Tips from Tai Missoni: How to zigzag through a conversation
In the run-up to Booth Moore's story about the Missoni family -- which appears in Sunday's Image section --the Times fashion critic and I joined three generations of the family for a Friday afternoon lunch that ended up lasting so long it was nearly happy hour by the time we left the table.
Throughout the hub-bub of nearly a dozen people simultaneously conversing in two languages for close to three hours, the family patriarch, Ottavio "Tai" Missoni sat serenely, leaning back to bask in the sunlight streaming down on the hotel patio, occasionally leaning forward to add to the conversation, with daughter Angela translating from Italian to English when the circumstances required.
At one point during the conversation -- almost certainly in response to something I'd said -- the elder Missoni leaned back, waved his hand in the air dismissively and said: "Hemingway," which made the rest of the family members at the table start to laugh.
Tai, with Angela Missoni's help, explained that one of the things he'd picked up about the English language over the years (both in the last half century in the fashion business and even earlier as a World War II prisoner of war) is that when someone punctuates their conversation with the word "anyway," they might as well be ending it there -- everything that follows is of no consequence and can be easily ignored.
Slightly modified to "Hemingway" (perhaps to avoid sounding rude), it's become a kind of inside joke -- his way of telegraphing that a conversation has gone on too long or that a particular person is full of hot air.
He also shared how he was able to navigate countless cocktail parties and meaningless conversations with aplomb -- despite not being able to understand much of what was being said.
"You can handle any conversation with just three words," he said, "Really, sometimes and maybe." To prove his point, he asked me to start a conversation, and after I'd spoken for no more than a sentence he looked at me quizzically and asked:"Really?"
After allowing me to prattle on for a minute or two longer he interjected with an authoritative: "Sometimes."
And finally, after I'd made some more light chit-chat -- essentially with myself -- Ottavio Missoni leaned back, shrugged his shoulders and said: "Maybe."
He explained that in all the years he'd been using this secret conversational weapon, it had only failed him once.
"This woman was talking to me and I said: 'Really?' and she said 'Sometimes,' and I said: 'Maybe,' and she said: 'Really?' and the I realized she was doing the same thing!"
I think I'll try that approach next time I'm at a cocktail party -- and if I get stuck in a similar kind of endless conversational loop?
I'll always have an emphatic "Hemingway" ready to pull out of my back pocket.
Photo: Quincy Jones, left, with Ottavio "Tai" Missoni at the Rodeo Drive Walk of Style Awards on Oct. 23. Credit: Alex J. Berliner/ABImages