It Seems To Us: Can We Talk?
A question we are asked sometimes by non-hams is, "When you're on the radio, what do you talk about?" It's a good question with many possible answers.
Sometimes we talk with friends about the sorts of things that anyone might talk about in a public place. Sometimes we don't talk about anything at all -- we just make contacts. And sometimes we make a contact that grows into a genuine conversation, and possibly even into a friendship.
For many of us, being able to talk to people in other places and to learn something about them is what first attracted us to Amateur Radio and is still the most rewarding part. There was a time when we enjoyed a virtual monopoly on such communication. International telephone calls were prohibitively expensive and you would never meet a stranger that way, anyway. You could be matched up with a "pen pal," but it would take weeks to exchange thoughts by mail. Few people could afford the time and money to travel to distant points on the globe, and some places were essentially off limits -- but radio amateurs could and did regularly breach the Iron Curtain.
Today the Internet extends a similar opportunity to billions of people, but -- even putting the magic of radio aside -- there is still something special about being able to do it without paying for a connection and without having to wade through the spam, false identities, and many other afflictions of the online world. Amateur Radio certainly has its own problems, but when we encounter another radio amateur on the air or in person we can be reasonably confident that we hold in common some interests, experiences and values.
Yet, we miss many opportunities to go beyond just "making a contact." From listening to the ham bands, either on phone or CW, the casual observer might conclude that there isn't much content to our communication. You may think that this is a recent development brought about by the 21st Century's frenetic pace, short attention spans, the demands of multitasking, and so on. But it isn't. Digging into past issues of QST uncovers the following gem, by Editor-in-Chief Kenneth B. Warner, at the top of this very page in March 1936: "One of the saddest objects in the radio world is an amateur who can't make conversation." The theme recurs in various forms through the ensuing decades.
There is a time and a place for everything. Interrupting a roaring pileup is hardly the way to introduce oneself to a potential new friend. Rare propagation events demand brevity, not chattiness. Contesters want you to call them, but appreciate your keeping the exchange to the essentials. Sometimes language barriers, weak signals, or interference limit our ability to progress beyond a basic contact.
But there are other times when taking a stab at breaking out of the "formula QSO" -- signal report, location, name, rig, antenna, and perhaps the weather -- can pay dividends. Sometimes it will, sometimes it won't -- but as in so much of life, what you get out of it depends on what you're willing to put in.
Where to start? To borrow a few more of Ken Warner's immortal words, "Jot down a few things to talk about. We don't have to pry into each other's souls but each new QSO offers warm human possibilities that far transcend mere shop-talk about gear and circuit conditions. First step in learning to visit over the air is to be prepared to do your part of the conversing, by arming yourself with a few openers." By example he suggested age, occupation, the size of one's town, number of children, and other interests.
Once the "formula QSO" has begun, the other operator's basic information can provide a potential thread. Maybe you have visited his city or state, or somewhere nearby. Maybe you haven't, but have thought about it and would like some suggestions of what to see and do. Maybe you know of another town with the same name in another state or country. Anything that establishes common ground can provide a foundation for an enjoyable chat that will elevate the contact above being just another log entry.
And what if he or she doesn't take the bait? Don't worry about it. There could be any number of reasons why, having nothing to do with you. All you have invested is a couple of minutes of your time and a miniscule amount of electricity.
When you next have a bit of operating time, skip the pileup on the station that you don't need. Instead, tune around for someone calling CQ or finishing a contact. Or, find a clear frequency and call CQ yourself. Be prepared to say more than "hello" and "goodbye."
It could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.