From a phenomenal personal essay: “Go West” by Peter Hessler in The New Yorker (April 19, 2010). Note: All of Hessler’s pieces for The New Yorker are incredible.
The American appetite for loneliness impressed me, and there was something about this solitude that freed conversation. One night at a bar, I met a man, and within five minutes he explained that he had just been released from prison. … I learned there’s no reliable small talk in America; at any moment a conversation can become personal.
… in the States, I often had trouble responding to personal stories. But soon I realized that it didn’t make much difference what I said. Many Americans were great talkers, but they didn’t like to listen. If I told somebody in a small town that I had lived overseas for fifteen years, the initial response was invariably the same: “Were you in the military?” After that, people had few questions. Leslie and I learned that the most effective way to kill our end of a conversation was to say that we were writers who had lived in China for more than a decade.