will spend so much time in Atlantis that they’re completely disconnected from the surface world and you can’t even have a conversation about their favorite food with them. They can get so deep that they no longer have hobbies, interests, or common ground with anyone else but other mermaids.
We all need to spend time swimming at each of these levels. And the best way to do that is to build relationships with people who swim at different levels than we do.
So which level are you?