Monday, November 09, 2009

Can We Save the Dying Art of Conversation ?

Catherine Blyth, author, The Art of Conversation

Essay by Michael Pastore

My first lesson in the embarrassing art of conversation came from my grandfather, when I was ten years old. Noticing that I had less energy than usual — I was not running up and down his living room walls — he guessed the reason and then called me to his armchair.

"Have you talked with her?" he asked.
"No," I said. "I don't know what to say."

Smiling, the kind old man rubbed his white-whiskered chin.
"The secret of schmoozing is very simple. If you want to break the ice and make a great first impression, ask her about three things: family, food, and philosophy."

The next day, in the lunchroom, confident with this foolproof strategy, I amazed my friends as I sat down on the vacant bench beside Helen Goldstein, the prettiest girl in P.S. 123.

"Do you have a brother?" I asked.
"No!" she said.
"Do you like mashed bean sprouts?"
"No!" said Helen, with a disdainful pout.

Things were going well so far; I felt undiscouraged; after a moment's reflection I asked:
"If you had a brother, would you like mashed bean sprouts?"

As a mustardy cheese sandwich ricochetted off my sweatshirt, I sighed with the realization that I had failed, and failed completely. My guy friends greeted my humiliating retreat with a melange of wild laughter, high-fives, and admiration undying.

"Human understanding," wrote Michel de Montaigne, "is marvelously enlightened by daily conversation with men, for we are, otherwise, compressed and heaped up in ourselves, and have our sight limited to the length of our own noses. "

Montaigne, who loved reading, understood the incomparable value of a good talk face to face. But do we men and women of this technologically advanced age understand this as well? ... It seems as if we are spending more and more time in front of screens, sometimes passively watching, other times typing or tapping superficial first impressions clothed in fragmented sentences (or acronyms: ROFLMAO) which express less than the guttural grunts of a Neanderthal.

Why is it so rare to meet persons who are skilled conversationalists? ... A conversation is "a spoken interchange of thoughts and feelings," — and to converse we need not one gift but two: knowing how to speak, which is difficult enough, and the far more subtle skill: knowing how to listen.

How can we master the intricate art of conversation?

If conversation is an art that can be learned, then like any art, the learning of it requires courage, concentration, practice, patience, and making it an ultimate concern. This insight comes from Erich Fromm, who was writing about the art of loving. And it seems to me that one of the first principles of great conversation is not necessarily to love the other person (although that would be the best), but to approach the encounter gemutlichly, with a warm feeling — or at the minimum, with a sincere respectfulness.

The best way to learn is to learn by example, at the side of a brilliant-talking friend. Without that kind of living laboratory, you can turn to some of the better books about this popular theme. In the chattery galaxy of books on this subject — many (unfortunately) classified in the self-help section — two works stand out as guiding stars.
cover of Conversation by Zeldin

I would start with Theodore Zeldin and his book Conversation: How Talk Can Change Our Lives. The book is less of a how-to guide, and more of a brilliant appreciation of the art. As in his other works, Zeldin grapples with the most complex questions and themes. This book's chapters include:

1) How every new era changes the subject of conversation
2) Why the conversation of love is moving in a new direction
3) What saves family conversation from being boring
4) Conversation in the workplace: why specialists are having to find a new way of talking
5) What technology can do to conversation
6) How conversation encourages the meeting of the minds
and a coda of stimulating questions, titled: Thirty-six topics of conversation.

Zeldin writes:

"Conversation is a meeting of minds with different memories and habits. When minds meet, they don't just exchange facts: they transform them, reshape them, draw different implications from them, engage in new trains of thought. Conversation doesn't just reshuffle the cards: it creates new cards."

Anyone who finishes this book, and is not inspired to renew their conversations with new energy, originality, and genuineness, should take a vow of silence.

Zeldin's commitment to saving conversation from extinction goes well beyond the book, and beyond even Zeldin's Facebook fan club. Zeldin's foundation, The Oxford Muse, describes itself as "a foundation to stimulate courage and invention in personal, professional and cultural life."

Erich Fromm, at the end of one his important books, asked readers to write letters to him and tell him their ideas about how to save and to renew our culture. The Oxford Muse Foundation has similar goals about renewal; thanks to the Internet, this kind of project has a far greater chance of success.

cover of The Art of Conversation

Like Montaigne and Zeldin, Catherine Blyth (pictured at the top of this essay) believes in the timeless value of good conversation. At the end of The Art of Conversation: A Guided Tour of A Neglected Pleasure, Blyth writes:

"Conversation's finer points may be lost without our world tottering. Still, as communication, it is unimprovable. Of all arts the oldest and most captivating, it is also the easiest, free to all. As prices soar and time shrinks, and space compacts, it is one luxury that costs nothing. Protect it, prioritize it, and reap the wealth of a companionable, convivial life.
Let conversation bring you the world."

Blyth's book is filled with humorous anecdotes, historical snippets, wise musings, and practical advice. Advice about many topics including how to begin a conversation, what to talk about, humor, how to tell (detect) a lie; the language of love; flattery; ending the chat. In explaining how not to be bore, Blyth offers the "Shut-up Test":
Imagine you're a soft-boiling a modest egg,
Have you talked more than three minutes?
This better be a great dinosaur egg of a fascinating topic.
Stick to the point. If they want more, they'll ask.

Written with charming style, and always entertaining, Blyth's book artfully blends the theory and the practice about how to effectively and enjoyably converse.

After reading these excellent books, you will be well on your way to enlivening your conversations. But one question looms like the eavesdropping monster of Frankenstein: At that next party, how can we escape from boreus interminus — the mind-bending, mood-murdering, time-wasting total bore — the lonely and/or egomaniacal one who grips you like a swamp leech and won't let go?

Being European, both Zeldin and Blyth are too polite to employ a technique invented, practiced and perfected by us barbarians across the sea. It has been called by many names, one of which is "the Human Sacrifice." (It is mentioned in a book titled "The Art of Mingling", although I cannot recall if it originated there.) Something remotely similar to this method was used by Herakles, to pass the weighty sky back to the shoulders of the punished Titan, Atlas.

Here's how it works. When a bore hooks you and won't let go, you smile patiently, all the while waiting for the next person who will to come to pass. When this unsuspecting victim (the person to be sacrificed) passes near you, you touch his coat sleeve and then say: "Charlie, there is a fascinating person I want you to meet: this is [ fill in the name of the bore ]."

Grinning angelically, in one swift ballet-like motion, you take Charlie by the arm, move him in front of El Boro, and then walk slowly and steadily toward the cheese table, leaving the flabbergasted Charlie to manage the unflappable bore.

This technique, the human sacrifice, is heartless, machiavellian, uncivilized — and it works every time.

— Michael Pastore

Books Mentioned

How Talk Can Change Our Lives
by Theodore Zeldin
Hidden Spring, May 2000
Hardcover, 112 pages, $ 12

The Art of Conversation
A Guided Tour of a Neglected Pleasure
by Catherine Blyth
Gotham Books
Paperback, 304 pages, $ 15
Available December 29, 2009
(hardcover and ebook editions available now)

Story Links

The Oxford Muse Foundation